WASHINGTON — For the first time in almost five years, the White House has released a new National Security Strategy that makes the case for American leadership in a world in which terrorist threats and Great Power politics share equal billing as national security threats.
The new strategy comes as the Obama administration enters the final two years of its stewardship and prepares to hand off its foreign policy legacy to the next Democratic nominee for president.
The congressionally mandated strategy was unable to hide from the almost hopelessly outdated May 2010 version, released just months before a series of seismic events transformed thinking about US national security.
In early 2010, the Arab Spring had not yet roiled the capitals of major Middle East powers, Russia was still years from annexing Crimea and beginning its shadow war in eastern Ukraine, the bloody attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was still two years away, the leadership of what is now the Islamic State terrorist network were disparate small bands of Islamists and Iraqi Baathists with no common cause, and few knew who Kim Jung-un was, let alone were preparing for him to come to power in North Korea in 2011.
"It's pretty clear that they have to acknowledge that the security situation has changed greatly" since 2010, said Julianne Smith, director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
"Great power politics is back" Smith said, noting that as Washington struggles to meet the geopolitical demands of a more muscular Russian and Chinese foreign policy, it is also making the case for a robust US leadership role in assembling groups of nations to act collectively in the diplomatic, economic and military spheres in order to take the burden off of Washington to spend its own blood and treasure policing the world's commons.
While the administration made much in its 2010 document of the certainty of the coming withdrawal from Iraq and the temporary ramping up in Afghanistan, the ground has shifted greatly in the ensuing five years.
About 3,100 US troops recently deployed to Iraq to help train and equip local security forces, while the American commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan has temporarily been arrested at 10,600 troops on its way to about 5,000 by the end of this year.
Despite those lingering deployments and the 2,200 airstrikes the US and its allies have conducted in Iraq and Syria since August — 1,800 of which have come from American aircraft — President Barack Obama writes in his new strategy document that "we have moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade."
"This is not the security landscape they thought they would have in year six" of their administration, CNAS' Smith said of the Obama administration. Admitting that Iraq and Afghanistan are still contested spaces "is a tough line for them, but they have to admit that they are still engaged" in finding a solution to both policy problems.
One striking difference from the 2010 document is the tone the administration takes in its comments about Russia. While in 2010, the White House was still working and building some sort of partnership with Moscow, the new document signals the seriousness with which the White House views Russian actions over the past year.
"Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity — as well as its belligerent stance toward other neighboring countries — endangers international norms that have largely been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War," the administration wrote.
But one thing that has survived — and even been amplified — from the previous paper is the power of alliances and the role the United States must play in putting together coalitions to confront terrorists, nonstate aggressors, great power overreach and humanitarian efforts across the globe.
In other words, the Obama administration's six-year quest to make sure that allies are stepping up to share the burden of protecting their regional security needs will not go away.
"That will remain a key focus for them," Smith added, "because of the added emphasis on how indispensable US leadership is in the world."
But there are some real questions about how much the document — or any national security strategy — can actually articulate some of the national security concerns out there. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, the paper comes out just four days after the administration "just put out a real document on national defense called the FY16 budget … how does this build on that or reflect that?"
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Feb. 6 to introduce the strategy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the strategy document is larger than that. "Fundamentally, it's a strategy to strengthen the foundations of America's power — political, economic and military — and to sustain American leadership in this new century," she said.
The document is a "blueprint for what we intend to get done" during the last two years of the administration, she added. "From degrading [the Islamic State] and opposing Russian aggression, to leaving behind a world that can more effectively meet the dangers of climate change and disease, cyber threats and extreme poverty."
With defense and entitlement spending fights high on the agenda in the coming months for a Republican-controlled Congress openly hostile to the president's foreign policy instincts, the Obama administration will likely need to rely on those international alliances it touted so highly in order to push its global agenda.