United States: Where’s the Strategy?
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United States: Where’s the Strategy?

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In our troubled times, the White House’s imminent publication of its National Security Strategy might warrant some buzz—if not at the level of a new iPhone release or a Super Bowl commercial, at least that of a major presidential policy address. So where’s that buzz? A clue can be found in Bob Gates’ dismissive account in his memoirs: “Personally, I don’t recall ever having read the President’s National Security Strategy when preparing to become Secretary of Defense…. I never felt disadvantaged by not having read these scriptures.”

President Barack Obama may yet surprise in his second National Security Strategy document, expected any day. But recent history suggests that, whatever the document’s other merits, it won’t actually contain a strategy. Nor the plausible vision for which such a strategy would aim.

In recent years, Washington’s National Security Strategies have been a cross between laundry list—the many activities in which the U.S. is presently engaged—and wish list—numerous additional activities it behooves the nation to undertake, and the goals they support. It’s no doubt useful to have, in one place, a list of the president’s goals in important domains (such as a homeland secure from WMD attack, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and a competitive and growing economy that can support a prominent global role); and a list of many things the government is doing and intends to do in support of those goals. But this isn’t strategy.

A serious national strategy would start from a cold-blooded assessment of the global landscape, and of the most likely (but unknowable) futures that may emerge. It would also start from an equally dispassionate assessment of the nation’s capabilities—its strengths and weaknesses—and how these may plausibly change over time.

It would prioritize ruthlessly among the many desirable policy goals; as strategy scholar Richard Rumelt has put it, “Good strategy works by focusing attention and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes….”  A genuine strategy would address head-on the inevitable hard choices and tradeoffs to be made in the pursuit of the most-high value objectives; as strategy guru Michael Porter has emphasized, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

Moreover, a serious strategy would link these hard choices to budgetary consequences. The strategy would also scrutinize commitments made long ago, in different circumstances—including alliances—to ensure that they remain value-creating for the U.S. And it would anticipate other actors’ likely responses—and systemic reverberations—arising from the contemplated U.S. actions, starting from a deep understanding of those actors’ perceived interests and steering clear of overly sanguine assumptions.

And this strategy would explicitly support an achievable—and articulable—vision of the future.

The Obama 2010 National Security Strategy—like many of its predecessors—fell well short on these criteria. It contained little in the way of alternative futures—despite the National Intelligence Council’s extensive work on this. Perhaps most conspicuously, the 2010 NSS left a reader with the impression that China was (and was expected to be) nothing more than a “21st century center of influence” on par with India and Russia. While the 2010 NSS correctly emphasized that rebuilding the American economy and its competitiveness would be essential to global leadership, it simply listed the “to-dos” (improve education, get fiscal house in order, and so on) on the agenda—without considering a scenario in which a sizable gap between U.S. and competitor growth rates persists for many years.

There is little in the 2010 NSS that would offend or disappoint anyone, save for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “Axis of Evil” governments. Part of Gates’ thinly veiled disdain for the generic NSS was, he noted, the fact that it was the outcome of a bureaucratic process in which many cooks needed to sign off on the broth. That reality—together with the fact that the NSS is prepared for Congress under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and released to the public—makes it an inherently political document, inclining presidents to steer clear of controversy. It’s not surprising that a serious strategy statement is unlikely to emerge from this process.

The problem for the nation, though, is far bigger than a poorly titled document. After all, there could be a classified version of the NSS that would do, strategy-wise, what the public NSS doesn’t. While the Goldwater-Nichols Act calls on the President to submit both a classified and unclassified version of the document, there’s no indication that any administration has produced a classified version in recent years. We suspect that, if a classified version existed, it would be in the White House’s interest to acknowledge it (as it does many other classified documents that don’t get released to the public).

Of course, there can be a full-fledged strategy without a document memorializing it; and in the era of WikiLeaks, there is risk in reducing anything to writing. But can Americans be confident that there’s a strategy—something befitting the title “National Security Strategy”—anywhere in the White House, even if it’s unwritten and resides in a small number of senior officials’ heads?

We are skeptical, for one principal reason. The formulation of a coherent, holistic National Security Strategy would almost certainly require a substantial process. And had such deliberations taken place, we believe the Administration would have made the public aware of that fact—as it did in enabling, as one example, The New York Times’ extensive reporting on the Obama Administration’s deliberations leading to the troop surge in Afghanistan.

Perhaps not since the Eisenhower Administration’s “Project Solarium” has a White House deliberated extensively at the “grand strategic” level as part of a structured process. We believe this is a serious mistake.

Crises from all corners of the globe come flying at presidents, and these shouldn’t be managed on an ad hoc and best efforts basis. Washington’s actions should be informed by a strategic concept in which a president has conviction and confidence—derived not from in-the-moment intuition, but from first-rate strategic thinking.

What would that process look like?  It would create space for the president and his senior national security team to step back from the crises du jour: to raise questions rarely asked, challenge unexamined assumptions and “sacred cows,” draw on the best data from varied sources, hear unconventional perspectives, think creatively, reflect, and prioritize. In doing so, the White House can take some cues from other governments, and from the private sector.

Singapore, for example, has devoted impressive attention to national strategy. It employs diverse teams of civil servants—individuals with backgrounds ranging from computer science to fiction writing—to think rigorously about alternative futures and analyze data for signals about national risks and opportunities. The city-state’s Strategic Policy Office, located in the Prime Minister’s Office, is employed to “manage the commons” of futures thinking taking place throughout the government and create useful decision-making tools—like national scenarios, serious games, and SWOT analyses—for senior leaders.

And, as we proposed in an article in Foreign Policy in 2012, a new Chief Strategy Officer role could be adapted from the corporate sector—not a Kissingerian “grand strategist,” but rather a process-focused individual charged with owning and managing the strategy formulation process. This process would facilitate the president’s and senior team’s ability to draw on all relevant analytical tools and perspectives, to challenge assumptions, and to identify blind-spots in national strategy development. The appointment of a CSO would address a core problem with strategy development in the U.S. government: that nobody below the president—who has a fair amount on his plate—or the national security advisor—often consumed with crisis management—actually “owns” the responsibility to orchestrate whole-of-government strategy.

Obama recently told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that he’s not interested in a new grand strategy, adding “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” While he may not need a grand strategist, like most presidents he could use better process for asking and answering core questions about the nation’s direction. Americans can live with a published National Security Strategy that disappoints. But they will be hurt if the White House lets itself make new high-stakes decisions—or mindlessly perpetuate old ones—without the benefit of a clear and achievable guiding vision and the best possible strategic thinking.

Andy Zelleke is the MBA Class of 1962 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Justin Talbot Zorn is a legislative director on Capitol Hill, and researched public sector strategic planning as a Fulbright Scholar in Singapore. 

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