NSS: Lighter than “Lite”

by Tom Donnelly

Having just slogged my way through the Obama National Security Strategy, I’m naturally in a grumpy mood: such “texts” are too often created first and foremost to obfuscate rather than clarify.  So to summon the energy to blog about the NSS, I’ll borrow some literary caffeine from Peter Feaver over at Shadow Government.

As you will see if you follow the link, Peter’s take is that there is a good deal of consistency between the Obama and Bush doctrines, and that the media gas over the renunciation of “preventive war” evaporates in the light of day.  That’s true, but perhaps Peter misses the forest for the trees — or simply has to defend himself within the precincts of the faculty lounge at Duke.

By contrast, I see a very deep divide between our current president and his predecessor, a fundamental difference of opinion about international politics and even human nature.  Simply put, Barack Obama believes progress can be achieved through cooperation among nations through the realm of diplomacy while George Bush believes progress can be achieved despite conflict, which is the realm of armed strength.  Both men profess the universality of American political principles, but have divergent views about how to carry American Exceptionalism abroad.

George Bush famously wanted to build “a balance of power that favors freedom.”  As a conservative and realist, he understood international politics as a competition for power, as one would expect from creatures fallen from a state of grace.  Like Jefferson, he wanted to create an “empire for liberty,” to employ power — paradoxically — to promote freedom.

In the NSS, Barack Obama claims that, “power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.”  Through collective action with other states — not “great powers” but “key centers of influence” — we can achieve “cooperative solutions.”  This method appeals in large degree because Obama has a more expansive understanding of “security” — beyond any particular political arrangement, he includes pandemic disease, prosperity and, above all, climate change.  Obama wants to build a balance of influence that favors sustainable living.

With different ends in mind, and with a preference for cooperative means, Obama imagines an international system marked by rule-setting negotiations, more likely to be self-enforcing because “key influencers” will have agreed to terms, accepting less-than-ideal solutions because they buy into a legitimate process.  They will accept responsibilities as well as assert rights.

What is consistent from Bush to Obama, as it was from Clinton to Bush and George H.W. Bush to Clinton, was an assertion of the need for American international leadership.  And, in practice, Obama continues to employ the traditional tools of power and statecraft, including military power, at least to fulfill the policy commitments he inherited.  When it comes to his home-grown agenda, on nuclear weapons and climate change, for example, he’s employing the “soft power” tools he has imagined.  How truly effective they prove to be is still to be seen, but the administration is acting on the presumption of success — particularly by cashing in a “soft-power dividend,” since in a time of two wars you can’t rally call defense-spending cuts a “peace dividend.”

But leadership through other means may not really be leadership.  If anything, the demand for American security guarantees is growing.  Bringing only soft power to a hard-power world would indeed be a big change.

(flickr/Official White House photo by Pete Souza)