Obama's National Security Strategy: A Policy of ‘Sustainment’

Just because the new National Security Strategy is flawed, doesn't mean there is a better strategy out there just waiting to be invented.

Perhaps the most important function of any National Security Strategy (NSS) comes in articulating an administration’s worldview, rather than detailing a specific to-do list. The 2015 NSS, rolled out by National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Friday, offers the most complete explication of the Obama administration’s worldview yet.

The document includes all the now-standard (and true) language about the indispensable nature of U.S. leadership and how America is a global force for good. But it also asks the right question, one that is now familiar to those who follow administration statements on U.S. strategy: “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

The answer, as described in the NSS, tracks very closely to what Robert Wright dubbed “progressive realism” in 2006. Some are already calling it “strategic patience,” a term used in the president’s intro letter but nowhere else in the Strategy itself. But “sustainment” is probably a better term because sustainment does not imply simply trying to wait out threats and challenges but rather building strength and remaining firm in the face of them. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) once characterized Obama's approach, which the NSS builds out, as: “defend ourselves unilaterally, and promote our values multilaterally.” The new NSS reflects much of that logic as well.

However it’s categorized, the new NSS focuses heavily on managing strategic risks, noting specifically, “we will prioritize efforts that address the top strategic risks to our interests.” The document shows an administration trying to gain a realistic picture of those risks without overhyping them, and then devoting resources to areas where they can be most effective in mitigating risk. A tough-minded approach to risk assessment should not be construed as a justification for disengagement from the world. The NSS makes an unequivocal case for sustained global engagement, asserting bluntly “our obligations do not end at our borders.”

It goes on to say: “We embrace our responsibilities for underwriting international security because it serves our interests, upholds our commitments to allies and partners, and addresses threats that are truly global.” No precipitous casting aside of global burdens here. Later, responding specifically to assertions that increased U.S. production of oil and gas can insulate America from world affairs, the document calls for “an expanded view of energy security that recognizes the collective needs of the United States, our allies, and trading partners as well as the importance of competitive energy markets.”

In reading this document, many will surely latch on to language about restraint in the use of force – “We will be principled and selective in the use of force”—  to argue that the strategy is overly focused on avoiding military engagements. In doing so, most will ignore language arguing for the utility and necessity of force. Examples include: “The use of force should not be our first choice, but it will sometimes be the necessary choice.” Another section underlines the necessity of “reaffirming our security commitments to allies and partners, investing in their capabilities to withstand coercion, [and] imposing costs on those who threaten their neighbors.”

The NSS also talks about leading in five ways, the most telling being “with a long-term perspective.” This section details what has changed since the last version came out in May 2010. It talks about five major strategic trends: The first is that “power among states is more dynamic,” which is another way of saying that, while the United States might be maintaining or even gaining absolute power, its relative power vis-à-vis the rest of the world is being diluted. Secondly, “power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state.” Thirdly, global economic interdependence and technological change have broadened networks but also created shared vulnerabilities. Fourthly, “a struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa.” And finally, “the global energy market has changed dramatically.”

Following the introduction, a somewhat artificial split between the sections on “security” and “international order” allow for the security section to call out bad behavior without naming names. This approach fits into the NSS’s stated principle that the United States, “eschews orienting our entire foreign policy around a single threat or region.” Instead the security section focuses on national defense, homeland security, counterterrorism, deterrence, WMD, climate change, ensuring access to the global commons and “health security” as broad topics.