Continuing what has become a well-established quadrennial ritual, US President Barack Obama last month released his first National Security Strategy (NSS). The document, which provides the strategic framework for the principles and priorities of the Obama administration, is meant for two audiences: global players—both state and non-state actors—and US domestic actors, particularly the bureaucracy, which takes its cue and guidance from the strategy document.
Though the current administration’s first NSS is seen as a distinct break from the past and reflects the improved image of the US worldwide, including in India, there is in fact a remarkable degree of continuity with the last NSS document that the George W. Bush government released in 2006. Both, for instance, consider proliferation of nuclear weapons as the greatest threat; both give top priority to waging a global campaign against Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates (though Obama’s NSS has dropped the oxymoronic phrase “global war on terror”); and both acknowledge that while the US will continue to provide global leadership, it can no longer carry the burden of all global challenges by itself and will build cooperation with other centres of influence, notably members of the Group of 20 (G-20) in general, and Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa in particular, to share (or shed) some of Washington’s onerous responsibilities.
This last assertion reflects an inherent tension between the growing recognition in Washington of the limits of its global leadership and its inability or unwillingness to allow others to provide this essential leadership. This dichotomy is best reflected in the US response to the Brazil-Iran-Turkey nuclear deal. While it is clear that all of the US-led efforts to address the Iranian nuclear challenge have been largely ineffective, Washington is unable and unwilling to accept that other countries might be in a better position to deal with this issue and it should give them a chance to provide this necessary leadership. Instead, it has forced through yet another round of sanctions that are likely to be as effective as a handkerchief to protect against the rain.
In addition, there is also a serious disconnect between the actions of the administration which, instead of furthering the NSS objectives, have actually ended up undermining the principles and priorities they were to uphold. For instance, while clearly recognizing and articulating the need to view the Afghan conflict in a regional context and to engage Afghanistan, Pakistan and their neighbours, Washington has been singularly unsuccessful in engaging one of the most critical countries in the region—Iran.
In a similar vein, the efforts of the administration to strengthen its alliances have also, ironically, become a poisoned chalice for the very allies they were designed to protect by weakening them politically. The fall of the Yukio Hatoyama government in Japan over the US’ insistence to keep its controversial base at Okinawa is illustrative of this unintended consequence. Similar friction is evident with key European allies over Washington’s insistence to retain tactical nuclear weapons on their territories as part of the extended deterrence against a threat that no longer exists.
At the same time, there has been little progress in building new partnerships with China and India, despite the launch of the much-heralded “strategic dialogue”. This might explain why there has been more dialogue and less strategy in these emerging bilateral relationships.
All of these drawbacks actually underline the salience of the NSS and the need for any administration to align its actions more closely with the guidelines set out in the document. Other aspiring global powers, such as India, might do well to undertake a similar exercise. Then again, you do not need a security strategy to justify New Delhi’s masterly inactivity at the global level.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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