The 2015 National Security Strategy: Lots of Words, But Fails to Deliver
By: Clark Murdock
Any strategy document, but particularly the National Security Strategy (NSS), should do three things: (1) establish priorities; (2) define the basic strategy for how to accomplish those priorities; and (3) get the national security team on the same script. The 2015 NSS fails on all counts.
In his preface to the NSS, President Obama notes that as powerful as the United States is (and will remain), “our resources and influence are not limitless” and “we have to make hard choices among competing priorities.” Yet there is no evidence of any choices, hard or otherwise, being made in this NSS. While there are seemingly endless streams of “we will …” and “we will continue to…,” there is no mention in the strategy of what we will stop doing.
And as for how we are going to do all this, the 2015 NSS takes a blanket approach to all problems: the United States will lead the way. The New York Times’s Peter Baker and David Sanger noted that the words “lead,” “leadership,” or some variation thereof were used almost 100 times. However, the document generally fails to explain what leading actually means.
Even in those cases where “leadership” is detailed, the strategy feeds into another problem I call the “word-deed gap.” For instance, President Obama notes in the preface that “we are leading international coalitions to confront the acute challenges posed by aggression, terrorism, and disease” and specifically mentions “leading over 60 partners in a global campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (IS). Yet in the same week that the 2015 NSS was released, the State Department acknowledged that the United States has conducted 97 percent of the airstrikes against IS. And, despite all the words in the 2015 NSS, the Islamic State still occupies a land mass as big as Great Britain in what used to be Syria and Iraq.
Finally, this NSS will do little to get the administration as a whole to function as a team. The 2015 NSS reads better than its predecessors, which likely reflects that it was produced by the White House rather than through an extensive interagency process. Such an approach may result in greater readability, but it does not demonstrate a thoughtful strategic planning process aimed at bringing coherence and direction to the national security establishment.
After 40-plus years as a student and practitioner of national security affairs, I can make a judgment about how well a strategy document will function as a strategy. The 2015 National Security Strategy, in my view, flunks the test. We can and must do better.