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President Barack Obama and his administration face a national security landscape that is greatly different from the one the United States confronted at the end of the previous century. Fragile states, weak governments, extremist non-state actors, hostile nuclear armed regimes, dynamic rising powers, and economic and environmental threats are but some of the most serious challenges facing the new administration. The complex and interconnected nature of these threats means that pursuing U.S. national security objectives will require a strong investment in diplomatic development, homeland security, and intelligence skills to complement our military strength.
The Obama administration understands the need to integrate and coordinate all instruments of American foreign policy to confront these threats. What’s more, the administration has begun to lay the groundwork for this unified effort through strategic planning in three key executive agencies. The first of these efforts is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initiative to create a strategic planning guidance for the State Department, the so called Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR. The second is the formulation of the administration’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, a document that defines our military’s force structure and thus shapes its upcoming budget plans. Finally, the Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a similar quadrennial review, the QHSR, to determine how the agency can best execute its responsibilities.
Yet these studies depend on a larger strategic vehicle, the National Security Strategy, or NSS, a document meant to establish a comprehensive foundation for overall U.S. national security policy and provide guidance for specific tactical documents. As retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command, notes, this National Security Strategy document will be “the follow-up to the initial speeches and communication and it will be the authority for our own government structure, all the way down because from the strategy cascades the actions and the organization and the allocation of resources to make that [strategy] happen.”
Congress mandates that every administration issue a yearly NSS, with the first report released within five months of taking office. The Obama administration has clearly missed that deadline. As a result, these tactical planning documents will be coming together over the next several months without a unified strategy to inform them. It would be a grave mistake for the administration to delay too long in issuing this important guidance.
To be sure, Obama and his administration have already articulated some of the key principles of a new National Security Strategy. The president’s speech before the United Nations last September and his speech in Cairo last June are two examples. So, too, are Vice President Joseph Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference last February and the President’s inaugural address, in which he declared that “our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
The common themes of these addresses are broader engagement with friends and foes alike, a refusal to sacrifice our nation’s values in the name of our security, and a return to American leadership of our vital alliances and international institutions. These themes make clear the Obama administration has no tolerance for its predecessor’s preference for unilateralism and near sole reliance on the military as the primary instrument of national power.
But the array of challenges facing the administration is daunting. Success will depend not only on how well the administration is able to ensure that its policies live up to these stated values, but critically, on how ably the administration can draw on the U.S. government’s full capabilities and tear down the bureaucratic boundaries between actors as diverse as the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Energy, Homeland Security, and Agriculture. A timely, integrated national security strategy is necessary to drive this integration forward.
This document is a blueprint for the form such an NSS should take. The report draws on a large body of recent studies produced by the Center for American Progress as well as original research to layout a progressive agenda for keeping our nation safe and secure. We begin by defining U.S. national security objectives as the need to:
- Protect the people, allies and interests of the United States.
- Uphold and strengthen the norms of a stable international system.
The report then delineates the most serious threats facing the United States today. These challenges include:
- Violent extremists with global reach that aim to harm the United States and other liberal democracies.
- An ever-growing group of weak and failing states that can provide safe harbor for terrorists and destabilize regions.
- Hostile regimes that actively seek weapons of mass destruction.
- Rising powers that are becoming more powerful and assertive in international affairs.
- A growing reliance on foreign fossil fuels that makes our country energy dependent and leads to climate change and environmental degradation.
- A range of economic threats, including underdevelopment and cybercrime.
President George W. Bush confronted many of these same threats during his time in office, but his strategy and tactics were decidedly different. In the introduction to his 2006 National Security Strategy, Bush proclaimed that the United States intended to “shape the world, not merely be shaped by it; to influence events for the better instead of being at their mercy.” It was a bold statement that encapsulated the best and worst of American exceptionalism—a sense of duty to improve the world’s condition pitted against an obdurate preference for unilateral action and an exaggerated sense of the capability of U.S. military power to achieve its objectives at a minimal cost.
This approach was used to justify the overmilitarization of U.S. foreign policy, including the unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq. It led the Bush administration to relegate the mission in Afghanistan and other vital national security concerns to second-tier status, and allow U.S. diplomatic and development capabilities to atrophy beyond their post- Cold War nadir.
President Barack Obama inherited the wreckage of these failures and has begun to take a fundamentally different approach to the conflicts the Bush administration could not resolve, but more needs to be done in four specific areas:
- The Obama administration is taking too long to issue its first national security strategy. It has failed to meet its legal obligation to produce an NSS within five months of taking office, and it has allowed planning documents such as the QDR, QDDR, and QHSR to move forward without unified strategic guidance.
- The debate over whether to empower State, USAID, and other agencies to take a larger role in U.S. national security is over. But the administration still needs a plan and a budget to strengthen these actors. Strong guidance from the executive branch in the form of a unified national security budget is necessary for the president and Congress to rebalance U.S. defense, development, diplomacy, homeland security, and intelligence capabilities.
- Obama’s challenge is to unify the instruments of national power, as well as undo the damage that the previous administration did to U.S. foreign policy. President Obama faces many of the same threats that George W. Bush confronted—violent extremists, weak and failing states, and hostile regimes. Yet many of Bush’s policies failed to significantly advance U.S. interests, which made already difficult issues more challenging. Iran is the most obvious example of this trend.
- Dealing with the rapidly changing threat environment must be a key part of the administration’s national security strategy. Nontraditional enemies, such as stateless terrorist groups, are challenging our traditional ideas of how to achieve national security, but a new set of challenges is already growing. These include cybercrime, climate change-induced migration and instability, and changes in the international system due to rising and resurgent powers.
Download the full report (pdf)
Download the executive summary (pdf)