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 defending it, although not always with military power. This is likely as close as we’ll get to an “Obama Doctrine.” As the president told West Point graduates in a major foreign policy address last year:

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader—and especially your Commander-in-Chief—to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the National Security Strategy places significant focus on economic strength and security, the well from which U.S. military might ultimately springs. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) each receives prominent attention. So do global energy markets and future growth trends. As the document observes, “The American consumer cannot sustain global demand.” It’s a thoughtful approach that strives to cast an eye beyond the geopolitical brushfires of the day and into planning years or even decades into the future.

Indeed, a good way to characterize the document is “thoughtful.” Critics have been quick to dismiss Obama’s so-called strategic patience as empty and feckless. But in fact, strategic patience is the strategy’s way of acknowledging that the total impact of global trends—or even of American interventions—can’t be assessed in days, weeks, or even single congressional terms.

As the document states, “There are historic transitions underway that will unfold over decades. This strategy positions America to influence their trajectories, seize the opportunities they create, and manage the risks they present.” Just as international events move at their own deliberate speed, the impact of American policies can still resonate years or decades after the fact. The United States can’t identify a problem, shock-and-awe its way to victory, and expect to come home with all the loose ends neatly tied up. The world simply doesn’t work that way.

Accordingly, the United States’ incremental, long-term rebalance to the Asia-Pacific (which still continues slowly on course) is an example of Obama’s strategic patience at work, no matter how many times Washington’s chattering class eagerly pens its epitaph. On the other hand, the terrible consequences of the United States’ 2003 cowboy-hooting, gunslinging invasion of Iraq illustrate precisely the reason a policy of strategic patience must exist today.

That said, although the philosophy of the National Security Strategy is sound—U.S. leadership in a robust multilateral system, strategic patience, and levelheaded calculation in the service of a global order that benefits the United States as much as anyone else—the document does a poor job of describing this strategy in practice. Perhaps this is because, in many places, there is a mismatch between the strategy’s words and U.S. actions (or inaction).

The current withdrawal plan in Afghanistan does not reflect strategic patience. U.S. actions to date in Ukraine do not square with the stated objectives to “deter Russian aggression, remain alert to its strategic capabilities, and help our allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term, if necessary.” The Syrian civil war and the mass killings of civilians over the past years contradict the United States’ stated intent to “act preventively before situations reach crisis proportions.”

Critics have also rightfully inveighed that much of the National Security Strategy reads like a Christmas list of aspirations with no prioritization. U.S. power isn’t limitless, as the strategy clearly emphasizes; so what gets top billing? The strategy fails to make the tough calls. But perhaps the biggest obstacle for Obama’s strategy is that the deliberate, thoughtful approach simply runs against the reality of both American and international politics. The pace of world events doesn’t always wait for the gears of American policymaking to spin into action. Often, the most deliberate action must also be quick and decisive. Robust efforts to strengthen a moderate Syrian opposition in 2011 or 2012 before it fractured into warring jihadist factions could arguably have placed the United States and its partners in a much stronger position today, as could more decisive action against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as it gathered momentum in early June 2014.

On the other end of the spectrum, Obama’s publicly announced glide slopes and timetables for withdrawal from Afghanistan may represent a good reading of U.S. domestic politics, but they run contrary to the strategic patience necessary to ensure success in a long-lasting stabilization mission. They also run contrary to the deliberate strategy endorsed by the National Security Strategy.

Recent announcements regarding military assistance to Ukraine, an authorization to use military force against ISIS, and hints of a shift in the drawdown in Afghanistan may signal a recognition of these mismatches. With two years left in the White House, perhaps this document will mark a few course corrections.

Ultimately, the drafting and publication of a new National Security Strategy can be an inherently contradictory enterprise, pitting grand strategic aspirations against uncomfortable and inconvenient geopolitical realities (Duke University Professor Peter Feaver provides excellent insight into some of the challenges he faced in drafting the second strategy under George W. Bush). One of the document’s most important functions is bureaucratic, providing hooks that savvy executive agencies can use to fast-track their own initiatives and craft the substrategies that should provide the detail so many critics crave. The document can be useful, certainly, but will not quite be the vista of top-level meetings, imposing oak tables, and snappy Cold War phrases such as “containment” or “détente” that a title such as “National Security Strategy” evokes.

The president’s second National Security Strategy articulates a belief in a peaceful, rules-based international order; it also reaffirms the fact that none of this can happen without the leadership of the United States. For scholars seeking to trace broader themes in the president’s foreign policy strategy, the document promises good historical value. But to expect it to provide definitive answers to every crisis that now simmers across the globe—that’s asking a bit much of any NSS.

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  • JANINE DAVIDSON is Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
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