It is a thankless job to issue a new National Security Strategy, as U.S. President Barack Obama did this month. Its creation is a churn of dozens of drafts circulated among scores of hapless staffers, each of whom is tasked with name checking his or her very specific issue. There’s little room for prioritization or bold new ideas; any artful turns of phrase are quickly ground into merciless governmentese.
Although the intent of the National Security Strategy (produced 16 times since 1987) is to provide stars to steer by for the many executive agencies tasked with ensuring the nation’s security, it more often seems to serve as a magnet for stored-up foreign policy criticism. When a document has to cover, well, everything, there will be something in it to hate for just about everyone. Here, the jury has already come back strong: “Leading from behind!” “Iranian appeasement!” “Strategic Patience = Strategic Weakness!” “The U.S. can’t even define its own enemy!” (the last one is from Russian state television).
But beyond the knee-jerk criticism, the president’s National Security Strategy is not just a bowl of rice pudding. Although readers won’t find a strategy aimed at a unitary threat with clear ends, ways, and means, there is a pretty coherent philosophy at work. This strategy is the second and last of Obama’s presidency, and it rightly describes a world beset by challenges and in dire need of American leadership (“lead,” “leader,” and “leadership” appear 94 times in the context of the United States’ role in the world). It is not “leading from behind,” as the president’s restless and war-ready critics love to claim. Nor is it hard-charging unilateralism.
Instead, the world of President Obama’s National Security Strategy is one in which the United States’ economic and military might serve as the bedrock of strong, participatory, and rules-based global institutions. It’s smart multilateralism—working within the international system while also being willing to bear the burden of