Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: National Security Strategy Documents

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

Creating a national security strategy is not a bad idea. Governments inevitably guide spending and coordinate relevant agencies according to some overarching theory of how they will achieve security. The resulting security strategy can be good or bad, effective or weak, but it is immutable.

The directive contained in the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act mandating the U.S. executive branch produce a national security strategy document was also not a bad idea. The aim to “set forth” a strategy to guide the defense budget, articulate the nation’s interests and commitments, and evaluate its capabilities to meet them was a sensible part of a bill meant to harmonize the sprawling national security apparatus.

What is a bad idea is mandating regular national security strategy documents (including the National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)) when they have so manifestly failed. Not only have strategy documents failed to meaningfully coordinate policy within the bureaucracy, the doctrines and theories they put forth do not meet the modern definition of security strategy: put simply, the alignment of military means to ends and, hence, the prioritization of scarce resources. Moreover, the documents tend to inflate threats to the country in order to justify various operations and missions they promote. While the national security apparatus should continue to craft strategy to align objectives and resources, strategy documents are, in short, a ponderous waste of time for readers and especially authors that should be put to a merciful end.

The 2022 NSS and NDS are not exceptions to these failings. The Biden administration’s NSS avoids prioritizing among threats and the means to confront them. It is essentially list of mostly well-intentioned goals without the difficult choices that effective policymaking requires—like a signpost pointing in all directions. A partial list of what security requires, according to the document, is improving democracy and faster innovation at home, confronting Russia, containing China, creating new global and regional institutions to organize democracies, winning the support of the Global South in the global competition with autocracies, maintaining a nuclear triad, preventing nuclear proliferation, stopping pandemics, and suppressing corruption.

While the Middle East section does call on U.S. policy to “eschew grand designs in favor of more practical steps that can advance U.S. interests,” it nevertheless maintains quite broad goals in the region, like fixing extremism’s “root causes” with improved governance and establishing a “framework” to help regional partners “lay the foundation for greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity.” And it makes no mention of any change to deployments of U.S. forces in the region.

The new NDS starts out more promisingly by laying out “four top-level defense priorities,” that include defending the homeland, deterring aggression against the United States and its allies, deterring nuclear attack, and building a “resilient” force. But the force planning section fails to suggest any changes to U.S. force structure, while the regional section only gestures at strategic tradeoffs in a line about trying to “right-size” the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. So the document, despite a long dissection of “integrated deterrence,” suffers from the same problem as the NSS.

This tendency to avoid making real and sometimes difficult choices has beset national security strategy documents since they became common during the Cold War, but it has grown far worse since the documents became mandatory and public. That is because making real strategy that offers tangible tradeoffs in terms of priorities is politically costly. It means picking losers among certain policy areas (showing that the administration thinks some programs or regions are relatively unimportant) and subsequently alienating certain parts of the bureaucracy, legislators, voters, and allies. Administrations perceive no good reason to risk their hard-earned political capital in these documents. Instead, the resulting strategy reads like a political speech that lists the plethora of objectives the government is trying to accomplish in order to please as many constituencies as possible.

Exceptions to this problem prove the rule. Real strategy emerges when politics present an administration with a coherent security agenda. President Eisenhower’s New Look Strategy, contained in NSC 162-2, is one example. A desire to hold down spending in the early years of the Cold War produced a strategy that prioritized nuclear capabilities as the primary means of deterring the Soviet Union and budgetarily favored the Air Force (which held the monopoly on delivering nuclear weapons) at the expense of the other services. Another example came in 2012, when the Obama administration released its “Defense Strategic Guidance” off-cycle from the normal timeline of QDRs. Issued in the wake of the 2011 Budget Control Act, this strategy served a new need to deliver cost savings and changed U.S. priorities, including a desire to shift attention to Asia amid discontent with the wars Iraq and Afghanistan. To these ends, the strategy said U.S. ground forces would no longer be sized for counterinsurgencies, and thus cut, and force structure in Europe would be reduced.

In addition to their unwillingness to articulate tradeoffs and make difficult policy choices, security documents also contribute to threat inflation. In order to justify a host of priorities and far-flung missions that require funding from the defense budget, strategy documents tend to trumpet threats and contribute to a false sense of national insecurity. But virtually every document argues that developing technologies make the world more complex, unpredictable, and consequently dangerous. The NSS starts off by claiming that the country is at an historic “inflection point” while the NDS describes the current security environment as one in which “we face strategic challenges stemming from complex interactions between a rapidly changing global balance of global military capabilities, emerging technologies” and a host of other developments. But by almost all measures of political violence (i.e., the number civil wars  their intensity, coups, and interstate war) the world has long been getting safer and more stable.

A more harmful kind of threat inflation comes from strategy documents’ occasional tendency to employ grand narratives to try to unify the rationale for various U.S. missions and wars. The leading example, NSC-68, which was adopted by the Truman administration in 1950, promoted an agenda to expand U.S. commitments in the Cold War, in both budgetary and geographic senses. Thus, the document exaggerated the coherence of the Communist threat to ignite alarm, in an effort to be “clearer than truth” as then Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it.

Likewise, the 2022 NSS, though less sensationally, contends that “the most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy” and warns of “the ever evolving ways in which authoritarians seek to subvert the global order. Accordingly, the document reasons, the United States must “update [its] range of tools to advance democracy and counter authoritarianism.” To the extent such language is taken literally, this policy multiplies U.S. challenges and makes difficult problems almost irresolvable by limiting the partners the United States can work with. From this perspective, broadly friendly autocracies like Eritrea or Egypt pose potential problems or threats which complicate our ability to simply deter China from invading Taiwan. Sensible strategy should try to minimize enemies and make problems simpler, not more complex and menacing.

The problems posed by our failure to make tradeoffs and inflate threats result from U.S. defense politics writ large and would remain in other forms absent national security strategy documents. But they nevertheless render the strategies either pointless or dangerous, and U.S. foreign policy is better off without them. Killing strategy documents would not kill strategy, as it does not reside in the documents that purport to create it. Security strategy would still exist in the shared ideas of policymakers and be discernible in the budget, chiefly the Pentagon’s spending plans, where quantifiable limits make the choices avoided in strategy documents inevitable. Actual strategy would still be conveyed to the national security bureaucracy—not by vague strategy documents, but by management, communications from appointed leaders to agencies, and budgetary tradeoffs. Administrations may decide to draft strategies as a bureaucratic tool, but absent the imperative to do so on a schedule and in public, they would do so when they had substantial policy shift to promote.

Eliminating public strategy documents may not only make for better strategy but also better analysis and debate on U.S. national security policy. Shifting the media and analysts’ attention from strategy documents to national security priorities in the budget might not necessarily change policy, but political discourse on security and public understanding of those matters could improve.

(DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)