United States: Where’s the Strategy?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

United States: Where’s the Strategy?


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. 

February 9, 2014 at 20:14

The original article is correct. Every country needs a National Strategy, vision, to ensure that all its resources are concentrated towards achieving best situation for citizens. Alas very few politicians are prepared to commit and public opinion and academia cannot MAKE it happen. The National strategy is an aspiration as to what each country wants to be in the World. As such it should be a non partisan document of about 3 pages.

February 8, 2014 at 20:53

A weak liberal like Obama cannot master a strategy. “Head in the sand” appears to work well for his re-election. When he leaves in 3 years, a Truman-like and hopefully republican should come and mend the massive damage to the nation and the world that he will leave behind.

February 8, 2014 at 13:16

“Where there is no vision, the people perish”, Pr 29:18. There is no strategy because there is no vision. This is a nation selling its children’s future for a few days of quiet solitude. It is a nation where labor participation rates are dropping like a rock falling into a bottomless chasm. It is a nation where the rationale for a broken medicare system is so people don’t have to work. It is a nation where food stamps are used to “stimulate the economy”. It is not sustainable.

Let’s be clear… for a nation to merely survive, everyone has to work… It astonishes me how so many people can be on unemployment for so many years and achieve nothing… How can people be on “paid leave” for so long and achieve nothing… With the Internet and so many opportunities…

Joe C.
February 8, 2014 at 08:12

Very few referenced or cited facts, numbers, or data in the article.

For the real deal please see; “A United National Security Strategy” (2013) by Richard J. Campbell at scribd.

Joe C.

February 7, 2014 at 10:40

American strategy has always been to destabilise the world, then step in as the “policeman.” Rinse & repeat.

February 7, 2014 at 10:30

All empires collapse. USA is no exception.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
February 7, 2014 at 08:56

No strategy is preferable to bad strategy. Also the US, by virtue of its position, must necessarily be reactive sometimes. As the writers note:

“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..”

Sometimes there is no choice but to handle them on an ad hoc basis. Not every contingency can be anticipated.

I have more confidence in the Pentagon than I have in US elected officials. So I hope someone is thinking strategically somewhere in that building.

As usual, Jen Whitten is correct. When the PLA kills Americans, I think the American public’s mood will change fast. We’ll see.

Y Strategy
February 7, 2014 at 07:35

Why does the diplomat insist on a strategy? Sometimes it’s better to wade the river by feel the rocks and engage in realpolitik.

February 6, 2014 at 13:21

There is actually little America can do to influence the direction of the world. America is no longer so rich and powerful that it can fight many wars at the same time. America cannot even fight more than one war with a minor country at any one time. So what’s the point of having a “grand security strategy” if America does not have the economic and military wherewithal to implement the strategy. Obama is correct in assessing that he does not need a grand strategy. Or the best grand strategy for America is to go back to the fundamentals of rebuilding its education and economy. Only with the most advanced technologies and the biggest economy can America deploy the most powerful military to ensure its security.

But unfortunately, no matter how much America advanced its education it cannot exceed the number of scientists and engineers China can produce. And America simply cannot create an economy anywhere close to the size of China when it (China) reached its full potential. It will be China with the most advanced technologies and the biggest economy ($100 trillion at 2010 purchasing power to America’s $15 trillion). Therefore, China’s military will be many times more powerful than America. Faced with that kind of disparity, the only thing America can do to enhance its security is to maintain a friendly relations with China both to preclude getting into a hostile situation with China and to cooperate with China to maintain a harmonious world.

But if Obama tried to play off China against Japan in a divide and conquer strategy then it will end up hurting itself. For example, Japan is now petitioning UNESCO to include some 333 letters and suicide notes left behind by Kamikaze pilots as world heritage. These will be placed next to Anne Frank’s Diary. I’m sure most people will see the bizarreness of this. It is like putting HItler’s “Mein Kampf” next to “Declaration of Independence”. Americans should be reminded that Kamikaze pilots attacked American ships and not Chinese ships. So the fact that Japnese rightists are now brazensly trying to include Kamikaze pilots’ suicide letters as part of world heritage shows how much Obama has fallen in the estimation of the Japanese people. So, Obama and America should be paying more attention to things like these before they become too much for them to manage. These are the things Obama and America should consider as they cobble together their “grand strategy”.

Jen Whitten
February 6, 2014 at 20:06

“if Obama tried to play off China against Japan in a divide and conquer strategy”

I think the US is keeping a remarkably low profile because they really don’t want a war between China and Japan. The US has a defense treaty with Japan which the Secretary of Defense has said it covers the Senkakus. The US public are feeling isolationist at the moment as a result of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan adventures and they would prefer that China and Japan sort out their differences between them. But the US will lose all credibility if it fails to stand by it’s treaty partners and I think any clash at the Senkakus will see Chinese and US forces facing off. The American public will abandon isolationism the moment an American loses his life as a result of hostile action. That may be something the Communist Party does not understand and that misunderstanding could lead to war.

American’s contradiction
February 7, 2014 at 07:17

American’s grand security strategy is “leading from behind” to hot contain and hostile encircle China for the benefit its former nemesis that killed American with lunatic Kamikaze soldiers at the expenses of its former ally that saved American soldier lives.

If American dog let the Japanese tail wags it and get involved a war with China caused by the Japanese, China is fighting for its survival and it’s a just war, while American is assisting an unrepented war criminal to embark on a fascist conquest that it has not completed since Meiji time, consequently American is an evil accomplice. As Nuremberg Trials shown that American cannot escape the guilty charge of waging aggressive and ruthless war by claiming it has a defense treaty with Japan.

Since USA is not fighting a just war, it will be defeated; this is something that the American does not understand because they have forgotten what WWII was for and the lessons of Nuremberg Trails. USA has let its imperialist greed overcome its conscience and has turned to the dark side like that unrepented war criminal.

February 8, 2014 at 08:17

Jen Whitten @ Liang1a:
The American public will abandon isolationism the moment an American loses his life as a result of hostile action. That may be something the Communist Party does not understand and that misunderstanding could lead to war.

Liang’s response:
Bravely said. But what are you going to fight with? China will begin patrolling the Pacific with its Jin-Class SSBN (Type 094) of which China has at least 3 and will probably deploy more in 2014. China has also been expected to be developing Type 096 nuclear powered missile submarines which are said to be even quieter and can dive even deeper than the American Ohio Class SSBN. China also has deployed at least hundreds of nuclear warheads on ICBMs such as DF-31 and DF-31A. China also has DF-21D anti-ship missiles. And recently America announced that China had successfully tested a hypersonic missile designated the WU-14 that can hit aircraft carriers from thousands of km away. (America failed all its tests for hypersonic missiles.) So do you even understand what it means for the US to go to war against any country with so much firepower? China had defeated America in Korea more than 60 years ago when it (China) had practically no weapons. Now China has even superior weapons than America. It is you who should look more carefully and understand what is going on. It is one thing to talk bravely. It is another thing entirely to walk into a buzz saw. Stop living in the past and start living in the new reality.

February 7, 2014 at 15:36

@Liang1a No way will China’s economy ever hit or come close to $100 trillion. Keep dreaming. You must be from China. China will never be America, regardless of population or its growing economy.

People die everyday trying to come to the USA, not China. People who talk bad about the US have never been here.

The truth is, China and other countries are scared of America. The media twist it all up. They’re scared of the USA.

February 8, 2014 at 05:46

MrBojangles @ Liang1a:
February 7, 2014 at 15:36
@Liang1a No way will China’s economy ever hit or come close to $100 trillion. Keep dreaming. You must be from China. China will never be America, regardless of population or its growing economy.

People die everyday trying to come to the USA, not China. People who talk bad about the US have never been here.

The truth is, China and other countries are scared of America. The media twist it all up. They’re scared of the USA.

Liang’s response:
All logical evidence point to the inevitability that Chinese economy will ultimately exceed the American economy. In fact, Chinese economy has ALREADY exceeded the American economy. Why? China’s yuan economy has reached some 56 trillion yuan in 2013. At 6 yuan per dollar of nominal value this is only $9.3 trillion. But at 3 yuan per dollar of PPP value, the same 56 trillion yuan is equivalent to $18.6 trillion or some $3 trillion more than America’s $15.5 trillion. But as China’s technologies develops it will increase the productivity of the Chinese workers so that they will ultimately be as productive as the American workers. (China has to shift its development from exports of cheap labor products which is a “low income trap” to expanding services for the consumption of the Chinese people which will allow Chinese income to rise as high as their productivity.) This is nothing but simple logic. And when Chinese workers are as productive as American workers then the per capita GDP of China will be some $50,000 the same as that of America’s per capita GDP. With a population of 1.5 billion (2040), China’s total GDP will be some $75 trillion. But it is likely that Chinese workers will be at least 1/3 more productive than American workers. Why? Because by 2040, America’s population will be some 50% black and Latino who under-perform the American national average by some 1/3 while Chinese-Americans over-perform the American average by some 1/3. Since Chinese in China can be expected to perform just as well as the Chinese in America, Chinese workers on the average will perform 1/3 more than American workers. Therefore, China’s total GDP can be expected to be some $100 trillion based on $66,000 of per capita GDP ($66,000 is 1/3 higher than $50,000). Therefore, China’s economy can be expected to reach $100 trillion and some 6 to 7 times bigger than the American economy.

As to Chinese wanting to come to the US, this trend is slowing as the economy of China rises while the economy of America stagnates. Chinese who came to the US are now disillusioned at the shabby quality of American life. More Chinese students now are returning to China due to the lack of employment opportunities in the US while employment opportunities expand rapidly in China especially in the high tech R&D.

Those who think China is a horrible place to live has not kept up with the development of China. They still think of China as it was 30 years ago while China has changed dramatically and will continue to change for the better into the next 30 years. Therefore, Americans’ self-congratulatory claim of superiority is unfounded and anachronistic.

Those Chinese who criticize the US the most are the ones who have lived a long time in the US. Those who think the US is a paradise are those who know nothing about the reality of American way of life. Now the only Chinese who still want to come to the US are the corrupt officials and criminals who can’t spend their illegitimate money in China and fear for arrest and long jail term.

February 11, 2014 at 05:31


“Those Chinese who criticize the US the most are the ones who have lived a long time in the US. Those who think the US is a paradise are those who know nothing about the reality of American way of life. Now the only Chinese who still want to come to the US are the corrupt officials and criminals who can’t spend their illegitimate money in China and fear for arrest and long jail term.”

Count me as one of those Overseas Chinese who spent time in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. The American Dream goes like this: you are free to become a slave to money and then you must be brave enough to die for those have the most money. U.S.A. is going downhill fast; the rich and powerful knows it. That’s why they looting the U.S. as fast as they can.

February 6, 2014 at 07:04

This is true that that we do not see any strategy from US for sometimes. Not on economy, defense or even foreign policy. It still stick to the usual one that often show the world of it common practice of double standard even in their State Department interpretion of human rights.

Time have gone and pass and yet they still maintain the old standard and policy of running a country into the future. What a shame even China changes faster than the US almost in every term. If US stubornly refuse to acknowledge the facts in no time it will lack behind even those from the third world countries. At present it is the 1st world economy status that is holding them but as soon as it losses that status the eventually will come to the US.

With some many strategists, economists, etc it is hard to believe that there are no effective strategy in place as the world can see is what they have not seen one for a long time that is really effective, workable and indeed make sense.
One year on, even their pivot to Asia is slowly and surely beginning to crumple and so are the TPP trade pacts

American Exceptionalist
February 6, 2014 at 06:51

USA national security strategy is be the king of law of jungle via bombing and killing on the moral high ground.

February 6, 2014 at 05:48

I’m not really sure what to expect out of Obama administration. Does he ever have had a chip on his shoulder? Was that bow to Saudi king not just a coincidence? One thing certain is he will be the judged as the president who watched China rolling over U.S. and its allies over and over again without taking any action.

American's burden
February 6, 2014 at 23:30

Nobody is taking USA for granted and nobody is rolling over USA except the unrepented war criminal. As long as American regards resistance is aggression and independence is rolling over USA, with the unrepented war criminal at its side to bad mouthing everybody to achieve its master of Asia dream, USA will feel not being respected.

BTW reporters take millions of picture at any event; they will post one of the millions to suit their agenda. Obama was at the receiving end of those diehard neo-cons, so that picture was shown, perhaps the Saudi king’s bowing was not synch with Obama’s.

February 5, 2014 at 21:37


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