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How can national security strategy documents work best? A response to Stephen Walt

October 6, 2009

Although his blog entry seems overly negative, Professor Stephen Walt makes a good point that the National Security Strategy documents mandated by Goldwater-Nichols haven’t resulted in something terribly useful to the presidency, Congress, or the public in general.

Consider timeliness. An administration is supposed to issue the strategy within 150 days of coming into office, and annually thereafter. Most never make the deadline and are lucky to get a security strategy published in the first term. A better system would be for an administration to issue a strategy once every four years and only after it has had a chance to put together its national security team. Issuance within 365 days makes more sense and would be more in line with actual practice. A national security review that names threats, proposes assumptions, and identifies opportunities is something that can be done on an annual basis and should feed the national strategy.

Now let’s look at content. Most strategies have been rhetorical documents with lists of goals lacking priority order, identification of advantages over adversaries, or practical considerations such as resources available. So, in their present form, they aren’t really strategies at all. A real national security strategy with unclassified and classified portions that provide selected assumptions, weigh resources, identify opportunities, and establish priorities would help most administration decision-makers stay on track. Officials below the principal-level who have rare encounters with the president or their own leadership would find such guidance helpful. Congress would find it more useful too, because it would provide better justification for legislation.

Professor Walt also suggests that strategies ought not be made public at all. A bit extreme, but there is good reason to have, at least, classified and unclassified versions. There are some actions our government may not want to broadcast. But that doesn’t mean that there should be no political guidance, or that subordinate officials should be kept in the dark. Going that far would exacerbate an existing vulnerability, that (outside of DoD) we don’t strategize or plan well. Doing away with a requirement for a national security strategy would enshrine that weakness.

Instead, the national security strategy needs to be less a square-filler and more of a document that provides analysis and guidance. Not long and ponderous, but sufficient to direct the national security bureaucracy to implement presidential policies according to resources we have, opportunities before us, and against dangers that we think may threaten. Since the primary purpose of our government is to protect its citizens and their way of life, blowing off writing a strategy—just because it hasn’t been done well in the past—would be a serious mistake.”

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson is a Distinguished Fellow with PNSR, leading the organization’s development of Strategy and Resource research and recommendations. Prior to Joining PNSR, Johnson was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs. His views are not necessarily representative of PNSR’s.

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