Issuing a National Security Strategy (NSS) every four years has become a White House tradition since being mandated by Congress. The multilateral tone of President Obama’s first NSS is an updated version of the spirit of previous documents. Though rhetorically different from the Bush administration, it is not a radical departure. In substance, continuity prevails. The pursuit and promotion of U.S. national interests around the world will not be dictated by a piece of paper. Necessity and circumstances, and not intention, will regularly determine strategy. Policy assumes a more reactive and less pro-active role.
Each administration wishes to attach its name to a doctrine and identify itself with a set of principles and goals. In reality, the NSS is not a strategy but a national security wish-list which outlines what an administration aspires to but does not necessarily pursue or live up to. The adage that actions speak louder than words clearly applies to the realm of national security. Ultimately, actions will determine any president’s historical doctrine.
This NSS is largely a rhetorical exercise in foreign policy used as reference point for Congress, media, diplomats and chattering classes at home and abroad. It reflects a need to re-assert America’s values and what it stands for.
The NSS’s value varies according to how candid a president wishes to be. Media and think-tankers will comb through its fine details to make clear distinctions between the current and past administrations. Long articles will result expounding the deep philosophical differences between Obama and Bush.
It is important not to take a literal interpretation of the NSS. It lays out the Obama administration’s thinking but not exactly its course of action. In a fast-moving world of constantly new emerging threats one must be prepared for all contingencies and capable of adapting to immediate crises and rising challenges. Concepts like pre-emptive action need no elaboration on paper. It was unnecessarily done in the 2002 strategy review. When considered responsibly, it is already implied in a nation’s defense. In situations where there is a clear and present danger, it is the duty of any leader to take appropriate measures. Self-preservation goes to the core of national security and any accompanying documents.
When outlining political intentions on the domestic front, officials are often held to account. This underscores the need to exercise even greater caution in the use of words and rhetoric in the realm of national security. Providing excessive detail is counter-productive. It will often limit the ability to act. It also increases vulnerability to charges of hypocrisy, particularly when perceptions arise that self-imposed standards are not being lived up to. Such situations can inflict immediate and long-term damage to one’s credibility, and is often irreversible. The stakes increase when others have a vested interest in taking a literal interpretation of a strategy document for political advantage.
Ultimately, flexibility and a loose interpretation of any National Security Strategy is essential to the national interest and defense.
Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.