September 19, 2017

What Good is a National Security Strategy?

It’s strategy season in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump’s administration is crafting its first National Security Strategy (NSS), while Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his team are working on the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy. Political scientist and Washington Post blogger Dan Drezner argues that the Trump administration has three choices regarding his strategy. Drezner said Trump’s strategy can appeal to his base or it can appeal to more conventional foreign policy audiences. Or it can, in Drezner’s words, be honest. He writes:

Finally, the Trump administration could just be honest and admit that there is no coherent national security strategy. The foreign policy team is split on many issues. The president has the attention span of a flea and approaches these issues in a transactional manner. The White House may be dissatisfied with status quo. It may even have some valid objections behind this dissatisfaction. But administration officials have zero ideas about what to do in its stead. The result has been a subpar facsimile of a mainstream foreign policy, run by a disorganized group of third-raters trying to please a mercurial commander in chief.

One of those “third-raters” who recently left the administration provided some hints about the NSS over the summer. Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser with questionable credentials whose responsibilities seemed to mostly involve Fox News appearances, told Breitbart in July that the new NSS will try to bridge the gap between isolationism and internationalism. It’s unclear what that means, but Gorka did promise that the new strategy would lack something — political correctness. Because what has obviously stopped various would-be George Kennans from crafting the successor to “Containment” was the need to appease social justice warriors.

Despite Gorka’s crowing about its potential lack of political correctness, Trump’s NSS will likely be a conventional document. With the recent personnel churn at the National Security Council, many of the nationalists who prefer a strategy that appeals to the #MAGA crowd are gone. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster seems to have solidified his position, and the lead author of the strategy is apparently Nadia Schadlow – a well-respected defense analyst whom McMaster brought into the NSC shortly after he was appointed.

But this discussion obscures an important question: Do these strategies even matter?

For the most part, they do not. The Bush administration’s 2002 NSS is likely the most important produced – having laid the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq – but that makes it the exception. Generally though, these documents say very little. Anthony Cordesman, a respected strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, seemed nearly apoplectic with the language used in the Obama administration’s 2015 NSS. Even by the low bar set by previous National Security Strategies, Cordesman found the Obama NSS wanting. Cordesman wrote at the time:

The National Security Strategy that President Obama issued in February 2015 was even more vacuous. It set goal after goal, some of which bordered on the ludicrous. “Lead with purpose?” What was the president doing during his first six years of office? Handle climate change, Ebola, widespread economic slowdowns, and every other conceivable goal on the president’s agenda without ever getting down to the plan, the cost, and any other specifics? “Put our economy to work?” “Shape the global economic order?” “End extreme poverty?” “Live our values?” “Empower civil society and young leaders?” The document had hundreds of goals and good intentions but no meaningful plans, programs, or budgets.

Part of the reason for the vacuity of the NSS is that the process that produces the myriad documents that are supposed to guide American strategy is more likely to inhibit creative thinking than facilitate it. The NSS is supposed to set the terms for the National Defense Strategy, produced by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Myriad programmatic guidance is supposed to flow from there.

The NSS is supposed to be produced annually. It is not. And it never has been. So what’s the point? The Pentagon continues to operate in its own flawed and inefficient manner. There is no evidence to suggest that the formal planning process has led to a more efficient national defense enterprise. The process is supposed to produce tradeoffs. Instead, the need for consensus leads to watered-down “plans” that reflect the preferences of the bureaucracy.

Management scholar Henry Mintzberg has explained why these formal planning processes ultimately fail in their objective:

[W]e conclude that the serious efforts to formalize strategy making may have proved more damaging than the frivolous ones, because they were taken more seriously. We believe there is something fundamentally wrong with formalization applied to processes like strategy making, which constitutes the grand fallacy. It has to do with the reductionist, analytical nature of planning.


Formalization is achieved through decomposition, in which a process is reduced to a procedure, a series of steps, each of which is to be specified… Whenever organizations were too large, managers too detached, or business too diverse, then strategic planning (meaning analysis) became the proposed solution: strategic processes were to be decomposed into categories of specified steps composed of formalized procedures.




Somehow the analytical techniques were going to synthesize all the dimensions into even larger and more elaborate systems. But something had to give. As the breadth of the procedures increased, they became shallower in depth. Extending the bounds of the context meant aggregating the content.

And that gets at the nub of the problem. A formal planning process does not produce better judgment about how America should pursue its national interests in international politics. Instead, formal planning reduces decision-making to procedural steps. It is debatable whether having a grand strategy is as “essential” as some proponents of the concept suggest. But mandating the production of strategy documents like the NSS will not produce one.

Containment, to take the most famous American example of a grand strategy, came into being less through a formal process than an emergent one. It did not spring forth fully formed when Kennan dictated the “Long Telegram” to his secretary at the U.S. embassy in Moscow on Feb. 22, 1946. Various documents, speeches, and events led to what came to be known as Containment. National Security Council report number 68—crafted by Paul Nitze and best known as NSC-68—was perhaps the clearest articulation of the strategy. Even then, each administration that followed Kennan and Nitze’s tenure at the State Department during Harry Truman’s presidency put their own spin on the strategy based on their own worldview and in response to events.

Strategy emerges in iterative and complex ways based on the judgment and priorities of those who make it. For all of their flaws, the policymakers who crafted America’s Cold War strategy had an understanding of the world forged in the crucible of worldwide depression and war. That they produced documents such as the “Long Telegram” or NSC-68 does not mean that the sum of the strategy they produced was contained (no pun intended) in them. Those documents merely reflected judgments at particular points in time about what served America’s interests. Unfortunately, sound judgment is not something the president has demonstrated. And no amount of planning, or document articulating the administration’s strategy, will change that.