Obama's National-Security Wish List

While the president outlines lofty ambitions for the United States, he gives us precious little guidance on how to get there.

The Obama administration’s long-overdue update to the National Security Strategy hit the streets Friday morning. It is in many ways a remarkable document, lucidly describing the foreign (and domestic) policy vision of the only global power, nodding to an enormous number of allies, partners and stakeholders. It is, however, only loosely about national security. More importantly, it’s decidedly not a strategy.

Despite President Obama’s assurance in the introductory paragraph that the document “sets out the principles and priorities to guide the use of American power” and his recognition that “our resources will never be limitless. Policy tradeoffs and hard choices will need to be made,” he goes on to list in bullet form eight “top strategic risks to our interests” that, in their own right and as expanded upon in the rest of the document, are anything but limited or prioritized.

Taken in microcosm, the dozens of unprioritized priorities of the 2015 NSS are banal. There’s little over which to disagree on a point-by-point basis. Indeed, like most of its predecessors, it reads like a summary of recent issues of publications like Foreign Affairs and The National Interest written by junior bureaucrats on the National Security Staff that’s then been edited by the president’s domestic-policy advisors—which, in fairness, is pretty much what it is.

Given that neither America’s essential position in the world, nor the administration in the White House has changed since the May 2010 release of the last NSS, it’s perhaps unsurprising that little is new here. There are nods to the Arab spring, the Asia pivot, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the opening to Cuba and changes to the global energy market—as well as repeated references to the improved state of the U.S. economy—but otherwise the priorities are pretty much as before. Which is to say, there are no priorities.

As with its predecessor, a recurrent theme of the document is what the president hails in his introductory letter as “an undeniable truth—America must lead.” Indeed, he assures us, “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

Apparently, “never” is to be taken literally here, as the issues on which America must lead are endless. Indeed, the first section posits that “there is no shortage of challenges that demand continued American leadership.” Everything from violent extremism and cybersecurity to climate change and infectious degrees to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is on the agenda. Nor is it bounded by geography; America must lead everywhere from Europe to Asia, Africa to Latin America, from the oceans to outer space.

The eight “top strategic risks to our interests” around which “we will prioritize efforts” are both reasonable and exhaustive:

– Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure;

– Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies;

– Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown;

– Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction;

– Severe global infectious disease outbreaks;

– Climate change;

– Major energy market disruptions; and

– Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).

While one could stretch that to include literally everything, the adjectives (“severe,” “major,” “significant”) potentially allow for begging off American leadership, vital though it may be, in a pinch.

Alas, the language of the “Prosperity” section says otherwise, as everything from creating “good jobs” to “expanding access to early childhood and affordable higher education” to immigration reform, “opening markets and leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses abroad” and “eliminat[ing] barriers to full deployment of the US innovation in the digital space” is cited as vital to U.S. national security.