Here's Everything You Need to Know about the New Security Strategy

National Security Strategies can be very boring to read. Luckily, Thomas Fedyszyn has read the new one so you don't have to.

America finally has an updated National Security Strategy (NSS). More than any other document, it signals President Obama’s global priorities. The NSS is a report required annually by Congress, but the current administration has gone almost five years between strategies, so it’s natural that interest in it is high. Unfortunately, these documents can be very difficult to read, even for those immersed in the minutiae of national security. Add to this the requirement that the strategies must contain voluminous repetitions of boring platitudes about America’s virtuousness, and most readers can be forgiven for not comprehending the intended messages from the official statement of what we might label America’s updated “grand strategy”.

There is, however, a system to reading every NSS that makes it easy – and even fun. First, pay very close attention to the president’s cover letter. If he wrote any of it with his own pen, this is it. It is usually only a page or two long – but if you find it a bit scattershot, try to appreciate that the president knows that he is writing for a wide and diverse set of audiences. Second, it is crucial to compare it to the most recent version, so dust off your well-worn copy of President Obama’s 2010 NSS.

Sorry, but this is mandatory. The good news is that this one is only half the size of its predecessor (29 vs. 52 pages, although there may be some differences in font). Don’t have your copy handy? Worry not. I’ll guide you through the most important sections. Finally, challenge yourself to become a super sleuth. Like the Sovietologists who used to pore over Kremlin announcements, look for words or themes, the order of phrases, and the size and frequency of various references. Your computer’s “find” and “compare” functions should be of assistance here. Let’s begin the journey.

It is not surprising that the new cover letter acts as a bookend to the 2010 version. Earlier, the president posited that we needed a strategy of national renewal, since we were just completing two wars in Asia and were still focused on reversing the Great Recession. Today, he posits that we are stronger and better positioned, having extricated ourselves from these wars and turned the economy in a decidedly positive direction. But note: the priority of domestic politics over international activity remains constant. Our strength abroad began at home in 2010. According to the NSS, it still does today.

Strategies always have threats or challenges. We should expect an NSS and the President who issues it to discuss them, and this cover letter does not disappoint. Many challenges, such as violent extremism and the spread of nuclear weapons are repetitions of the last version. The new entries on the list are Russian aggression and the threat posed by the outbreak of infectious diseases. When reading national security strategies, what’s new and different matter most.

The opening section of the text is normally an embellishment of the president’s cover letter, but the details that matter begin to emerge. The tone of the earlier version is set by the first sub-heading beginning, “The World as it is….” This version, however, did not settle for static references to the status quo. Now the president presumes that America will lead the world into a better future. The only question is “how”?

Neither strategy considers unilateralism a preferred modus operandi, however, there must always be a genuflection in the direction of unilateral actions since the U.S. will act alone, if necessary. Every NSS since President Reagan’s initial effort in 1987 made this point. Don’t be alarmed when you read this sentence.

Both strategies spend inordinate time discussing the virtues of international institutions, alliances, partnerships and multilateral action. It’s hard to declare a winner here but let’s just say we should all have bought stock in multilateralism.

One noticeable trend, as Peter Baker and David Sanger noted in The New York Times, is that the 2015 Strategy uses the word “lead” or “leadership” nearly 100 times throughout its 29 pages. This is definitely a big increase since the 2010 effort, especially with the page count cut in half. Cynics might note that this is a political reply to Republicans accusing the president of “leading from behind” during the Libyan affair. It is reminiscent of the Bush NSS of 2006 which mentioned “freedom” 80 times shortly after the fallout from Abu Ghraib incident. “Democracy” and “human dignity” were also mentioned numerous times in 2006, just as the world seemed to be turning against the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, both may be taken with a grain of salt due to domestic politics.

In a strictly geopolitical world, threats and challenges always begin with capital letters because they are actually other nation states. In both of President Obama’s National Security Strategies, however, they start with small letters: weapons proliferation, climate change, organized crime. When large countries with the ability to wield world power are mentioned – India, Russia and China – only Russia is consistently portrayed as aggressive, while India has potential and China is on the rise. Looking back to 2010, Russia was the nation with which America will “continue to deepen our cooperation”.