Text Browser Navigation Bar: Main Site Navigation and Search | Current Page Navigation | Current Page Content

U.S. Army War College >> Strategic Studies Institute >> Publications >> The National Security Strategy: Documenting Strategic Vision Second Edition >> Summary

Login to "My SSI" Contact About SSI Cart: 0 items

The National Security Strategy: Documenting Strategic Vision Second Edition

Authored by Dr. Don M. Snider. | March 1995

Share | |   Print   Email


The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 requires the President annually to submit an articulation of national grand strategy. There have been six such reports published, two during the second Reagan administration (1987 and 1988), three by the Bush administration (1990, 1991 and 1993), and one by the Clinton administration in July 1994.

Several conclusions about the formulation of American national security strategy can be drawn from the way in which these reports were developed. Perhaps most importantly is the notion that today there is no consensus as to an appropriate grand strategy for the United States. Second, the executive branch traditionally does not conduct long-range planning in a substantive or systematic manner. Third, what the executive branch does do is episodic planning for particular events as they rise to prominence.

The issue addressed in the following paper is whether it is wise in the future to attempt anything more than broad and episodic planning as a part of the formulation of strategy at this level. The art of devising and articulating strategy is that of combining the various elements of power and relating them to the desired end. But in the final analysis, people of goodwill and intelligence will have to place national interests above political, personal, or even organizational concerns if the United States is to be served well by a coherent and appropriate strategy.



. . . Sec. 104. (a) (1) The President shall transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States . . .

(2) The national security strategy report for any year shall be transmitted on the date on which the President submits to Congress the budget for the next fiscal year under section 1105 of Title 31, United States Code.

(b) Each national security strategy report shall set forth the national security strategy of the United States and shall include a comprehensive description and discussion of the following:

  1. The worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States that are vital to the national security of the United States.
  2. The foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy of the United States.

  3. The proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of national power of the United States to protect or promote the interests and achieve the goals and objectives referred to in paragraph (1).
  4. The adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the national security strategy of the United States, including an evaluation of the balance among the capabilities of all elements of national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.

  5. Such other measures as may be helpful to inform Congress on matters relating to the national security strategy of the United States.

(c) Each national security strategy report shall be transmitted in both a classified and an unclassified form.1

By the above language, a small section of a much larger reform package known as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the Congress amended the National Security Act of 1947 to require annually a written articulation of grand strategy from each succeeding President. In so doing, Congress was attempting to legislate a solution to what it, and many observers, believed to be a legitimate and significant problem of long-standing in our governmental processes--an inability within the executive branch to formulate, in an coherent and integrated manner, judiciously using resources drawn from all elements of national power, the mid- and long-term strategy necessary to defend and further those interests vital to the nation's security.

Few in the Congress at that time doubted that there existed a grand strategy. The nation had been following "containment" in one form or another for over 40 years. What they doubted, or disagreed with, was its focus in terms of values, interests and objectives; its coherence in terms of relating means to ends; its integration in terms of the elements of power; and its time horizon. In theory, at least to the reformers, a clearly written strategy would serve to inform the Congress better on the needs for resources to execute the strategy, thus facilitating the annual authorization and appropriation processes, particularly for the Department of Defense.

There have now been six such reports published, two during the second Reagan administration (1987 and 1988), three by the Bush administration (1990, 1991 and 1993), and most recently, the first report by the Clinton administration (July 1994).

This paper, written by the individual responsible for the preparation of the 1988 report and in cooperation with the officials responsible for drafting the 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994 reports,2 draws on their experiences to provide insights into the process as well as the individual products.


Several conclusions about the formulation of American national security strategy can be drawn from the experiences of these six reports, conclusions of process and substance that, perhaps, are arrived at uniquely from the NSC perspective.

The first conclusion is obvious from the earlier discussions, but so deeply pervades all else that I want to state it explicitly--there is no real consensus today as to the appropriate grand strategy for the United States. And, more important, this lack of consensus is due far less to any type of constraint on strategic thinking than it is to the fundamental value differences in our electorate, and the resulting legacy of federal government divided between the political parties and buffeted by the myriad of factions that effectively cross party lines on separate issues. It is easy to agree with those academics concerned that the dysfunctions of "divided government" and "demosclerosis"9 increasingly preclude coherent strategic behavior on the part of our nation.10

After all, grand strategy is really the idea of allocating resources to create in both the short and long term various instruments of power, instruments with which the nation then provides for its defense and the furtherance of its aims in the world. True, there have been extraordinary changes in the external environment, and we won the Cold War. But to many, including those working to formulate security strategy through this period of intense change, the erosion of consensus on foreign policy was apparent far earlier. One need look no further than the foreign and economic assistance allocations from roughly 1984 onward, or the endless clashes on modernization of strategic defenses, or the constant tug of war on war powers and treaty obligations, or the Reagan administration's attempts to buttress "aggressive unilateralism" and the Clinton administration's short-lived attempt to pursue "assertive multilateralism." And, as the Iran-Contra fiasco showed to all, without a modicum of consensus there can be no effective security strategy or policy.

This conclusion is stated first because it conditions those that follow, and because it conditions one's expectations for the specific mode of formulating national security strategy that is discussed in this paper. A Presidential strategy report can never be more than it really is, a statement of preference from the executive branch as to current, and perhaps future, grand strategy. Given our government of shared powers, it remains for a constructively adversarial process with the Congress to refine that preferential strategy into one that has any chance of being effective--one around which there can be created domestic political consensus, and thus an allocation of resources effective in creating instruments of national power.

The second conclusion focuses on the function of long-range planning, or strategic planning, which is the base from which security strategy formulation must be built. Simply stated, in my experience the executive branch of government does not do long-range planning in a substantive or systematic manner. (I make a sharp distinction between planning and programming.) To be sure, there are pockets of planning activity within the "permanent" government of many departments and agencies, particularly Defense and State. Some of this is good, comprehensive planning from the perspective of that particular agency. But it is devoid of the political dynamic which can be provided only by the participation of those who have won elections, which under our system of government provides the authority to set future directions and pace in security policy and strategy. Taken in the whole then, particularly given the number of departments and agencies within which there is lfttle planning activity, I am comfortable stating this conclusion in a stark form.

This paucity of strategic planning is well documented in academic writings, particularly the memoirs of former officials. And, the causes are well known to political scientists.11 In my own experience, two causes stand out. The first is the limit of what is physically possible for elected officials to do in any given amount of time. Long-range planning and strategy formulation will always run a poor second to the pressing combination of crisis management and near-term policy planning and implementation. There is seldom a week that the NSC staff and the planning staffs of the principal Cabinet officers are not fully involved in either preparation for or clean-up after a presidential trip, a summit, a visit by a head of state (or government), or a major negotiation. And this is as it should be; the maxim is true in diplomatic and political activity at this level--if today is not cared for, tomorrow will not arrive in a manageable form. Secondly, the pernicious effects of divided government, manifest in micromanaging and punitive legislation on the one hand and intractable stonewalling and relentless drives for efficiency on the other, preclude resources for permanent, long-range planning staffs that could institutionalize such a process.

In place of a systematic approach to long-range or strategic planning, what the executive branch does do, and in some cases rather well, is episodic planning for particular events. This is how one can describe the creation of each of the published strategy reports--a focused, comprehensive effort of some 4-6 months involving political leadership and their permanent bureaucracies in the development of common vision and purpose for the near-term future. The often cited NSC-68 and PRM-10 reviews are historic examples of other successful, but episodic, strategic planning events.12 A more recent example is the Ikle-Wohlstetter Commission of 1988.13 To be sure, in most cases these were incremental responses to a rather consistent external security environment, made by administrations, often new, that were stewards of a consensus U.S. grand strategy. But the fact remains these episodic events did produce in-depth reviews across the range of interests and instruments of national power, and resulted in much more than rhetorical change to the overall strategy.

The relevant question now, it seems to me, given the inherent constraints to systematic, long-range planning noted above, is whether it is wise in the future to attempt anything more than broad, but episodic, planning exercises for the formulation of grand strategy. More specifically, should the Executive attempt a new statement of grand strategy every year? My own experience, reinforced by the above historical examples, leads to the conclusion that comprehensive strategy reviews should only be executed twice during an administration's tenure, during the first and third years to be presented early to each two-year session of the Congress. Further, if the pace of change in external events subsides, a valid case could probably be made to conduct such a review only once, during the first year of a new administration.

While the adoption of comprehensive strategy reviews at set intervals would address one problem with the coherent formulation of strategy, a much more formidable constraint also is apparent from experiences, which is offered as a third conclusion--the executive branch is not well organized to accommodate the changing metrics of national power, 14 particularly the reascendancy of economic power in the formulation and execution of future U.S. grand strategy.15

This problem does not stem from a failure to recognize and treat the economic element of power for what it is, the long-term strength underpinning the other elements of power.16 Rather it stems from a failure to agree on the appropriate policies at the federal level to preserve that essential power, policies that are in fact more domestic than foreign in their impact. Toward the end of the Cold War, this failure was manifest in several forms, notably the political inability to deal effectively with the twin deficits of the 1980s. They still are not addressed in a seriously compelling manner early in the 1990s even though their root cause, a systemic excess of national investment over savings, is well known. Volumes have been written pinning the blame on both the Executive and the Congress; and it appears there is quite enough for both as neither has led the electorate to understand the severity of the issues or otherwise to forge consensus for resolution.

A second major contributor to the failure is the complexity of recent arrangements for making economic policy. At least five cabinet officials have a significant role (Treasury, State, Defense, Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative). Integrating these responsibilities, until the Clinton administration, has rested with three agencies within the Executive Office of the President: the Economic Policy Council, the National Security Council, and the Domestic Policy Council. Advice comes from two more agencies: the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisors. The integrated, coordinated use of economic instruments of power, particularly in the context of regional security strategies, was understandably difficult to achieve in this organizational environment. Neither is it yet clear that the approach of the Clinton administration, a new National Economic Council co-equal to the National Security Council, will be any more effective.

Beyond the problems of finding time to work on strategy and finding someone to be in charge of economic policy, I conclude that there is another shortcoming of a different nature in the current process. The art of formulating strategy is that of combining the various elements of power and relating them to the desired end--the key is integration. This belief is derived as much from experience in crisis management as in strategy formulation. Too often, after a crisis was ongoing, it was clear that there had been little prior coordination or integration of policy instruments focused on a particular region or country before the crisis. Too often the only effective instruments for immediate leverage were military. In retrospect it was clear that if we had been pursuing a well-documented and integrated strategic approach toward the region or country in question, one in which the current policy instruments drew from all elements of power, the ability for more effective response would have been greatly enhanced.

Increasingly in this post-Cold War era, those ends toward which we are developing a strategic approach are being defined at the regional and subregional level. Even strategies for such transnational issues as environmental security, terrorism and narcotics trafficking focus at the subregional level for implementation, as do many strategies for the use of economic power. But planning for the effective integration of policy instruments for the various regions and subregions remains problematic.

Lastly, I conclude, contrary to some of what is contained in this paper, that we should not concentrate exclusively on institutions and processes when discussing the development of national security strategy. As I have seen so often, it is people who really define the character of the institutions and who make the processes what they are. Almost uniformly I have observed people of intelligence and goodwill respond to the need to place national interests above those of organization or person. This is not to conclude, however, that all is well and we can count on such people consistently overcoming the real constraints on strategic thinking and behavior in our government. Rather, it is to conclude that it is much too early for a cynical approach to the on-going reformulation of America's role in the world.


10 For example, see Aaron Friedberg, "Is the United States Capable of Acting Strategically?," The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 1991, pp. 15-20.

6. David C. Kozak, "The Bureaucratic Politics Approach: The Evolution of the Paradigm," Bureaucratic Politics and National Security, David Kozak and James Keagle, eds., Rienner Publishers, 1988, pp. 3-15.

7. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 89-127, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle, McGraw Hill, 1983, pp. 51-52.

8. Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, Discriminate Deterrence, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

9. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Basic Books, 1990, pp. 200, 227; and Catherine McArdle Kelleher, "US Foreign Policy and Europe, 1990-2000," Brookings Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 8-10.

10. Samuel Huntington, "America's Changing Strategic Interests," Survival, Vol. 33, No. l, January/February 1991, pp. 8-16; and Robert Hormats, "The Roots of American Power," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 3, Summer 1991, pp. 130-135.

16. Hormats, p. 130.