It's an interesting reflection on our democratic age that nations are now expected to publish their grand strategies before pursuing them. This practice would have surprised Metternich, Bismarck, and Lord Salisbury, though not Pericles. Concerned about not revealing too much, most great strategists in the past have preferred to concentrate on implementation, leaving explanation to historians. The first modern departure from this tradition came in 1947 when George F. Kennan revealed the rationale for containment in Foreign Affairs under the inadequately opaque pseudonym "Mr. X," but Kennan regretted the consequences and did not repeat the experiment. Not until the Nixon administration did official statements of national security strategy became routine. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Henry Kissinger's "State of the World" reports were remarkably candid and comprehensive -- so much so that they were widely regarded at the time as a clever form of disinformation. They did, though, revive the Periclean precedent that in a democracy even grand strategy is a matter for public discussion.
That precedent became law with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which required the president to report regularly to Congress and the American people on national security strategy (NSS). The results since have been disappointing. The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations all issued NSS reports, but these tended to be restatements of existing positions, cobbled together by committees, blandly worded, and quickly forgotten. None sparked significant public debate.
George W. Bush's report on "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," released on September 17, 2002, has stirred controversy, though, and surely will continue to do so. For it's not only the first strategy statement of a new administration; it's also the first since the surprise attacks of September 11, 2001. Such attacks are fortunately rare in American history -- the only analogies are the British burning of the White House and Capitol in 1814 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 -- but they have one thing in common: they prepare the way for new grand strategies by showing that old ones have failed. The Bush NSS, therefore, merits a careful reading as a guide to what's to come.
WHAT THE NSS SAYS
Beginnings, in such documents, tell you a lot. The Bush NSS, echoing the president's speech at West Point on June 1, 2002, sets three tasks: "We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent." It's worth comparing these goals with the three the Clinton administration put forth in its final NSS, released in December 1999: "To enhance America's security. To bolster America's economic prosperity. To promote democracy and human rights abroad."
The differences are revealing. The Bush objectives speak of defending, preserving, and extending peace; the Clinton statement seems simply to assume peace. Bush calls for cooperation among great powers; Clinton never uses that term. Bush specifies the encouragement of free and open societies on every continent; Clinton contents himself with "promoting" democracy and human rights "abroad." Even in these first few lines, then, the Bush NSS comes across as more forceful, more carefully crafted, and -- unexpectedly -- more multilateral than its immediate predecessor. It's a tip-off that there're interesting things going on here.
The first major innovation is Bush's equation of terrorists with tyrants as sources of danger, an obvious outgrowth of September 11. American strategy in the past, he notes, has concentrated on defense against tyrants. Those adversaries required "great armies and great industrial capabilities" -- resources only states could provide -- to threaten U.S. interests. But now, "shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank." The strategies that won the Cold War -- containment and deterrence -- won't work against such dangers, because those strategies assumed the existence of identifiable regimes led by identifiable leaders operating by identifiable means from identifiable territories. How, though, do you contain a shadow? How do you deter someone who's prepared to commit suicide?
There've always been anarchists, assassins, and saboteurs operating without obvious sponsors, and many of them have risked their lives in doing so. Their actions have rarely shaken the stability of states or societies, however, because the number of victims they've targeted and the amount of physical damage they've caused have been relatively small. September 11 showed that terrorists can now inflict levels of destruction that only states wielding military power used to be able to accomplish. Weapons of mass destruction were the last resort for those possessing them during the Cold War, the NSS points out. "Today, our enemies see weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice." That elevates terrorists to the level of tyrants in Bush's thinking, and that's why he insists that preemption must be added to -- though not necessarily in all situations replace -- the tasks of containment and deterrence: "We cannot let our enemies strike first."
The NSS is careful to specify a legal basis for preemption: international law recognizes "that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack." There's also a preference for preempting multilaterally: "The United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community." But "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country."