The Lowdown on Obama's New National Security Strategy

"The 2015 National Security Strategy does a fine job of helping us understand this new era of increasing complexity but it does less to help us actually navigate it."

A little less than a year ago, my colleague Jacob Stokes and I wrote a piece for Politico Magazine highlighting some of the challenges facing those drafting the next National Security Strategy (NSS), which at the time was supposedly just weeks away from release.

How would they address the rebalancing to Asia question? How to acknowledge counterterrorism victories, but also the fact that the terrorism threat has in many ways worsened? Would democracy and human rights play such a prevalent role as they did in the 2010 version? What would they say about rising powers, particularly those that are showing an interest in replacing the U.S.-led order? How might the NSS set a comprehensive cyber agenda that could reestablish trust with skeptical allies, a skittish business community and an increasingly worried U.S. public? Finally, we asked, what would the administration say about leadership, knowing a common critique of this team is that its failure to exert U.S. leadership has left the country weaker than ever before?

Despite that rather long list of substantive challenges, it appears the biggest challenge for the drafters was simply getting a final version out the door. Initially, the administration thought it might release the NSS in 2013, four years after the last version was rolled out. As is often the case, though, high-level meetings on the crisis of the week took precedence over those aimed at examining broader strategic questions. With Syria heating up, Russia annexing Crimea and China announcing an air defense zone and bullying its neighbors, no one felt like they could afford the luxury of a lengthy interagency debate on grand strategy. Furthermore, given the speed with which events were moving, senior policy makers worried that anything they drafted would become OBE—overtaken by events—within weeks, if not days. So the process languished for another two years.

Today, nearly five years after its first National Security Strategy, the White House is rolling out its second and final version. (Gone are the days when these documents were released on an annual basis.) For those that have closely monitored major policy addresses by the president and other cabinet-level officials that work on national security, much of the text will feel familiar. In fact, if you read the 2010 NSS, you may recognize that the administration opted to use more or less the same structure with sections on “Security,” “Prosperity,” “Values” and “International Order.” They relied on far fewer pages this time, though. The 2015 version is a crisp thirty-five pages vs. the sixty in the 2010 version.

Many of the administration’s core themes are repeated—the importance of working with allies and partners, upholding our commitment to democracy, rebuilding a bipartisan center, maintaining America’s economic strength, preserving a rules-based international order. So those looking for major policy shifts will be disappointed. The White House also uses the document to return to some of its signature initiatives—the Prague Agenda on nuclear issues and the rebalancing to Asia. Others, like the “Russia reset,” are understandably absent, although new START does get a passing reference.

In terms of what differs between the two versions, the 2015 NSS opens with a meaty introduction on the subject of U.S. leadership. Instead of just repeating the oft-cited line that the question is not whether the United States will lead, but how, the administration dedicates a full five pages to outlining exactly how they are already leading and plan to continue to lead. That list includes leading with purpose, with strength, by example, with partners, with all instruments of U.S. power and with a long-term perspective. It’s a refreshing way to frame both old and new threats and push back on the retrenchment camps one finds in both political parties today. This definition of leadership also offers readers outside the beltway and abroad some concrete examples of how we plan to engage in the world and why we believe that’s important. As someone who has spent more than a few nights worrying about the future of U.S. engagement in the face of resource constraints and a war-weary public, the introduction was reassuring.

Despite using the same structure as the 2010 version, readers will note that the 2015 NSS includes new emphasis on specific threats and opportunities. On the threats side of the ledger, one finds mention of an aggressive Russia, Chinese assertiveness, global health crises like the recent Ebola outbreak and the rise of ISIS—three issues that were either entirely absent or only minimally included in the last NSS. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the cyber threat is not featured that prominently, despite the frequency of attacks over the last year, the resulting increase in public awareness of the threat and the deep divides with allies like Germany on issues like NSA surveillance. That might be merely a result of the cryptic and classified nature of the subject itself, or more troubling, a result of the administration’s lack of fresh ideas.

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