National Security Strategy: Derailed by debt?

Hillary Clinton laid out the Obama administration's National Security Strategy Thursday. But she acknowledged that unless deficits can be reined in, the vision won’t be realized.

Saul Loeb/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Beijing on Tuesday. Clinton outlined the Obama administration's National Security Strategy Thursday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a new National Security Strategy Thursday based on what she described as increasing integration of the “critical” three D’s – defense, diplomacy, and development. But she acknowledged that unless a fourth D – deficits, or debt – can be reined in, the Obama administration’s vision of a “smarter” definition and deployment of American power won’t be realized.

“We cannot sustain this [current] level of deficits and debt without losing our influence and being restrained in the three D’s,” Secretary Clinton said, in unveiling President Obama’s first National Security Strategy. She spoke before an overflow audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The National Security Strategy, which Congress mandated in a 1986 law, is supposed to be an administration’s annual statement on the goals of American power, how it will be exercised, and how the administration intends to use America’s military and diplomatic apparatus to further US security interests.

Perhaps the best-known recent National Security Strategy, or NSS, was the one issued by the Bush administration in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It quickly became summarized in one word: unilateralism.

The Obama strategy may fall victim to the same kind of shorthand and end up reduced to the essence of one of its pillars: multilateralism, or perhaps burden sharing. That term better captures the document’s theme of America leading but requiring old and new partners to tackle the challenges confronting an increasingly interconnected world.

In her presentation, Clinton emphasized the growing necessity in the 21st century to “integrate” the various components of national security. She described the NSS as the administration’s effort to “begin to make the case that defense, diplomacy, and development are not separate entities but ... have to be viewed as an integrated whole.”

But she also underscored the essential role that a domestically robust and innovative America plays in ensuring security. She alluded to the emphasis the document places on the threat of extended budget deficits and flagging technological creativity, particularly in the energy field.

(Clinton noted that the ballooning budget deficits, which she said Mr. Obama had “inherited” from the previous administration, are a “personally painful issue” for her since her husband, President Clinton, had left office with a budget surplus.)

“Perhaps the most important” point made in the NSS, she said, is that “the US must be strong at home in order to be strong abroad” and “to be able to project both power and influence.”

Some analysts of Obama’s first NSS lauded its overall direction while questioning its lack of specifics – especially in how resources will be managed more efficiently in an era of assumed deficit reduction.

Washington’s Stimson Center applauds the document’s “new tone” in terms of working with allies and strengthening international organizations, but it’s less positive about what it says is the document’s failure to either defend increased national security spending or suggest where it can be trimmed.

In an analysis by its Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, Stimson says the NSS “does not suggest missions that will not be done or risks we should be prepared to accept” in the name of budget reductions.

At the same time, it says, the document fails to “provide a strong defense of the level of foreign policy spending on strengthened diplomacy and foreign assistance.” Some in Congress are calling for major reductions in these areas, the critique notes.

Others say the document fails to draw the conclusions that follow from its own statements. Christopher Preble, director of foreign-policy studies at Washington’s Cato Institute, says he fully supports the strategy’s observation that the United States can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. But the document stops there, he says, and fails to outline how the US envisions limiting its military reach.

“So long as the US spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined,” he says, “and as long as it deploys its military in ways that discourage other countries from defending themselves, Americans will continue to shoulder the burdens of policing the planet.”


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