The 2015 National Security Strategy: a Year in Review

As President Obama approaches his final months in office, many wonder if deepening global disorder will lead to a change of foreign and defense policy, much as at the end of the Carter administration. While the Obama administration has taken some steps to counter growing global threats, the president’s interview in the Goldberg Atlantic article makes clear that he has not changed his views on America’s role in the world. The below analysis on the one-year anniversary of the 2015 NSS confirms the view that the president is unlikely to change course during his remaining months in office.

I. Introduction

Last February, the Obama administration published its long-awaited second National Security Strategy. The 2015 NSS heralded the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, touted global engagement on climate and counter-proliferation, and promoted economic sanctions as a first-line element of U.S. deterrence. In that sense, it largely affirmed President Obama’s vision for restricting military engagement abroad and paring down the defense budget.

However, the 2015 NSS also differed markedly from its 2010 predecessor by explicitly calling out Russia for its provocative behavior.  The NSS did not go so far as to acknowledge that Obama’s highly-trumpeted “reset” policy with Russia had failed, but it did admit that Russia was acting in ways that threatened important U.S. interests.

The NSS, in other words, presents a blurred vision of the geopolitical landscape—partly optimistic and partly pessimistic.

Over the past year, the unraveling of America’s geopolitical position has further obscured that vision.  Russia intervened in Syria and menaced Eastern Europe.  China seized islands and stationed military forces in the South China Sea.  ISIS maintained its territorial core in Iraq and Syria while branching out to Libya and striking Europe with devastating terror attacks.  The Taliban surged back in Afghanistan.  And Iran “followed” its nuclear agreement by testing ballistic missiles and doubling down on regional aggression.

To be sure, the Obama White House reacted to these challenges in ways not fully anticipated by the 2015 NSS, particularly with additional military force. It redeployed U.S. troops to Iraq, delayed a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, and sent special operations troops to Syria and likely Libya as well.  It also proposed a larger defense budget, which quadrupled funding for the European Defense Initiative, directed more resources toward the fight against ISIS, and embraced nuclear modernization.

The cumulative shift is large enough to raise the question of whether it constitutes a hard-power awakening, akin to Jimmy Carter’s late-term defense buildup following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  So far, the answer appears to be no.  While Obama’s incremental escalation offers a welcome evolution beyond the misplaced cheer of the 2015 NSS, it falls short of a Carter-like grand strategic shift.

II. The Carter Reversal

Jimmy Carter assumed office on a platform of further cutting defense spending and pursuing arms control and other conciliatory efforts with the Soviet Union. Upon entering the White House, he pursued these initiatives against the judgment of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, both of whom advocated a harder line against the Soviets backed up by a robust defense budget.

Repeated foreign policy humiliations, topped by the fall of the Shah in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, eventually convinced Carter to reverse course and increase defense spending.  In 1980, he boosted funding from $290 to $308 billion, and called for an annual 4.6 percent increase in spending each year for the next five years. Carter’s hike paved the way for President Reagan’s substantial increases in the following years.

Yet Carter did not merely funnel funds into the Pentagon’s coffers.  He also altered his strategy.  The president recognized that the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan could lead down a dangerous path. “If the Soviets are encouraged in this invasion by eventual success,” he said at the time, “the stable, strategic, and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed.”  In his 1980 State of the Union, he announced the Carter Doctrine—the United States would use military force if necessary to safeguard its interests in the Persian Gulf—and backed it by creating U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

III. The NSS Meets Reality?

In many ways, the 2015 NSS echoed Carter’s original assumptions.  The document affirmed that Washington’s Article 5 commitment to defending all NATO members is “ironclad,” and promised a “dynamic presence” in Eastern Europe to “deter further Russian aggression.”  But it largely called for cooperative caution and maintaining sanctions and counter-propaganda efforts, while “keep[ing] the door open to greater collaboration.”  Even though it promised that the administration would seek to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” it more prominently hailed America’s move “beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade.”  And on China, the NSS reaffirmed that the United States “will remain a Pacific power,” but failed to discuss, let alone condemn, China’s rapid buildup in the South China Sea.

At first glance, the change from the rhetoric of last year’s NSS to this year’s defense budget proposal invites comparisons to Carter’s reversal. The FY16 budget request is two percent above the actual budget for the previous year, with a base budget building on a five percent increase from 2015 to 2016.  From a $2 billion increase for the European Reassurance Initiative to a 50 percent rise for anti-ISIS operations and $6.7 billion for cyber initiatives, the 2017 Obama budget, much like Carter’s in 1980, seems to respond to reality’s muggings.

But the defense increases, while welcome, do not go far enough.  For example, a recent RAND report concludes that three heavy armored brigades are needed in Eastern Europe to deter a Russian invasion, but the ERI provides for only one.  In fact, the ERI and other measures do not even return the U.S. presence in Europe to where it stood when President Obama took office.  On a more fundamental level, the proposed base budget of $551 billion falls nearly $100 million short of the bipartisan budget proposed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Carter’s defense boosts were also relatively modest.  But they signaled a paradigm shift in how Carter understood the Soviet threat and planned to respond.  So far, it is premature to claim that Obama has experienced a parallel epiphany.  In fact, in the most revealing glimpse into Obama’s strategic thinking since the 2015 NSS—the lengthy interview reported in Jeffrey Goldberg’s April Atlantic article—Obama went to extraordinary lengths to defend and rhetorically double-down on his pre-2015 strategic worldview.  The president once again stressed the dangers of overreacting to terrorism above the threat of ISIS itself, and downplayed the risk posed by Russia, calling it “significantly diminished.”

IV. Conclusion

Jimmy Carter’s evolution on the defense budget, however moderate in dollar terms, represented a late-term insight that would underpin the Reagan buildup.  But if the Carter Doctrine augured a new approach, the Obama Doctrine, as outlined in Goldberg’s profile, cemented long-held convictions.  As a result, however similar in size to Carter’s, the new Obama budget is less a belated reckoning with geopolitics than a reluctant tactical adjustment--a budget for a strategy that remains self-congratulatory, overcautious, and unrealistic.