“It is a rather dramatic departure from the most recent prior national security strategy,” Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview.
- First, Obama re-establishes the war against violent extremism (terrorism) as just one of several priorities rather than the focal point.
- Nuclear weapons remain the greatest threat, but cyber violence, climate change, and reliance on oil are also important issues.
- For an expert's view on this document, especially on AQ, see Lynch.
- Second, Obama does not put pre-emption at the forefront. Apparently, it is neither ruled in nor ruled out.
- Third, it acknowledges the limits of American power: “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama writes in the introduction of the strategy being released on Thursday. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”
- IR types will love the focus on over-extension bringing back the discussions of the 1990's with the Rise and Fall of Great Powers (Paul Kennedy). Obama emphasizes, like Kennedy and others, the economic bases of power.
- And this leads to a more favorable attitude towards multilateral efforts. Given the hostility of the early Bush administration to any multilateralism, it is hard not to be more favorable.
The fundamental logic is apparently a re-realization of the security dilemma--that unilateral acts to improve one's security threaten others, leading them to respond by trying to increase their security, leading all feeling more threatened.
The next step for IR scholars is then to try to parse this out and figure out if Obama is a realist or a liberal or something else. First, to be clear, he is realistic and pragmatic--but that does not necessarily make him a realist. People like to juxtapose realism and idealism, but that is an old distinction that is rarely useful. It is infrequent that you get leaders who do not weigh costs and benefits but try to impose their ideas on reality without thinking through the politics. Sure, that would describe the Bush Administration, but few others. The Reagan Administration talked that kind of talk, but was actually run by folks who thought about costs and benefits.
The differences between realists and liberals are about the nature of anarchy (what does an absence of world government mean) and, from that, the nature of the national interest. By recognizing the complexity of interests, Obama is much closer to classical Liberalism than Realism. The nod to maintaining military superiority would push him back the other way. The funny thing is maintaining military superiority may be least realistic given the dynamics of technological change, the growth in the Chinese economy, the resistance in the US to higher taxes to pay for both the social side of things and high defense budgets, etc. Indeed, I suspect that the military superiority line is a bit of an outlier from President Obama's priorities and is inserted there to satisfy various domestic audiences (the Republicans, the military, the Congress that likes military-flavored pork for their districts).
Of course, we need to be honest about how much multilateralism buys us at a time where there are now more American troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq and that even the most powerful multilateral institution (NATO) is revealed to be very limited (see the Steve and Dave book coming out in a year or two).
Still., I will take a reasoned analysis about reality than the dreams of those who find reality to be an inconvenience. I will always remember the military dictum from my year in the Pentagon: intel drives policy. That is, an understanding of the facts on the ground should drive decisions, not the other way around.