The White House formally rolled out its new National Security Strategy with a speech last Friday by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. While the phrase National Security Strategy sounds like something that should be super cool, intense, and interesting, it's actually the policy equivalent of elevator music — innocuous, nonthreatening, and somehow familiar.
The president is required to issue a National Security Strategy (NSS) by the provisions of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Theoretically, the law's provisions require the document to be issued every year, but since 9/11 the NSS has been more of a once-every-four-years kind of deal, like the Summer Olympics.
Though the NSS is important, it makes for bland reading and will probably never be a good strategic document. In some circles, "national security" has simply become a more stern-sounding way of talking about anything that happens overseas. Any bold move turns into a lightning rod for the political opposition in Washington. With the general bureaucratic tendency to make things inoffensive, it's not hard to see why the NSS is what it is.
But the real value in the NSS isn't in what it says — it's all about the process that led to the specific phrasing and points of emphasis.
The NSS is one of the few ways the White House can attempt to get the vast herds of national security and foreign policy stakeholders to focus on trying to come up with a coherent view of the world. The various authors have slugged it out with each other over the content, the phrasing, and even the word choices that go into the document, leading to words that tend toward safe and fluffy idealism.
Bureaucracies are generally loath to make any kind of concrete, specific statements about things that can later be proven incorrect, meaning the NSS is going to generally be long on ideals and aspirations, but short on specifics. Yet the bits of fluff still represent a consensus effort led by the White House and various bits of the US government to articulate the way they see the world.
The NSS typically doesn't change much from one administration to the next — believe it or not, the government is still rather concerned about terrorists getting WMDs — and the changes that do occur are not generally much of a surprise.
The Obama administration's 2010 and 2014 National Security Strategies have departed from the historical norm by spending significant time on domestic issues. It makes some sense: If a nation is weak domestically, then it can't be strong internationally. But it can also seem like a non sequitur. Vermont's decision to drop single-payer healthcare affects the fight against Boko Haram how exactly? Even worse, it can feel like a way to make domestic policy pissing matches a proper subject for the full might of the entire national security apparatus.
The 2014 Obama NSS differs from the 2010 NSS in that it spends a lot more time on US leadership. Leading with purpose. Leading with strength. Leading by example. Leading with capable partners. I suspect that this big emphasis on leadership was probably informed by general criticisms in the last year or two that the Obama administration has been running into some performance issues in the leadership department.
Most of the rest of the document reads like a speech or brochure that lays out beliefs the administration holds true. It tries to draw connections between these beliefs in an exercise that resembles a game of six degrees of national security separation.
The 2014 NSS is the first to mention LGBT rights as a national security issue. "We will be a champion for communities that are too frequently vulnerable to violence, abuse, and neglect — such as ethnic and religious minorities; people with disabilities; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals; displaced persons; and migrant workers," the document says.
What does that have to do with national security strategy? Well, the Obama administration has an interest in LGBT issues. Promoting our values internationally could help establish soft US power. More inclusiveness could benefit economies and enable countries around the world to prosper. Perhaps the thinking is that vulnerable groups are prone to violence if they're disenfranchised. I don't really know.
After a while, the various ways that each and every ideological hobby horse gets deemed sufficiently relevant to be glued on to the National Security Strategy of the world's dominant power are really unimportant because, despite the name, the document really doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do with either national security or strategy. It's really a bureaucratic fight over priorities and principles housed within the language of a White House political manifesto.
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