The Biden administration on Wednesday released its much-anticipated National Security Strategy (NSS). The document was supposed to appear late last year, but the U.S. government held back in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Why does the U.S. have a National Security Strategy?
In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, which mandated that the president deliver a comprehensive annual “national security strategy report.” Congress hoped the reports would push the president to communicate U.S. strategic interests to the American people.
It took the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 for presidents to produce reports with any regularity. The first official NSS came during the Reagan administration. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were the only presidents to come close to meeting the annual mandate. The Trump administration released a single NSS, in December 2017.
Who writes the NSS?
The NSS is supposed to represent the president’s vision. It is typically written by the National Security Council. Early drafts are likely to be the work of a small team. In some cases, the document becomes associated with a few key individuals.
For example, Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of defense, is closely associated with the Bush administration’s 2002 NSS. Likewise, news reports claim it was Nadia Schadlow, the senior director for strategy on the Trump White House National Security Council, who was largely responsible for the last NSS, in 2017, which may explain why that document’s language seemed inconsistent with Trump’s own public proclamations. Although it is written by a small group, the NSS gets plenty of input from other departments before its release.
Who is the audience for the NSS?
Despite Congress’s intention that the NSS speak to the American people, there is little evidence that the document attracts much public attention. But the NSS does speak to three key audiences.
First, there is Congress. The strategy provides guidance to lawmakers, who are tasked with translating the president’s national security priorities into the budgeting process. For that reason, even senators in Biden’s own party expressed frustration with the delayed NSS. As the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee explained, the NSS is needed to “give us insight into how much to fund and where to fund.”
Biden’s emphasis on economic investment as an instrument of great-power competition is reflected in Congress’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. It is also a key driver of the Chips and Science Act, which authorized $280 billion for the development of the semiconductor industry.
Second, the document provides guidance to other bureaucracies within the executive branch. The Department of Defense, for example, uses the NSS as the foundation for its main strategic report, the National Defense Strategy. The NSS outlines broad strategic objectives, and the National Defense Strategy translates these into the military planning required for force structures, force modernization, and required human and material resources.
Likewise, one of the goals outlined in this year’s NSS is to increase “connective tissue — on technology, trade and security — between our democratic allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.” This goal will guide the Department of Commerce in thinking of ways to use the Chips Act to ensure U.S. leadership in technology. And this goal buoys efforts by the State Department to form private-public partnerships with Silicon Valley.
Third, the NSS communicates U.S. commitments to international audiences. Biden’s NSS proclaims that “a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” It names China as a major strategic competitor and says the United States will continue to contain Russia. It simultaneously promises to pursue competition in an order that is “inclusive” and not divided between autocracies and democracies — a signal that the Biden administration will seek partners across ideological divides.
Does the NSS matter?
Effective grand strategies, the research suggests, should clearly define a nation’s interests and identify threats to those interests — along with how the administration intends to mobilize to address those threats. The NSS is rarely if ever that specific. Indeed, one critic dismissed the NSS as a “rhetorical exercise, characterized by grandiose ambitions and laundry lists of priorities,” rather than an actual exercise in grand strategy.
But the NSS can still reveal some important facts about a president’s grand strategy. And, not surprising, the document shows important shifts between administrations. This isn’t shocking when the presidency changes parties, when we expect to see a change in national security priorities.
What is more interesting is how the NSS reveals shifts within a single party. The 2022 NSS proclamation that the “Post-Cold War era is definitively over” signals a clear move away from the globalization and engagement strategies of the Clinton administration. There is little mention of Afghanistan. The NSS also suggests that the Biden administration is willing to step back from free trade if it hinders the United States’ ability to compete with China.
The NSS can also point out where there might be arguments about grand strategy within an administration. For example, there is considerable tension within Biden’s NSS over whether U.S. grand strategy will prioritize competition between autocratic and democratic nations, or whether the Biden administration will seek broad cooperation on global challenges — climate change and pandemics, for example.
Finally, while skeptics are correct about the NSS being light on details, it does provide the mobilizing language that makes grand strategy possible. To implement a grand strategy successfully means explaining why a country’s interests and instruments are legitimate. If a president fails to do so, the administration will have difficulty persuading audiences at home and abroad to support U.S. foreign policy. The NSS may be a rhetorical exercise, but it is a necessary one. It is a way for presidents to tell a cohesive story about how the country will secure its ambitions.
Stacie Goddard (@segoddard) is Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science and Paula Phillips Bernstein ’58 Faculty Director of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College. She is the author of “When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order” (Cornell University Press, 2018).