In sharp contrast to the NSS released by president George W Bush six months before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the 52-page document underlined the limits of military power and the kind of unilateralism that characterized Bush’s first term, in particular.
“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone – indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power,” Obama wrote in the NSS’s introduction.
“We are clear-eyed about the challenge of mobilizing collective action, and the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping outside the currents of international cooperation,” he went on in one of a number of many implicit criticisms of Bush’s record that studded the document.
At the same time, the NSS asserted, Washington will not shy from the use of military force “unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests …” If and when it does so, however, “We will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.”
The NSS, which the executive branch is required to issue periodically under a 1986 law, has traditionally focused primarily on military, or “hard”, power.
In that respect, Obama’s NSS marked a significant change in the amount of attention it devoted to the importance of both strengthening the US economy – described as “the wellspring of American strength” – and building “a just and sustainable international order” that, among other things, accommodates the ambitions of “21st century centers of influence”, such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.
“This really is a national security strategy in the sense that it covers a lot of ground and tries to be quite synthetic in dealing with traditional security issues, geo-economics, and the domestic sources of American power all in one fell swoop,” noted Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
“The document states quite clearly that the source of American power begins at home with education, with democracy, with prosperity, with fiscal responsibility,” he said. “These are all important messages.”
“The idea of grounding national security in a strong economy borrows a page from president [Dwight D] Eisenhower’s playbook,” said William Hartung, of the New America Foundation (NAF), who praised the document as a “huge improvement over the Bush approach, which advocated a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach to foreign policy“.
Indeed, the new NSS differs from the two issued by Bush by stressing the increasing multipolarity of global power and the need for Washington to look beyond both its ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what it called the “global campaign against al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates” in bolstering its security.
“These wars – and our global efforts to successfully counter violent extremism – are only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America’s engagement with the world. Terrorism is one of many threats that are more consequential in a global age,” it asserted, citing nuclear weapons, cyber-warfare, US dependence on fossil fuels, climate change, disease, and failed states among other threats.
“More actors exert power and influence,” according to the NSS, which noted that the administration has already helped shift the focus of global economic management from the Group of Seven Western powers to the Group of 20, which includes a number of emerging nations.
“The very fluidity within the international system that breeds new challenges must be approached as an opportunity to forge new international cooperation,” it said. “We must rebalance our long-term priorities so that we successfully move beyond today’s wars, and focus our attention and resources on a broader set of countries and challenges.”
In addition to frankly recognizing the world as multi-polar, the most striking difference between the new NSS and the two issued by Bush – the more aggressive 2002 NSS, which, among other things, attempted to justify the preventive use of force and vowed to maintain military superiority against any potential adversary was softened somewhat by a 2006 edition – was its treatment of military power.
“[W]hen we overuse our military might, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched,” the new NSS warned.
“Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military force,” it went on. “And we know that our enemies aim to overextend our Armed Forces and drive wedges between us and those who share our interests.”
Kupchan noted, “It’s a refreshing antidote to the Bush years in making quite clear that military power is only one component of America’s strength and could under some circumstances even prove counter-productive.”
At the same time, however, Obama, partially echoing Bush, pledged in his introduction that Washington “will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades”.
Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said he had difficulty squaring that “bold claim” with the document’s “acknowledgement that the United States must address its deficit to ensure our future security”.
“The United States might not be able to pursue all of our national security goals as vigorously as we might like in part due to spending constraints,” he said, adding that the document left him “unsure of what the administration’s true priorities are heading into the rest of its term in office”.
“The problem is there is much in Obama’s current policy that seems to contradict the document’s rhetoric of restraint – from continuing increases in an already huge military budget to the reliance on a troop surge and drone attacks as central elements of US policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” added Hartung.