The New National Security Strategy

The autumn and winter have been consumed with the debate about Iraq, but decisions about Iraq are part of a more comprehensive policy vision announced by the Bush administration in its National Security Statement of September 2002. Here is a summary of the major themes of the statement, a survey of selected reactions to it and a response to both.


Character and Context

The premise of the N.S.S. is that the United States faces a new security environment, one that has taken a decade of experience and analysis to understand. Indeed, one could say that N.S.S. is a response to the major policy debates of the 1990’s. Those debates included the structure of world politics, the role of the U.S. in the world, the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the legitimacy of military intervention and the role of international institutions. Each of these issues was debated intensely by foreign policy specialists, but they became public property only after Sept. 11.

The N.S.S. is a mix of normative statements and strategic analysis. In principle such an attempt at integration of moral and strategic vision is to be welcomed; it is also a demanding standard to meet. One can commend the effort, as I do, while not supporting the product. An example of the normative strategic vision is contained in the opening paragraph: “The United States possesses unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world...this position comes with unparalleled responsibilities, obligations and opportunity.” The descriptive assertion about U.S. power is true politically, strategically and economically. The normative conclusion about unparalleled responsibilities leaves more room for debate and dissent, not about thefact of the U.S. bearing responsibility for international order, buthowthese responsibilities are to beinterpretedandpursued. This debate moves directly into other statements in the N.S.S. about U.S. convictions that unilateral decision-making (beyond the accepted case of self-defense) and a pre-emptive strategic doctrine (including a reinterpretation of international law) are legitimate corollaries to the recognition of U.S. power.

The core assertions of the strategic vision include the following propositions. First, the new security challenge facing the nation is a combination of “radicalism and technology.” Second, this formula refers to the danger of terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction and/or “rogue states” willing to cooperate with terrorists. Third, the transformed security environment requires a new strategic vision based on the following ideas: (1) traditional notions of deterrence, derived from the cold war era, are no longer effective or adequate; (2) pre-emption as a strategic posture is now necessary, and international law must be redefined to accommodate this strategic posture; (3) alliances and multilateral institutions remain essential for the United States, but they cannot be a constraint on U.S. unilateral action to meet the needs of national interest or global order—as defined by the United States.

Reactions and Responses: A Selective Survey

The N.S.S. has had a catalytic effect inside and outside the United States. Four responses exemplify the debate it has created. The N.S.S. received a resounding affirmation from the Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis describes the potential of the document as a transformative text that could be “the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half a century.” He accepts the normative-strategic analysis of the text, describing its view as “right on target” with respect to new security threats, and remarkable for its Wilsonian convictions that power and moral principle can be combined by a great power. He also commends the text for providing a legal basis for pre-emption, and he finds the proposed strategy for war on Iraq fulfilling a multiplicity of desirable goals. Finally, Gaddis is willing to state explicitly what the N.S.S. never quite affirms—namely, that the strategy proposed requires American hegemony in world politics. Hegemonic stability, sustained by moral and legal claims, is possible and should be pursued.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, complements Gaddis’s endorsement of the N.S.S. in an essay that not only supports the N.S.S. in toto, but also finds criticism of it “specious” and the critics “hypocritical.” For Muravchik the value of the document lies first in its argument for the U.S. strategy of pre-emption and, where necessary, preventive war. Then the N.S.S. goes quite beyond a narrow defense of U.S. national interest; it is focused on promoting “the general good” of the world. Criticisms of U.S. unilateralism are unfounded, says Muravchik, for it is the goal of U.S. action that is the definitive test. To seek to contain the United States within the U.N. framework is to risk hypocrisy, since the former is consistently a better agent of U.N. goals than the organization itself. Muravchik has virtually no reservations about the strategy; the only open question is whether it will be effectively implemented by this administration.

To move from Muravchik to John Ikenberry, a professor of geopolitics at Georgetown, is to experience how differently the ideas of the N.S.S. are assessed by foreign policy analysts. It is the underlying ideas of the N.S.S. that must be stressed here, because Ikenberry’s analysis of the Bush strategy appeared before the N.S.S. was published. It was, however, written on the assumption that “new ideas are circulating about U.S. grand strategy and the restructuring of today’s unipolar world.” Ikenberry, like Muravchik, is willing to state his views about the new strategy without qualification: “At the extreme, these notions form a neoimperial vision in which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats, using force and meting out justice.” In response to Sept. 11 and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the United States seems ready to enforce a unipolar order of stability that will recast the notion of sovereignty, expanding its scope for the United States and relegating the sovereignty of others to conditional status. The latter move, in turn, is tied to the assumption in the new strategy that the United States will determine when sovereign rights have been forfeited and will do so on an anticipatory (pre-emptive) basis.

Unlike Muravchik, Ikenberry finds multiple risks in the new strategy that go beyond the issue of efficient execution. He judges it to be strategically unsustainable, and that it will lead the U.S. toward imperial overstretch. He finds it, in short, a mistaken and unachievable strategy.

Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard shares many of Ikenberry’s reservations about the new American strategy; noting that many in the Bush administration are self-described realists, Hoffmann contrasts the expansive strategy of the N.S.S. with the traditional realist penchant for prudence and moderation.

Hoffmann’s political and moral critique is not only that the N.S.S. is “breathtakingly unrealistic,” but also that it simply assumes the legitimacy of a role for the United States that turns the United States into a global arbitrator of right and wrong and opens the door to force without restraint. Summing up his case, he writes: “the Bush doctrine proclaims the emancipation of a colossus from international constraints.... In context it amounts to a doctrine of global domination.”

Transformation or Destabilization?

The Political Premise: Without invoking him, the N.S.S. seems to ground its strategy in Charles Krauthammer’s thesis of a “unipolar” international system. Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist and an unequivocal supporter of the Bush strategy, first proposed the idea in 1990 and has recently reaffirmed his conviction that it has swept the field of interpretations of world politics. His claim merits partial acceptance. At the level of political-military dominance, Krauthammer has always found agreement. U.S. military expenditures and force-projection capabilities dwarf those of all other states. Dissent from the thesis arises once one attends to other topics besides war and politics. As Joseph Nye has convincingly argued, the power of the United States remains unique but in need of collaboration. The N.S.S. understandably does not enter these debates, but it presumes a Krauthammer view of the world and uses it to fashion its conception of the U.S. role in the world, its unique rights on the world stage and its self-defined responsibilities.

The Moral-Legal Corollary: Under this heading lie the conclusions drawn from U.S. power and responsibilities: the rights to pre-emption, to unilateral action and to intervention. These issues can all be discussed strategically in terms of U.S. capabilities, but such discussion inevitably leads to the normative level of moral and legal questions, as has happened in the debate about Iraq. Muravchik, along with Krauthammer, questions what legitimacy the United Nations adds to a U.S. judgment about either U.S. interest or “the global good.” To quote Krauthammer: “How exactly does the Security Council confer moral authority on American action?” To invoke Muravchik: critics of U.S. unilateralism are “hypocritical” when they resist the U.S. refusal “to subordinate itself in general to the United Nations” because it is a “wholly feckless body.”

To respond, a distinction: Krauthammer is right to object to the notion that multiple actors enhance the capacity to make moral judgments; but the U.N. Charter’s primary goal is more modest. It seeks to place legal restraint on the use of force, to limit the classical right to war that sovereign states have traditionally arrogated to themselves. The legal restraints are procedural; they seek to contain the dynamic and drive toward war as a means of solving problems. Krauthammer understands this. The project of the multilateralists “is to restrain America by building an entangling web of interdependence, tying down Gulliver with myriad strings that diminish his overweening power.” To be sure, that is the case; the charter and its norms regarding the use of force are designed to place obstacles on the road to war, invoking substantive and procedural criteria. They seek to tilt the dynamic of world politics away from quick, easy, unilateral decisions to go to war. Power, even a great deal of it, is not self-justifying. Pre-emptive unilateralism is a strategic possibility; that does not make it a moral or legal right even when one invokes “the global good” as one’s purpose. 

The New Threat: All the commentators recognize the danger and challenge of transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Gaddis finds the N.S.S. definition of this threat one of the virtues of the document, including its assertion that deterrence and containment are no longer relevant. Two considerations can be raised about the N.S.S. claims. First, I agree that classical deterrence will not work against terrorists who have no stable home base; hence I supported the use of force in Afghanistan. Second, the extension of the claim that deterrence will not work against states—even rogue states—is at least open to debate. They do have addresses, assets and aspirations; all can be threatened. Deterrence and containment, configured to confront the specific differences between rogue states and great powers, does not seem a priori futile. The supporters of N.S.S., however, argue that restraint is a mistake; better to address the new threats and deal with them once and for all. Hoffmann raises the analytical question of whether the threats from terror and rogue states are the same; Ikenberry probes the normative question of the implications of shifting from defense to offense as the norm for using force.

At the heart of this debate is the question whether the transformative vision Gaddis finds in the N.S.S. erodes or enhances international restraint and stability. These conservative terms—the product of classical realism—do have modest, narrow goals. They lack the soaring claims of new rights, new responsibilities and “an unprecedented assertion of American freedom” (Krauthammer) that one finds in the N.S.S. But restraint and stability are about an understanding of managing “the anarchy” of world politics that acknowledges the persistence of conflict among states but does not endorse the idea of war as normal, natural or self-justifying. It is an ironic critique but a valid one, I believe, to say that what the Bush doctrine asserts through pre-emption and unilateralism threatens the “conservative” fabric of world politics shaped over four centuries and crystallized in the U.N. system’s recognition of sovereignty, prohibition of intervention and refusal to accommodate the unilateral use of force beyond individual or collective self-defense. Muravchik endorses the “radicality” of the N.S.S.; one may agree with his description and not share his enthusiasm.

The Right of Intervention: The clear implication in the N.S.S., and the explicit case made by the United States about Iraq, is that as the world’s dominant power, it reserves the right to guarantee strategic stability by intervening in rogue states to preclude the development of weapons of mass destruction. Two issues are at stake here. First, the scope of the nonintervention norm; many of the critics of N.S.S. were among these in the 1990’s who challenged its limits and supported interventions in Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia. The just-war historian James Turner Johnson asks where these advocates of expanded intervention are today. Others argue that there was little to support these interventions on grounds of national interest, but much to recommend intervention now to prevent proliferation.

In my view, one needs to distinguish humanitarian intervention (the cases of the 1990’s) from what might be called strategic great-power intervention. One purpose of the nonintervention norm (part of the fabric of the “conservative order” of world politics) was to reduce the possibilities of great-power conflict by taking issues of internal politics out of the category of a casus belli. The cases of the 1990’s did conflict with the nonintervention norm; indeed they illustrated the need to expand the range of exceptions to it. As one delineated those exceptions (genocide, ethnic cleansing, failed states), the question arose then, as now, whether intervention to prevent proliferation should also be classified as a justifiable exception to the norm. Clearly it is not a case of humanitarian intervention; but if the norm is not absolute, should “counterproliferation” be an exception?

This raises the second issue: changing strategies to address proliferation. Given the danger of weapons of mass destruction, I judge that a case for intervention is possible, but it involves a different set of criteria than humanitarian intervention. While the cause has weight as an exception to the nonintervention norm, moral issues of proper authority and last resort, as well as political-legal issues of establishing dangerous precedents for invoking nonproliferation as a basis for intervention remain unresolved.

Here we join the intervention, pre-emption and unilateralism issues in one problem. Nonproliferation policy for over 30 years has been multilateral at its core; it has also been primarily a diplomatic strategy. The N.S.S. vision moves in the direction of a counterproliferation model in which the United States is advocate, judge and enforcer, multilaterally if possible, but unilaterally if necessary. This vision of coercive nonproliferation is a significant shift in style and substance for the nonproliferation regime. It may be necessitated because of the new context of weapons of mass destruction, but the accommodation of the shift will require a different model than that of one state as the architect and agent of enforcement. Both nonintervention as a norm and nonproliferation as a regime require multilateral governance. It is not inconsistent to endorse humanitarian interventions and to distinguish those from the decision on Iraq. Iraq may be the first test of the N.S.S., but the reach of this strategic vision requires debate, evaluation and continued assessment beyond the case of Iraq.

14 years 2 months ago
An excellent essay, but one question remains: what is the USA to do if multilateral organizations refuse to implement a new nonproliferation strategy? Then it seems that a unilateral response would be necessary.

14 years 2 months ago
An excellent essay, but one question remains: what is the USA to do if multilateral organizations refuse to implement a new nonproliferation strategy? Then it seems that a unilateral response would be necessary.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Greg Hicks as "Richard III" (photo: Alex Brenner)
It would be fascinating were the producers able to arrange a quick transfer to a venue somewhere near the White House.
David StewartMay 26, 2017
In the hyper-curated, beautiful world that Dev lives in, a scene that conveys the touching, ugly stubbornness of marriage seems totally impossible.
Eloise BlondiauMay 26, 2017
This image released by the Minya governorate media office shows bodies of victims killed when gunmen stormed a bus in Minya, Egypt, Friday, May 26, 2017 (Minya Governorate Media office via AP).
The attack in central Egypt today killed at least 26 people, including children aged 2 to 4, and wounded 25 others.
Gerard O'ConnellMay 26, 2017
The data and facts are clear: If you care about working families and sound economic policy, SNAP is the program for you.
Meghan J. ClarkMay 26, 2017