February 10, 2015
The Obama administration has released its long-awaited update to the “National Security Strategy.” While ostensibly a report to Congress on the president’s priorities for safeguarding U.S. interests globally, around which to base funding and procurement discussions, a fair amount of the domestic political agenda inevitably creeps in. This go-around, though, this was flipped on its head; the domestic focus predominates.
The second sentence of the report posits that, “America’s growing economic strength is the foundation of our national security and a critical source of our influence abroad,” and a remarkable amount of text that follows is related to that premise. Before any mention of external threats or challenges, we’re told that “we have created nearly 11 million new jobs during the longest private sector job growth in our history,” that “[u]nemployment has fallen to its lowest level in [six] years,” “[w]e are now the world leader in oil and gas production,” and “[w]e continue to set the pace for science, technology, and innovation in the global economy.”
Flattery abounds, with kudos given to our “young and growing workforce” and the “entrepreneurial spirit of our workers.” We’re told that “[o]ur higher education system is the finest in the world” and that “we continue to attract immigrants from every corner of the world who renew our country with their energy and entrepreneurial talents.” It shouldn’t come at all as a surprise, then, that “[o]ur economy is the largest, most open, and innovative in the world.”
The first mention of conflict is to proclaim that “we have moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” followed by a nod to “a military whose might, technology, and geostrategic reach is unrivaled in human history.”
To be sure, that’s followed by serious talk about violent extremism, the terrorist threat, cybersecurity, a resurgent Russia, a nuclearizing Iran and various other honest-to-goodness national security issues. And, as I argue elsewhere, the agenda set forth for global “leadership” is unbounded by geography or time.
Still, seldom a paragraph and nary a page goes by without a sop to the American public. Indeed, the very “model of American leadership” extolled in the document is allegedly founded on “the values of the American people.” The “American exceptionalism” the president rejected early in his tenure is now enthusiastically embraced and attributed at least partly to “the grit, talent, and diversity of the American people.”
Congress, the ostensible target audience of the report, gets a few shout-outs as well, although they’re mostly either perfunctory or backhanded. We’re told that the document “serves as a compass for how this administration, in partnership with Congress, will lead the world though a shifting security landscape.” That the institution has just turned over to the opposition party, which opposes much of the agenda set forth in the document, is left unstated.
There’s an olive branch in that direction, with a note that “[m]any achievements of recent years were made possible by Democrats and Republicans,” but it’s followed by the caveat that “we face continued challenges, including political dysfunction in Washington that undermines national unity, stifles bipartisan cooperation, and ultimately erodes the perception and strength of our leadership abroad.” While it’s perhaps axiomatic that “American leadership is always most powerful when we are able to forge common ground at home around key national priorities,” it’s neither appropriate for a national security strategy nor a circumstance that occurs in a vacuum.
The economy has substantially rebounded from the Great Recession and the “National Security Strategy” mentions this fact repeatedly. It professes to build “on the progress of the last [six] years, in which our active leadership has helped the world recover from a global economic crisis and respond to an array of emerging challenges.” A couple pages later, we’re reminded, “[i]n the last [six] years alone, we arrested the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and catalyzed a new era of economic growth.”
Despite the fact that “economy is the largest, most open, and innovative in the world” and “an engine for global economic growth and a source of stability for the international system,” the administration is “investing in a new foundation for sustained economic growth that creates good jobs and rising incomes.” In turn, this requires an impressive domestic agenda, including “expanding access to early childhood and affordable higher education,” the “further acceleration of our manufacturing revolution” to “create the next generation of high technology manufacturing jobs,” “immigration reform that combines smart and effective enforcement of the law with a pathway to citizenship,” “quality, affordable healthcare to more and more Americans,” “opening markets and leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses abroad” and a “more modern and reliable infrastructure.”
Sustaining our “competitive edge” in technology, which in turn “secures our military advantage, propels our economy, and improves the human condition” has long been part of our national security strategy, going back at least to the Manhattan Project and the “missile gap.” Still, the agenda which flows in this iteration is impressive indeed; it “requires robust Federal investments in basic and applied research”; that we somehow “strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education to produce tomorrow’s discoverers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and high-skills workforce”; and translates into “preparation and compensation for STEM teachers, broadband connectivity and high-tech educational tools for schools, programs that inspire and provide opportunities for girls and underrepresented minorities, and support for innovation in STEM teaching and inclusion in higher education.”
In a section on homeland security, the administration posits that they “have countered terrorism and transnational organized crime” — very much traditional national security threats — “in ways that enhance commerce, travel, and tourism.” While the combination is surely desirable if true, one would think a national security strategy might focus on lives saved rather than tourists attracted as the key metric.
Climate change, legitimately a national security issue if one not amenable to traditional hard power solutions, gets 15 mentions, including inclusion among the eight “top strategic risks to our interests” that they administration will “prioritize.”
Indeed, even “improv[ing] our banking practices and forg[ing] ahead with regulatory reform” are somehow matters of national security.
No section of the report is more indicative of the predominance of U.S. domestic policy than the one entitled “Advance Equality.” We’re told that “American values are reflective of the universal values we champion all around the world.” In addition to ones that, while certainly not universal, are widely embraced at home “including the freedoms of speech, worship, and peaceful assembly; the ability to choose leaders democratically; and the right to due process and equal administration of justice,” the document declares that “[w]e 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.”
Now, I happen to think that’s a noble sentiment. But, given the fact that we’re simply not going to place a premium on LGBT rights in our negotiations with our closest allies, let alone our adversaries and frenemies in less savory cultures, there’s simply no reason but domestic politics to include these platitudes in a national security strategy. While they may be aspirational, publicizing them in this manner is likely counterproductive in the actual conduct of U.S. foreign relations.
Similarly, the document makes repeated references to “the political and economic participation of women and girls — who are too often denied their inalienable rights and face substantial barriers to opportunity in too many places.” That focusing on the particular plight of women and girls is critical to development efforts is supported by years of social science research. The administration has, to its credit, made this a point of emphasis from the outset, notably during Hillary Clinton’s time at the helm in Foggy Bottom. But, again, the intended audience here are American voters, not the heads of government in places where we routinely overlook horrific human rights abuses — much less a second-class role for women — in the furtherance of other interests.
Public-facing foreign policy documents like the “National Security Strategy” naturally have many audiences and the president’s employers, the American public, are certainly among them. Selling his national security policy — which after all requires the lion’s share of the discretionary budget — in terms that appeal to their interests, including the impact on their pocketbooks, is perfectly reasonable. But this document goes well beyond that, sending political messages at best tangentially related to security while failing to take seriously the business of prioritizing our national interests. And it seeks to score political points while poking a finger in the eye of the party that controls the purse strings, making the restoration of “the bipartisan center that has been a pillar of strength for American foreign policy in decades past” just a bit more difficult.