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Assessing the New US National Security Strategy

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Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow with PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

There is much to recommend the Obama administration’s new national-security strategy, which National Security Advisor Susan Rice launched at the Brookings Institution early last month. Released a little over four years after its predecessor, it identifies five “historic transitions underway that will unfold over decades”: the transition of power between states, the diffusion of power from states to non-state actors, a tightening nexus of global economic interdependence and technological change, the development of a new regional order in the Middle East and dramatic shifts in global energy production. Every subsequent national-security strategy should take a page from this latest document and open with a brief overview of the major trends driving world order: a strategic U.S. foreign policy will, after all, continuously discern, respond to and, where possible, mold those trends.

An undercurrent, if not a theme, of the administration’s new strategy is the growing importance of economic strength as both a pillar and an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The document states that “America’s growing economic strength is the foundation of our national security,” advocates “a model of American leadership rooted in the foundation of America’s economic and technological strength,” and stresses that America’s “first line of action is principled and clear-eyed diplomacy, combined with the central role of development in the forward defense and promotion of America’s interests.” The document also reaffirms the administration’s determination to finalize negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if successful, would place “the United States at the center of a free trade zone covering two-thirds of the global economy.” The United States should continue to make geoeconomics a more central pillar of its foreign policy: with its economic recovery, trade initiatives, push for greater North American integration and opening to Cuba (and, by extension, the Americas), it is well-positioned to do so.

The new strategy also frames the Americas and Africa — with a combined population of roughly 1.8 billion and combined output of some $8 trillion — as centers of growing economic promise instead of chronic political dysfunction and humanitarian risk. America’s postwar foreign policy has often neglected them, tending alternatively to seek out strategic opportunities within the trilateral framework of North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. The opening to Cuba and plummeting oil prices give the United States to boost its trade and investment linkages to a region where it has underinvested since 9/11, at least relative to its Asian competitors. Meanwhile, Trade Africa, the Power Africa Initiative, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act will help the United States boost its economic engagement with a continent that boasts six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies.

Still, the new strategy does not offer the clearest sense of the administration’s priorities. While it is neither realistic nor sensible to orient America’s “entire foreign policy around a single threat or region,” it is possible and prudent to establish hierarchies, especially given the multiplicity of America’s economic challenges, the frailty of its recovery from the global downturn that began in late 2008 and the well-documented wariness of the American public to pursue a proactive foreign policy. President Obama notes in the preface that because “our resources and influence are not infinite,” “we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities.” Beyond reaffirming the administration’s view — one that is widely shared within the nation’s foreign policy establishment — that nuclear terrorism remains the greatest threat to U.S. national security, the document identifies eight “top strategic risks” to U.S. national interests and five pillars of an agenda for “reinforcing, shaping, and where appropriate, creating the rules, norms, and institutions” of a new world order. In neither category, however, does it appear to rank them; nor does it comment much on the relationship or interaction between the eight risks, which are largely functional, and the five pillars, which are regional.

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Because it does not order the administration’s priorities more sharply, the new strategy perhaps unwittingly what may well be its signature foreign-policy initiative, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. While the document does call it one of America’s “historic opportunities” and includes its advancement as one of the aforementioned five pillars, it does not describe the rebalance with as much force as its architects did. In an influential November 2011 essay, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “[i]n a time of scarce resources…we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.” The subtitle of her piece asserts “[t]he future of politics will be decided in Asia.” To give one other illustration, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon called the United States “a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security, and political order in a November 2012 speech. America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.”

When the Obama administration officially unveiled the rebalance in January 2012 via the Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Guidance, some observers argued it was trying to wash its hands of the Middle East; with the one-year anniversary of Crimea’s absorption into Russia approaching, they have extended their critique by arguing that the administration insists on discussing 21st-century geoeconomics while Vladimir Putin is far more interested in 20th-century geopolitics. Amid growing world disorder, an increasingly vocal segment of the commentariat supports a U.S. strategic posture that accords equal or at least comparable priority to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. While intuitive, this proposition is misguided.

In the Middle East, the optimism that accompanied the “Arab Spring” a little over four years ago has largely morphed into despondence. The depredations of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria have understandably captured the most attention, but Libya and Yemen’s security situations continue to deteriorate. As NATO brings its military campaign in Afghanistan to an end, moreover, observers fear a revival of the Taliban.

While it makes sense for the United States to participate in a targeted counterterrorism campaign to keep ISIL and other terrorist outfits at bay, ideally with Arab countries assuming an ever-growing share of the burden, the region’s chaos precludes a broad, coherent U.S. approach. Government repression, terrorist activity, popular unrest, and resurgent tensions—between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example—are among the factors that make the Middle East’s evolution nearly impossible to understand, let alone shape. The United States would do well to observe a variant of the Hippocratic Oath administered to every aspiring doctor—first, do no harm. America’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade a half caution against the presumption that heavy U.S. involvement in a given theater will advance America’s national interests.

In Eastern Europe, Russia’s long game in Ukraine poses a vexing challenge to U.S. foreign policy. Russia dials up the pressure when it discerns a window of opportunity to encroach further upon its neighbor’s sovereignty, but below the threshold that would trigger a sustained military response by the United States and its European partners. So long as Russia can manage these cycles of escalation and détente, it reasons it can continue to notch small territorial gains that may, over time, allow it to alter fundamentally the strategic balance between Russia and NATO in Russia’s western periphery. There is little doubt that Russia’s behavior over the past year has proven inimical to its national interests. At home, the precipitous fall of the ruble, massive outflows of capital and collapsing growth reinforce its demographic decline; abroad, its relations with much of the West continue to deteriorate and its dependence on Chinese largesse seems poised to increase indefinitely. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Eurasian Union, which Putin has repeatedly cited as a principal aspiration of his foreign policy, continues to recede. Paradoxically, though, Russia’s extant and emerging weaknesses shield it from external pressure. Beyond enjoying over 80% popular approval at home, Putin has likely concluded he is in a protracted struggle with the West — the United States, in particular — to defend Russia’s honor and national interests. Russia’s woes seem more likely to encourage his defensiveness than induce a course correction.

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The uncomfortable reality, though, is that for reasons of both geography and history, Ukraine’s fate is far more essential to Russia’s place in the world than America’s.  It is NATO’s European members, moreover, that should be the principal bulwark against Russian revanchism, not the United States.  However much of a challenge Russia’s current behavior poses to U.S. foreign policy, neither an open military confrontation between the two countries nor a decision by Russia to abandon further areas of bilateral conception would advance U.S. interests.

The new strategy should have stressed that none of the developments in either region — the Middle East or Eastern Europe — alter the growing strategic centrality of the Asia-Pacific to world order: on current trend lines, it will account for an ever-growing share of the world’s people, output, and military spending. The rebalance, moreover, is rooted not only in the region’s opportunities but also in its dangers: while the security threats in the Middle East and Eastern Europe may be more vivid, the Asia-Pacific is far from idyllic. Consider North Korea’s nuclear exports, the potential for a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, the variety of great-power tensions (China-India, China-Japan, and Japan-South Korea, for example) and the potential for territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea to escalate. Moreover, as Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner explained last May, the region also confronts “nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, human trafficking, and the drug trade.”

Beyond reaffirming the centrality of the rebalance in U.S. foreign policy, the new strategy should have elaborated more on its plans for rejuvenating liberal world order. While it expresses “confidence that the international system whose creation we led in the aftermath of World War II will continue to serve America and the world well,” it concedes that that system confronts “undeniable strains.” From time to time observers sound alarms about an emerging illiberalism, an authoritarian axis, or a Beijing Consensus. The systemic challenge to liberal world order, however, is not so much the existence of a compelling alternative as it is the prospect of internal erosion. It took horrific convulsions — among them two world wars, which collectively killed 80 million people, and the worst macroeconomic downturn in the history of the modern industrial world — to produce today’s environment. Who would want to risk comparable or even worse catastrophes to make it more inclusive and equitable?

Second, given how significantly the prospect of great-power war has diminished, today’s leaders lack an existential impetus for advancing liberal world order. Third, growing disorder has not undermined human progress; allowing that that progress varies considerably from region to region, most trends suggest the world is becoming safer, healthier and wealthier in the aggregate.  Today’s leaders may well find this duality — between growing disorder and growing progress — tolerable. As such, the United States should consider how it would adjust its foreign policy should liberal world order erode indefinitely. Part of strategy involves leveraging current trends; another part, however, involves hedging against possible futures. To that end, the National Intelligence Council should play a larger role in shaping future national-security strategies.

The United States is likely to remain indefinitely the world’s preeminent power, even though its margin of preeminence may continue to diminish. If, moreover, as much of the West would likely agree, a rejuvenated liberal world order is the likeliest vehicle for expanding the gains in peace and prosperity that have occurred in the postwar era, it is hard to imagine a country other than the United States with the capacity to organize such an undertaking. Paradoxically, though, the frequency and certainty with which the new strategy avows the centrality of U.S. leadership betrays a growing insecurity among Americans — citizens and policymakers alike — about their country’s prospects for exercising influence in the world. Some observers interpret President Obama’s call for “strategic patience” as a euphemism for his desire to withdraw the United States from world affairs and evade difficult policy choices. The intensity of the reaction is both another expression of that insecurity and a demonstration of misguided nostalgia: the United States has never been able to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events,” even when, in the immediate postwar era, it is widely believed to have exercised hegemony.

Few would deny that the emerging landscape is daunting. The United States must prepare its foreign policy for a world where its economy will no longer be the largest in absolute terms; where disorder may well be an enduring feature of the strategic environment, not a passing aberration; where a dizzying, growing array of nonstate actors exercises ever-growing influence; and where its signature postwar achievement, liberal world order, erodes indefinitely. These novelties do not, though, and need not, support the oft-painted picture of a United States in terminal decline; instead, they reinforce the imperative of strategic adjustment.

As Paul Kennedy concluded a quarter century ago, “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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