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U.S. National Security Strategy: A Global Outlook in Transition


Rear Admiral James R. Stark, U.S. Navy. (Retired)1

When first considering how to describe U.S. national security strategy, it appeared to be a rather straightforward task. Despite the always multifaceted and often contradictory array of media articles, academic conferences, and think tank papers concerning foreign policy and national strategy, the U.S. Government takes a fairly disciplined approach to the subject. In fact, this official approach is embodied in a document entitled “The National Security of the United States” and I rather naively assumed I could simply review and explain America’s grand strategy through just this single overarching publication. No one should be surprised that events did not turn out that way. As most of us in the military have experienced, nothing is ever as simple as it first appears. This study examines a series of recent U.S. strategy documents, evaluating their separate description of national interests, objectives and and policies. These include the National Security Strategies of both the Bush and Obama administrations, published in 2006 and 2010 respectively, the 2008 National Defense Strategy and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. The purpose of the analysis is to determine both the constants and the changing face of U.S. strategy over the past several years as it reflects movement in the political landscape. It concludes that, while shifting political tides bring marginal changes to stated American goals and strategy, and in particular to the way those policies are publicly used, the basic tenets of U.S. national security strategy have remained essentially unchanged.

What is Strategy?

Before getting into the strategy itself, it is important to consider the definition of strategy and how it ought to be developed. Over the centuries, military strategists seem to generally agree that strategy consists of three elements—ends, ways and means.2 “Ends” are the goals a nation seeks to achieve, usually defined over a specific span of time. “Ways” are the path it takes or the policies employed that allow it to attain those goals. Finally, “means” are the resources that are required to reach those goals, whether in terms of funding, forces, programs, or technology. Without all three of these elements, one does not have a complete strategy. Goals and plans without resources are simply useful concepts, unrelated to the reality of limited resources and unlikely to be effectively implemented. Along the same lines, resources without objective or direction are equally as likely to waste one’s efforts. It should be noted that a frequent criticism of high level U.S. strategy documents is that they concentrate on the front end (goals and concepts) without tackling the more difficult—and real world--problem of resources. That task is left to planning and budget deliberations later in the strategy development process. As a nation goes about crafting its strategy, there are several important considerations to keep in mind. First, strategy involves more than just one participant--it is not a game of solitaire. Other nations--especially potential adversaries-- will be observing both stated intentions and actions, drawing conclusions and altering their own plans accordingly. Consequently, a nation’s leaders must think ahead, anticipate how other nations or groups may react, plan their own responses, closely monitor the direction of actual events, and then redirect their actions as necessary. In other words, strategy formulation and execution is an iterative, dynamic process. Next, one must consider the identity of the strategy’s intended audience, their requirements and their interests. At its highest level, a national grand strategy serves as a guidance document for leaders and multiple levels of government officials. For example, the strategy can set forth broad global and regional objectives that are critical to the formulation of specific theater operations and contingency plans. A strategy can also be a useful tool in justifying funding to the legislature. Far too often, military programs are examined and evaluated solely on their technical and war fighting capabilities. However, their justification becomes immediately far stronger and more convincing when force structure elements or specific weapons systems are explained based on their importance as integrated elements of a coherent military or national strategy. Third, a strategy can be a device for generating domestic public support. One recalls the insights of Clausewitz on the key strategic trilogy of government, the military and the populace. Being able to communicate national objectives in understandable terms and explain how the strategy works to achieve them is an important element in gaining public support. As the United States has seen in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan, we usually have broad initial public support for military operations. But that support lasts only as long as we are operationally successful and can provide a credible strategic explanation for both our basic policies and the actions we are taking to implement them. Finally, those same public arguments in support of our strategy are equally useful in the international arena and are very useful tools for global public diplomacy. In the case of the United States, we use our strategy documents to fulfill all these roles. A final consideration is the importance of basing the strategy on a realistic appreciation for what the future will look like. Clearly, no one has a crystal ball. But there are numerous methods ranging from interactive war games to academic studies, from predictions of specific scenarios and alternate futures to analysis of key trends that are useful. The U.S. employs all of these methods. Personally, I have found that two relatively recent documents provide excellent analysis that helps bound the limits of the likely futures. The first, Global Trends 2025, was published in 2008 by the National Intelligence Council, which is comprised of some of the top analysts in the U.S. intelligence community. The second, Joint Operating Environment 2010, is published by the U.S. Joint Forces Command and identifies key trends out through 2035.3 Both are unclassified and available on the Internet.

U.S. Grand Strategy

The first step in the strategy development process is the identification of national interests and primary objectives. In particular, this means breaking them down according to strict priority—which interests are vital, which are important but not quite at the same level, and which are secondary. But what does “vital interest” actually mean? A recent study by a U.S. government commission defined vital interests as those conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the survival and well-being of the American people in a free and secure nation. My own, much simpler, definition is that vital interests are those things a nation would absolutely fight to defend. Consequently, it is important to place clear limits on this category. Recently, another high level group of former government officials published a list of over 100 “vital” U.S. interests4. While each of these may seem important, in my view, that type of approach is singularly unhelpful. When everything is important, then nothing is important. A true list of vital interests must be general enough to encompass the broad needs of a nation, while also being short enough to allow policymakers to focus on the handful of requirements that are absolutely critical to national security.

2006 National Security Strategy

The U.S. National Security Strategy is the official document setting out America’s overall strategy. It is drafted by the National Security Council staff, which is part of the Executive Office of the President, with participation from agencies across the government. The last strategy in the previous Republican administration was signed out in March 2006 by President George W. Bush. It was followed by a new National Military Strategy in 2008 which saw some important changes, and then by a full revised National Security Strategy in May 2010. This was the first opportunity for the Obama Presidency to articulate its official vision for the nation in international affairs. What was most interesting was the gradual change in both tone and substance that can be seen in the evolution of stated U.S. strategy over this four year period. When examining the 2006 National Security Strategy, one immediately notices some important differences in tone from earlier planning documents. The most obvious change was stylistic. The 2006 strategy appeared to have been written by a political speechwriter rather than by a policy analyst or strategist. Several of the national objectives were highly idealistic and their discussion evidenced an almost religious faith in democracy as a cure for much that is wrong in the world. This was particularly evident in the identification of America’s strategic objectives, which made support for spreading democracy everywhere and under almost all circumstances a cornerstone of America’s foreign policy. It is important to realize that the National Security Strategy does not exist in a vacuum. It is augmented by several supporting layers of departmental documents. So, for example, there is a National Defense Strategy signed by the Secretary of Defense (2008), a National Military Strategy issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2004, 2005, 2010, 2011), a National Strategy for Homeland Security (2002, 2007), a National Intelligence Strategy (2009), a National Counter-Terrorism Strategy (2003, 2006, 2011), and so on. Moreover, Congress has now required the issuance of quadrennial reviews in several areas of national security. These too add to the growing library of guidance documents. Finally, a number of very specialized policy pronouncements and Presidential Directives help define strategy in specific areas. Each of these contributes to an interwoven mosaic that aims to cover the broad spectrum of America’s international interests and activities. While it may at first appear excessive to have so many documents reissued on such a frequent basis, there are actually strong justifications for this. First, the evolution of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in changes to both strategy and tactics that need to be reflected in everything from military operations to counterterrorism and diplomacy. Second, major economic and political developments such as the Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East, the weakening of U.S. and European economic power, and the increasing assertiveness of newly powerful Asian states all require reevaluation of prior strategies. Thus, it can be logically argued that the periodic reissue of these strategic documents accurately reflects the dynamism of the global political and military landscape and the necessity to constantly update one’s thinking. Nevertheless, repetitive issuance of new strategic documents after only a short period indicates that earlier strategies fell short of the mark in evaluating the future global landscape and its security challenges. As a consequence, one is left with the impression of agencies running in circles, constantly revising and publishing new strategies instead of actually implementing them. Somewhere in all this there is a balance between responding to changing conditions and substituting bureaucratic activity for clear thinking. Apparently, several U.S, government agencies are still searching for it.

2008 National Defense Strategy

While it could be argued that, as a product of the Bush presidency, the 2008 National Defense Strategy is now politically outdated, the document actually seems to reflect some evolution of thought and refocusing of emphasis from the 2006 National Security Strategy. In fact, it represents a return to the more traditional expositions of national strategy that characterized previous presidencies. There are several possible explanations which might account for these changes. First, Vice President Cheney, who had earlier exerted a significant influence on foreign policy, was no longer as powerful after the Republicans suffered major losses in the November 2006 Congressional elections. Second, immediately after that defeat, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, whose views were central to the earlier strategy, was replaced by Robert Gates, a career official with a reputation for moderate practicality. Finally, by 2008 several of the more important neoconservative members of the Bush Administration had also left the government and no longer influenced the process. The result was a document that reflected the more apolitical approach of Secretary Gates, whose views also happened to align closely with those of President Obama, who was elected just a few months after publication of the Defense Strategy. The 2008 Defense Strategy noted just three vital interests for the United States. While these are admittedly broad, they also serve as useful guideposts. They are:

 Protect the nation and our allies from attack or coercion.

 Promote international security to reduce conflict and foster economic growth.

 Secure the global commons and, with them, access to world markets and resources. 5

The “global commons” is a relatively new term—one which is receiving increasing attention in Washington. It refers specifically to areas outside national sovereign control which are open to access by all nations and even non-state actors, including individuals. The global commons include the traditional areas of the maritime and air commons—that is, international waters and air space--as well as the much more recent domains of space and cyberspace. This emphasis on global commons might seem peripheral until one remembers that, in its relatively short history, the United States has gone to war four separate times to protect the principle of free and unfettered access to the seas.6 To support U.S. vital interests, the National Defense Strategy enumerates five “key objectives”-- defend the homeland, win the long war (the latest term for the war against terrorism), promote security, deter conflict and win the nation’s wars. These are discussed at some length, going into detail as to their impact on U.S. forces and operations. The strategy goes on to discuss in general terms how to achieve these objectives, and then concludes with a discussion of managing risk. It notes that the United States cannot possibly do everything it would like and must therefore make choices. Further, the strategy must hedge against possible changes to the future environment that would alter the strategy’s basic assumptions. The contributions of America’s partners and allies are key among these assumptions—their capabilities as well as their commitment to shared goals. Any changes to these assumptions would then require a reappraisal of the strategy.

Quadrennial Defense Review

Among the more important guidance documents below the level of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy are a series of congressionally mandated quadrennial reviews which are undertaken every four years soon after Presidential elections. While these reviews are drafted within their respective government departments—defense, foreign affairs, homeland security and intelligence—each is coordinated throughout the government and checked to ensure consistency with higher strategy. All were issued either in 2009 or 2010. Because of its currency, the Quadrennial Defense Review, known informally throughout Washington as the QDR, provides an extremely accurate and comprehensive look at U.S. national strategy. It was the result of over a year’s work under the direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with the active participation of all the military services and other governmental departments. It stresses a “whole of government” approach and, though it does not go into detail, it certainly refers to the importance and even the preference for non-military solutions. Although the QDR was classified while it was in the process of being drafted, it was published as an unclassified public document. In addition to the QDR, three other major defense studies provide insights into current U.S. strategy and should be considered as augmenting documents further defining strategy in specific subject areas. These are the Nuclear Posture Review, the Ballistic Missile Defense Review and the Space Posture Review interim report, all of which were released in early 2010. The QDR begins by examining the current environment and noting the important trends that govern U.S. security. These include such key developments as the diffusion of global political, economic and military power, leading to a more multipolar world. It also notes the unprecedented shift of wealth from West to East. Globalization will allow a wider range of actors to acquire advanced technology. Particularly worrisome is the possible spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially to non-state actors who will be less amenable to traditional norms of state behavior or considerations of deterrence. Additionally, the almost instantaneous flow of information around the world means that weaker nations or groups can now have greater influence on world opinion. That same widespread access to global events can also bring more public pressure on democratic governments to become involved in distant crises. Global climate change could cause drought and water shortages, impact food supplies, and increase the likelihood of major weather events and natural disasters. Global warming is also bringing additional attention to the Arctic and its resources, an area of major concern to Denmark. Population shifts and demographic trends will have profound effects on the social and economic health of key nations. This is a major issue for Europe, Russia and Japan because of their declining populations and could have significant social as well as economic and security consequences. Rapid urbanization in coastal regions, especially in the less developed world, the possible effects of new diseases and pandemics, and increasing tensions over resources will all place enormous stress on the weakest, most fragile nations—precisely those societies least capable of dealing with these challenges. The QDR lays out four priority objectives for the United States, very similar to those set forth in previous strategy documents. First, the U.S. must prevail in today’s wars--Iraq and Afghanistan--as well as in its efforts to combat global terrorism. Second, the U.S. must seek to prevent and deter conflict. This requires an integrated approach using all levers of government—diplomacy, foreign assistance, economics and trade, defense, law enforcement and intelligence. Third, the U.S. must be able to defeat any adversary and succeed in a wide variety of contingencies, from disaster relief and support for failing states all the way up to major war against a highly capable regional power. And, finally, the Department of Defense must take care of its people. America’s armed forces have been involved in high-tempo combat operations for over eight years and the stresses are having a growing impact on our personnel and their families. One of the major thrusts of the new strategy is the need to rebalance forces. In essence, the U.S. military is shifting its emphasis from high technology future conflicts to the demands of fighting today’s wars. Secretary Gates has stated that the U.S. military is devoting too much attention and spending too many resources on advanced fighters and $5 billion ships designed for possible conflict 20 years in the future. Consequently, we are not providing nearly enough resources to responding to the needs of our troops fighting unconventional wars right now. We need to bring back a sense of wartime urgency. As a result, the U.S. will give additional emphasis to counterinsurgency and counter-terror operations, expand its ability to assist and train partner nations, prevent the spread of WMD, and ensure its forces can fight successfully even against robust anti-access capabilities. Despite this shift in emphasis, rebalancing still aims to selectively support a number of advanced capabilities. The U.S. is now investing more in long range strike, strengthening undersea warfare, increasing ISR, and putting special emphasis on cyber warfare. Unlike many other higher level strategy documents, the QDR goes on to specify the size and composition of U.S. military force structure for the next five years, listing everything from how many brigades and regiments of exactly which type will make up the Army and Marine Corps, to specifying the numbers of varying classes of ships for the Navy and aircraft squadrons for the Air Force. One of the most difficult tasks in any strategy is the identification of where to take cuts to free up additional funds to support higher priority programs. In this case, the QDR reflects decisions made during the 2009 budget deliberations that ended production of the F-22 fighter, completely restructured and downsized the Army’s Future Combat System and the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, cancelled a new class of missile cruisers and terminated a major command and control system. It also includes decisions to reduce numbers of older Air Force fighters and stop production of the C-17 cargo aircraft. A total of 31 major programs were cancelled which, had they been pursued to completion, would have cost the U.S. more than $300 billion.7

2010 National Security Strategy

The latest of the U.S. grand strategy documents is the National Security Strategy released in May 2010. Its singular importance lies in the fact that it is the first strategy document of the Obama administration. As such, it already shows elements of a continuing evolution in strategic thought and policy emphasis. Once again, we find that the strategy identifies essentially the same vital interests, threats and national objectives as its predecessors. Yet it also reflects altered internal and external conditions—the global financial crisis, the scheduled withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the areas of particular focus of the new President. As a consequence, there is more emphasis on “living our values”-- setting an example at home and supporting human rights abroad. The description of vital interests shifts slightly from the Bush 2008 National Defense Strategy, though the change is more a matter of specific wording than actual substance. The Obama strategy identifies four “enduring national interests” rather than the earlier three of the Bush era. These are:

 The security of the United States, its citizens, and allies.

 A strong, growing U.S. economy in an open international system.

 Respect for human values at home and abroad.

 An international order supported by U.S. leadership that provides security, peace, and opportunity through stronger cooperation.

In each of the above areas, the strategy identifies and describes supporting policies and sub-elements that give scope and substance to its direction. So, for example, the implementation of respect for human values entails strengthening the power of America’s democratic society as an example to the world, supporting democracy and human rights abroad, and promoting dignity by meeting basic needs. Similarly, sustaining international order is carried out by ensuring strong alliances, building cooperation with other major powers and emerging centers of influence, strengthening international institutions and mechanisms, and facilitating broad cooperation on key global issues. Each one of these threads is then supported by several specific strategies. The net result is a wide-ranging, comprehensive set of policy guidelines. They provide an excellent overview of U.S. policy goals without delving into the specifics of tactics or resources.


The long-term significance of 9/11 for U.S. foreign policy, therefore, should not be overestimated. The attacks that day were a terrible tragedy, an unwarranted assault on innocent civilians, and a provocation of monumental proportions. But they did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. grand strategy. The United States' quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world, its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary, its eclectic merger of interests and values, its sense of indispensability -- all these remained, and remain, unchanged.8

Looking at the current status of official U.S. national security strategy, one comes away with two somewhat contrasting conclusions. First, there is an enormous amount of information available to provide insight into strategic thinking in Washington. After the 2008 Presidential elections, the U.S. moved its emphasis away from exporting democracy, predominant reliance on military forces, and a heavy focus on major conflict, cancelling several extremely expensive advanced technology military programs. Today, the emphasis has shifted toward putting more resources into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding the campaign against terrorism, and supporting the prevention of conflict through multinational, multi-agency stability operations around the world. Interestingly, the recent U.S. support for the multinational campaign to undermine the government of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi by America “leading from behind” can be seen as an explicit example of this new approach that seeks to combine continued international involvement with a somewhat lower profile--and with a lower price tag. The second conclusion is that, despite the different approaches of the various agencies publishing official strategy documents, the substance of America’s national strategy has remained surprisingly consistent. The emphasis is on defending the United States and supporting its interests through forward engagement by diplomatic, developmental and military assets in time of peace; working closely with allies and partners around the world to create a community of stable nations and an international system capable of ensuring that change is both gradual and controlled; deterring conflict and controlling crises; and, finally, maintaining the forces required to win conflict at any level. Within that strategy, there are many nuances and choices, some of them potentially inconsistent with one another. For example, the U.S. needs to balance its commitment to human rights—a very worthwhile goal--with the importance of maintaining cooperative and constructive relations with other states. And we see those conflicting interests reflected every day in relations with states such as China, Russia and Iran. Such competing goals are simply a reflection of the breadth and depth of America’s global interests. Yet, in looking at the strategy, which clearly emphasizes the primary role of diplomacy and economic development over military force, and cooperation with allies over a unilateral foreign policy, one might ask why the U.S. is so frequently criticized for not doing enough in precisely these areas? I believe the answer is very clear. Strategies and policy statements carry one only so far; actual results depend on real world execution. In some cases, policy is ineffective because of competing voices and views in Washington or because of honest debates over the best course of action. Equally as important, the world is an uncertain place. Other nations have their own priorities and problems, and they may not always agree with us despite good faith negotiations on both sides. Instability, criminal and terrorist activity, social, religious and ethnic stresses do not always respond to outside intervention. In the end, the strategy, good or bad as it may be, is only the start of the journey, not the end.


1 Rear Admiral James R. Stark is an independent consultant working with both the U.S. Government and private industry in the Washington D.C. area, specializing in strategy and policy formulation. A career naval officer, he served at sea in surface warships, including command of a frigate and a cruiser. He has held policy positions at the Pentagon and White House, commanded a NATO task group, and was President of the U.S. Naval War College. After retiring from the Navy, he held a senior management position in London with a major U.S. defense and aerospace company. He currently resides in Fairfax, Virginia.

2 B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Second Revised Edition, New York: Meridian, 1991, pp. 319-321; Colin S. Gray, Schools for Strategy: Teaching Strategy for 21st Century Conflict, Carlisle PA: U.S. Army War College, November 2009, pp. 4-8; Peng Quangqian and Yao Youshi, ed., The Science of Military Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005, pp. 2324-235.

3 Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, Washington DC: National Intelligence Council, 2008; and The Joint Operating Environment 2010: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force, Suffolk VA: U.S. Joint Forces Command, 2010.

4 Lecture by Dr. Graham T. Allison, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, “Rethinking the Foundations of the National Security Strategy and the QDR” Seminar Series, February 18, 2010.

5 Ibid. p. 6.

6 These instances were the undeclared naval “quasi-war” with France from 1795-1798, the campaign against the Barbary pirates in the first decade of the 19th century, the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and the First World War, in which the U.S. declaration of war was precipitated by Germany’s initiation of a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917.

7 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speech delivered at the retirement ceremony for Lieutenant General Emerson N. Gardner, Jr. USMC, 15 March 2010.

8 Melvyn P. Leffler, “9/11 In Retrospect: George Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011.