with Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham
The much-delayed second iteration of the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) was published on Friday, after the longest gap between such publications since the NSS came into existence. As predicted in a January Chatham House research paper, the new document underlines the administration’s ‘cautious, restrained approach to the wielding of American power and its aspirations to facilitate the integration of rising powers into the liberal order’.
However, it did little to specify how the United States will find equilibrium in its efforts to balance competing imperatives on three key fronts: American intervention in others’ civil conflicts; support for democracy and human rights in places where the US has other priorities; and the management of China’s potentially destabilizing rise.
The NSS has two purposes. First, it provides a means by which the president can explain his worldview to a wide audience and try to link that worldview to current events and strategic trends. But it also provides a means by which the president and National Security Council can attempt to bring the large organizations of national security into concert in pursuit of something resembling a coherent vision.
Like others before it, the Obama administration’s NSS surveys a wide array of issues, but nevertheless manages to convey a central theme: restraint in the use of American power, combined with the establishment and maintenance of American ‘leadership’ and a ‘rules-based international order’ with liberal characteristics. This continues themes articulated in the administration’s first NSS, released in 2010.
The Obama administration has faced a growing chorus of criticism for passivity in the face of emerging threats, from Islamic State to Russian actions in Ukraine. In response, the new NSS defends the philosophy of the administration as one of ‘strategic patience’ and cautions against ‘overreach’. It also seeks the high ground against critics on both moral and practical grounds, emphasizing the importance of non-military means to achieving American objectives, the power of example and the importance of leading ‘with a long-term perspective’.
The strategy struggles, however, to clarify how the US will find balance between competing imperatives in three key areas in the years ahead.
First, the strategy makes it clear the US has ‘moved beyond’ and ‘shifted away from’ the fighting of ‘costly, large-scale ground wars’, but also commits to ‘acting decisively to defeat direct threats’ from Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and build ‘the capacity of others’ to counter ‘extreme and dangerous ideologies’. This sets the stage for an à-la-carte combination of direct military strikes and the arming and training of proxies in civil wars where the US perceives a security interest. But the criteria based on which the US will assess whether it has a truly vital interest at stake in the outcome of others’ wars − or the actions/events that would trigger particular levels of American response on the spectrum from detached well-wishing to direct military engagement − are unspecified, and thus remain to be decided in the heat of future crises.
Second, the strategy affirms the United States’ belief in the ‘universal’ validity of liberal values and ‘enduring commitment to the advancing of democracy’, while expressing the desire to ‘advance equality’ and ‘support emerging democracies’. At the same time, however, it notes the existence of cases where ‘our strategic interests require us to engage with governments that do not share all our values’, and admits that it will ‘support’ such governments, though this will be ‘balanced with an awareness of the costs of repressive policies for our own security policies and the democratic values by which we live’. In other words, the US will support democratic forces in the absence of an incentive to do otherwise, but if antidemocratic leaders have something of value to offer then the US can and will support them (while taking care to remain ‘aware’ of the dissonance, of course).
For those keen to know whether the United States will support an authoritarian government or its internal opponents in any particular case, this affirms only that the judgment will be made case by case, though it does highlight that such governments need to earn their keep by contributing tangibly to US strategic objectives.
Third, the strategy seeks to tread the delicate line between welcoming ‘the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China’, while also putting down a marker that it will ‘manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms’ and will ‘closely monitor’ China’s ‘ expanding presence in Asia’. Essentially, the US needs to show enough steel to deter China from bold, expansionist behaviour towards its neighbours, but without allowing American efforts to contain China to become the pretext for confrontation themselves. The hope that a rising China can be assimilated within the ‘rules and norms’ of the American order is clear – but what the US would do if China tests those boundaries remains much less so.
This new strategy, issued just under two years before Obama’s successor takes the oath of office, is unlikely to be remembered as a turning point in the history of American national security. Rather, it is – as predicted in January – an adaptation of the strategy of 2010 designed to retroactively justify the Obama administration’s choices in the tumultuous years since. Meanwhile burning questions regarding the limits of American restraint, and how balance between conflicting priorities can be found, remain unanswered here.
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