Project: US and the Americas Programme

Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Birmingham

While the National Security Strategy (NSS) is a good predictor of an administration’s policy, its declared strategic priorities are necessarily tempered by external reality. 

Photo: Official White House photo.Photo: Official White House photo.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) that US administrations are periodically required by law to produce provides a useful window into their strategic worldview and a base on which to calibrate expectations for their policies. A survey of past NSS reports shows that such documents are broadly accurate predictors of policy intent – but that an administration’s declared strategic priorities are necessarily tempered by external reality. Actual foreign policy, in other words, tends to evolve to reflect often unforeseen global events and challenges.

Since the publication of the first NSS in 1987, the definition of the national interest articulated therein has been stable, encompassing three elements: security of the territory and people of the United States, security of the economy and American ‘way of life’, and the spread of liberal values and government abroad. A division between ‘core interests’ and lesser ones has been attempted periodically, but the clarity of the distinction has proven difficult for policy-makers to maintain when applied to specific issues and cases.

Since the Clinton administration, each NSS has communicated an identifiable dominant theme. The Clinton administration emphasized globalization, the importance of trade and a desire to use those forces to increase the number of ‘market democracies’. Accordingly, that presidency saw the signing and ratification of a number of major trade agreements. The George W. Bush administration was notable for its focus on the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, its willingness to engage in pre-emptive use of force even with limited international support, and aggressive rhetoric on the exclusive legitimacy of liberal democracy as a basis for political order.

In its 2010 NSS1, the administration of Barack Obama accurately signalled its approach in a number of key areas:

  • Military intervention. The Obama administration has been reluctant to launch major military operations abroad, even more so if substantial international backing has been unavailable, and entirely unwilling to initiate new boots-on-the-ground or nation-building operations in the mode of what its predecessor attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Iraq. The NSS made it clear that the United States would withdraw from Iraq, something it went on to do comprehensively. America has subsequently used direct military action in Iraq with great reluctance.
  • Iran/nuclear proliferation. The administration signalled its intention to pursue a diplomatic rapprochement and negotiated solution if at all possible, and it has followed through on this course.
  • Counterterrorism. The administration has pursued a proactive counterterrorism strategy, which has included a programme of targeted killing, the increased use of drone strikes and the killing on Pakistani soil of Osama bin Laden. In this regard, there has been more continuity with the policies of its predecessor than would likely have been predicted on the basis of the administration’s original positions. But the administration has moderated other aspects of Bushera policy in this field (e.g. it ceased some controversial interrogation practices such as ‘waterboarding’ and the capture of new suspects for indefinite detention).
  • Budgetary constraint. The administration has sought to restrain and rebalance military spending, including making the first real-terms reductions in defence spending in the 21st century.
  • Rise of Asia. The administration declared its desire to ‘pivot’ to Asia, a position later reframed in less stark terms as a rebalancing of US global commitments. The diplomatic and economic elements of this shift have thus far outshone the military aspects that were initially anticipated in the region as a central element.

The above themes will remain central to the Obama administration’s strategy. When the administration eventually releases its next NSS, however, three areas are likely to stand out in light of challenges arising since 2010:

  • Criteria for use of force/intervention. Unforeseen threats in Iraq and Syria (and, of a different sort, in Ukraine) have forced the administration to adjust its national security policy in practice. This calls for the articulation – not yet effected – of a principle-based framework for determining the conditions under which foreign intervention is in the national interest. The administration’s aversion to avoidable intervention came through strongly in the 2010 NSS. Events have led the administration to be more interventionist in practice than it would have wished, and it will be the role of its revised strategy to articulate where the limits of this interventionism are located.
  • Promotion of democracy/liberalism. With the promise of the ‘Arab Spring’ dissipating, the United States also needs a principle-based rationale for its policy towards political conflicts where no party seems inclined towards liberal democratic ideals. This will require President Obama to reconcile his avowed support for democracy and democratization in some contexts with the apparent diminishment of democracy promotion as a priority in others.
  • Expanding Chinese ambition. The rise of Chinese power is the most strategically significant event unfolding in the world at present. The ideal outcome for US leaders is that China becomes a responsible stakeholder in the existing liberal order. China’s recent assertive behaviour towards its neighbours, including expanding claims to maritime territory and airspace, has made it clear that this outcome is far from assured. US strategy must balance the need for a productive relationship with China with the imperative of meeting America’s security commitments to its Asian regional allies.