Skim Reading the 2015 National Security Strategy

So gather round young warriors now
and saddle up your steeds
Killing scores with demon swords
Now is the death of doers of wrong
Swing the judgment hammer down
Safely inside armor blood guts and sweat – Metallica, “Four Horsemen

One of the first things you learn when writing “academic” papers for the federal government is how to organize content. Unlike, true academic papers…there isn’t necessarily a result or finding…or “truth” that followed extensive research. Instead, numerous federal government “academic” papers are nothing more than extension of politics and used as a policy tool to provide guidance in the best of circumstances…and at a minimum, point of view of the political entity that is releasing the paper.1 Federal “academic” policy papers are organized in a manner that provides the senior writer/researcher an opportunity to provide an succinct “executive” summary or introduction.2 This executive summary/introduction is the true narrative that tells the story of the paper and lays out how the rest of the paper will be organized…not surprisingly, numerous users of these documents quietly grumble and assume that the executive summary is written first…and the rest of the paper is organized and written in a manner to support this up-front narrative.3

With the release of the new National Security Strategy, the Obama Administration has provided its “guidance” and its point of view on how to secure the nation…until the next President is elected. The new President will bring in their own advisers who will in turn shape and mold the National Security Staff4…who will then “research” and release a new strategy. Interestingly, within days of the Obama Administration’s release of the 2015 National Security Strategy, it has been announced that President Obama intends to ask Congress for war powers that will focus on the Middle East and terrorism (primarily ISIS), it will be limited to 3 years, it will authorize the use of ground troops, and it will be geographically-limited. These 3 factors are significant and will be the subject of speculation among the media, national security thinkers, and academia for the next couple of weeks.5

Like all political documents, the new strategy has critics and supporters…naturally this typically falls along party lines. Criticizing and trumpeting a policy document are two of the easiest things to do in DC…you either point out how it is wrong and doesn’t support your point of view; or you show how the document supports your point of view…usually this done in a quick and superficial way that never identifies or discusses the nexus of the strategy with policy. Critics and supporters act…and write…as if the strategy is a standalone document that is neither a development on past strategies nor a document that signals a shift of policy. In other words, anyone can do this with little knowledge of national security or without a holistic view of policy. This last point about holistic policy is the reason so many national security thinkers lament the end of the Cold War…without a single enemy…it is extremely hard to have a Grand Strategy.6

Those of us that take the time to read the strategy fall into three general categories: individuals who work within the national security field (me)7, those that report on national security issues (media), and academia. I label these groups, in order, as craftsmen (using the strategy as a tool), observers (use the strategy as a form of news), and abstract thinkers (use the strategy as way to philosophically think about “security”). Unfortunately all three categories miss important points…and definitely do not take a holistic approach to the reviewing, using, and reporting on the strategy. This post is no different. This is nothing more than a summary of how the strategy is organized and how it reflects the policy goals of the Obama Administration…any other deep thought is internal only.

Quickly…through a couple of readings, and an internal debate…I have found that the organization of the new national security strategy is really the best way to understand it. Up front it is obvious that the primary writers…the National Security Staff…understand U.S. foreign and national security policy through the Terry Deibel lens. Terry Deibel was a professor at the National War College for over three decades, and wrote what we graduates of the college fondly call the “Deibel Bible” on American foreign policy. The new strategy’s table of contents reads like the basic concept of Deibel’s Bible: there are four basic national interests that all nations hope to attain, and will, if successful, attain. These are security, economic prosperity, value protection at home, and value projection abroad. You too can be a successful National War College graduate if you learn and understand this simple foreign policy tenet.

The new national security strategy is written in the manner of Deibel. The second paragraph of the strategy’s introduction identifies the recovering and growing American economy as a focal point…this is the very first point the strategy drives home…all things security-related point to this. Second, the strategy’s first 3 main “chapters” are entitled Security, Prosperity, and Values. The final chapter (other than the Conclusion) is the International Order…like a true Western Liberal Democratic government (not to be confused with the American bastardized definition of “liberal”), the final main point of the strategy is a discussion that resembles a Masters in International Affairs thesis by focussing on the concept of Institutionalism.In a world where America sees itself…along with the vast majority of the other nations…as the global leader, Institutionalism is the way we try to get other nations to follow our lead, and if they don’t…it is the way we use our allies to bring the lost sheep (like Iran) back into the fold.

After the Introduction, the strategy discusses Security. It is here that the following are briefly…and some might argue, superficially…discussed:

  • National Defense;
  • Homeland Security;
  • Terrorism;
  • Prevention of Conflict;
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction;
  • Climate Change;
  • Access to Shared Spaces;9 and
  • Global Health.

Arguably, some of these are what can be categorized as Democratic Party issues, but like all discussions of the post-Cold War world…WMDs, terrorism, defense, and homeland security take center stage.

Following Security, the strategy goes into Prosperity and discusses in order:

  • Economy;
  • Energy Security;
  • Science, Technology, and Innovation;
  • Global Economic Order; and
  • Extreme Poverty.

Like Security, specific political entities have specific views on the economy and what affects it…and how to grow it. Nothing new here move along.

Values is the last main chapter that follows Deibel’s model, and it reads as if Deibel had written it himself…obviously a disciple did:

  • Live Our Values;
  • Equality;
  • Emerging Democracies;
  • Civil Society and Young Leaders; and
  • Mass Atrocities.

Of all the national interests identified by Deibel, “value protection” and “value projection” seem to lead to the most shadowy and grey because the idea of “values” is more personal in nature than say the idea of “national defense.” Agreed there is a discussion on how to execute national defense…or what are the nation’s national defense priorities…but unlike “values”…there is no core debate on what the term means. Not wanting to sound redundant, but values become subjective and each person values the concept of “values” differently.

As noted earlier, the strategy ends with a discussion on international affairs and the idea of Institutionalism. Here the Obama Administration continues to try to pivot toward Asia10…but Europe still drains security thought11…and the constant and bothersome Middle East comes in third…finally, South America is given an obligatory nod.

This simple method of examining how the new National Security Strategy is organized is just one way to determine what the Obama Administration intends to focus on as it completes its second term. As with any “to-do list”…those things at the top receive the majority of resources…and this on the bottom get nothing more than a constant rewriting on the next list…sorry South America, but we will have to get to you later.

Unlike the strategy and its conclusion (which is nothing more than a restating of everything said before it), this blog post has no true conclusion…my organization skills are lacking and the best I can do is say that sometimes my skimming skills (perfected in Tennessee public schools) are proficient enough to allow me to digest a new national security strategy and come away with the feeling that there is nothing really new here. The new national security strategy reads like a laundry list of what the Obama Administrations wants to focus on. How this strategy is interpreted, internalized, and used by others within the government, Congress, and other nations is still something to be seen. Obviously, this strategy is something that us craftsmen, reporters, and academics are consuming. Its real importance is, at best, a matter of conjecture.

1. This is not necessarily a bad thing…national strategies are one of the prime ways a presidential administration informs the government, Congress, the media, and the public of its policy.

2. The President usually signs the first page or at the end of the introduction to show that he “read” the document and agrees that they are responsible for its content. I have no doubt President Obama has read and agrees with this document.

3. Top down management is the hallmark of any large political institution.

4. In 2010, and prior to the release of the last National Security Strategy in that year, President Obama combined the National Security and Homeland Security staffs. Prior to 2010, and since its inception with President George W. Bush’s first administration, the Homeland Security Staff was a separate entity.

5. I am not willing to bet on how successful President Obama will be on this attempt to have Congress grant him these war powers…but it will be interesting to see if these self-imposed limitations on the war powers will be help or hinder its congressional approval.

6. Grand Strategy is the term to identify the nation’s long-term and overarching priorities. Not surprisingly, in the short history of America, there has only been one period that the U.S. had anything as close to a single Grand Strategy and that was the Cold War. Arguably, the modern world with both modern and old issues…and globalization causes strategic thinkers to feel as if there is no unifying factor among all the security issues America faces…this is probably why individuals with ADHD have a hard time as strategists. This is also why the Obama Administration tries so hard at the beginning of this strategy to point so definitively at the economy…if you can’t have a Grand Strategy, you might as well act like you do.

7. Specifically, I focus on national homeland security policy, and generally on how it meets and compliments (or contradicts) with national security policy.

8. Basically for this discussion, Institutionalism (Institutional Theory) is the International Affairs concept that nations will act according to normative standards of the collective group or members of the international order instead of individual needs. The give and take among nations is governed by its participation or non-participation in international orders or institutions, and like individuals…nations give up certain individual interests for collective goals or interests…which is seen as a better long-term option. This of course is a gross oversimplification.

9. “Shared Spaces” is the term given to areas that the world is connected through or shares…such as cyber, space, air, and oceans. The U.S. Air Force calls the air (and probably some ocean) as “The Commons” and even uses the strategic phrase “defending the commons.”

10. Just like General MacArthur had hoped the US would at the beginning of the 20th century. 

11. Thanks Russia.


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