Whhen you work on the president’s national security staff, you never feel like there are enough hours in the day. Whether you are managing Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan or the South China Sea, even a 15-hour day leaves you feeling like a slacker. But every few years, the White House staff piles one more task on its overflowing agenda: draft, debate and vet a National Security Strategy, a hefty document that explains the president’s foreign policy vision to a demanding Congress, not to mention America’s allies and adversaries around the world.
The task feels overwhelming for any administration. The drafters have to summarize all of the national security concerns of the United States, outline how the administration will address them and then secure buy-in from interagency colleagues — while simultaneously juggling real-time crises all over the globe.
This year’s drafters, as they prepare for this month's release of the 2014 NSS, have a particularly steep hill to climb. Virtually all of the threats we face have evolved significantly since the administration’s last version in 2010. Polling suggests Americans on the right and the left, tired from over a decade of war and recognizing the limits to U.S. power and resources, increasingly want to focus inward.
How then should the administration craft a strategy to secure and advance U.S. global interests in an increasingly complex world — a world perhaps no more dangerous than in the past but whose dangers manifest in newer, trickier ways? How can the United States reshape its commitments to allow for renewal of the domestic roots of American power without succumbing to the counterproductive and dangerous siren song of “Come home, America”?
The need for a new strategy stems in part from the success of the previous one: The United States has left Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is ending and Osama bin Laden is dead. President Barack Obama and Russian then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear treaty, and the U.S. economy is on the mend. But nobody’s feeling like patting themselves on the back, as this year’s NSS drafters face a long list of intractable problems for which there are no easy answers. Here are six issues that will be especially tough to tackle.
The administration made rebalancing to Asia one of its signature foreign policy initiatives in the first term. That wise and overdue shift has concrete policy attached to it, including bolstering the U.S. military posture in the region, a major trade initiative in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and broader diplomatic ties through programs like the expanded strategic and economic dialogues with China. Those initial moves herald a shift that will take a generation to fully mature — the rebalance should be evaluated over years, not weeks or months.
Now officials must figure out how to devote increasing attention to Asia while simultaneously focusing on the administration’s top three priorities in the Middle East: Iran, Syria and Middle East peace. Adding to the challenge, the recent crisis in Ukraine has forced the administration to review some of its core assumptions about stability in Europe, a region most believed was moving inexorably toward stability and prosperity. Will Russian aggression force the administration to spend more time and money reassuring skittish allies in Central and Eastern Europe going forward? Officials are already hinting, as did the Quadrennial Defense Review, that the rebalancing concept actually applies to more than how the administration balances its resources and attention across various regions. It also applies to a rebalancing of the tools of national power and how the United States will approach problems globally.
Though the administration has wound down the wars and decimated core Al Qaeda, the terrorist threat has morphed to pose new challenges. Splinter groups have proliferated across the Middle East and North Africa. Syria has become a vast training ground for extremists much like Afghanistan in the 1980s, with more than 5,000 foreign fighters.
None of this is what the administration wanted or expected to be facing in its sixth year in office. The aim has always been to move America off of a permanent war footing and clarify the legal structures that will guide counterterror efforts going forward, from the use of drones to the status of detainees. Both of those goals have proved elusive. The challenge for the administration now will be noting its progress in combating core Al Qaeda but then quickly acknowledging the quantity, potency and geographic dispersion of new affiliates. The NSS will have to reassure the American public and the world that the United States possesses a strategy and the tools to combat today’s threats as well as a renewed commitment to craft a more sustainable counterterror framework. Right now, that’s not so clear.
From Day One, the Obama administration charted a course away from George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, rightly asserting that regime change imposed through the use of force and hasty elections was not a formula for lasting democracies. (Anyone doubting that is welcome to visit Iraq.) The president, keen to continue promoting democracy, put a stronger emphasis on multilateralism and setting a strong example at home. But cases like Egypt have exhibited the dangers of timidity, exposing the president to criticism both at home and abroad that he has too often erred on the side of caution. Knowing the low appetite for these issues among the American public, though, will the White House use the NSS to reassert America’s vanguard role in promoting democracy or tacitly allow a continued mismatch between its pro-democracy rhetoric and its more cautious policy?
4. Rising powers
A new strategy also requires taking a hard look at the impact rising powers make on the global system. The 2010 strategy focused on making room in international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF for countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. The new strategy must contend with realities that have come to light since then: Often, rising powers have neither the will nor the resources to help solve global problems. Whereas policymakers once focused on power competitions, it’s power vacuums that now pose the greater challenge, leaving problems to fester. In certain areas — such as maritime security in Asia — rising powers like China are looking to reshape, if not replace, the U.S.-led order with one more favorable to their interests.
Cyber didn’t feature prominently in the 2010 strategy, but three short years later, cyber issues are the quintessential 21st-century foreign policy problem, affecting concerns domestic and foreign, private and public, military and civilian. While the United States leads the world in both cyberanalysis and capabilities, international political, diplomatic and legal structures remain in their infancy. The recent NSA revelations, meanwhile, have eroded the trust of the public, the business community and allies in how the U.S. government collects, stores and utilizes data. This has created a delicate balancing act for the NSS drafters, who will have to elevate the threat posed by cyberattacks; show U.S. resolve to develop the best capabilities to counter that threat; demonstrate a willingness to fill gaps concerning international norms and standards; and win back the trust of skeptical outside observers. These include a private sector that worries greatly about the threats themselves, but also the misuse of shared data and the possibility for burdensome regulation. Should the United States continue to develop and use offensive cyberweapons, knowing they establish risky precedents? Can the U.S. maintain a narrow, ideological view of regulation while watching rivals like China siphon off intellectual property? Will the White House choose the short-term benefits of NSA spying over a diffuse but essential Internet freedom agenda? These choices stare the NSS drafters in the face.
6. U.S. leadership and power
Finally, the new strategy must also put U.S. power in a global context. While the binary debate about whether the United States is in “decline” remains both perennial and not very useful, the strategy must explain how the United States can reconcile two contradictory trends. On the one hand, a number of factors favor American power: military capabilities decades ahead of adversaries, a large and innovative economy, the world’s reserve currency, positive demographics, a deep alliance system and growing energy resources.
At the same time, the world continues to put real constraints on American power. Those constraints will grow, not because the United States is declining in absolute terms — it isn’t — but rather as the rise of other nations dilutes America’s relative share. Acknowledging those global power shifts isn’t declinism; in fact, it will be useful in preventing us from overestimating U.S power. It could also help us tell the difference between another country making a strategic turn away from America or just playing hardball. But the NSS drafters will have to be careful to avoid giving foreign audiences the impression that U.S. power is in decline, which could embolden adversaries and cause nervous allies to hedge.
Some argue the National Security Strategy is just another bureaucratic document not worth the tax dollars that go into producing it. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed in his recent memoir that he had never read the 2010 strategy. But the process of writing a new strategy matters. It forces an administration to reassess its core objectives and make much-needed course corrections. It also puts the rest of the administration, Congress and the world on notice about America’s goals. If paired with budget decisions — sometimes a big “if” — it can effectively shape how policy gets implemented. And it forces harried policymakers to step back and consider the big questions. We’ll have their answers soon.