The National Security Strategy (NSS) released by the Barack Obama administration on May 27 is not so much a look forward as a look back. It is an attempt to return to the optimistic days following the end of the Cold War when it seemed a peaceful new world order was possible. In 1999, President Bill Clinton claimed “perhaps for the first time in history, the world’s leading nations are not engaged in a struggle with each other for security or territory. The world clearly is coming together.” President Obama says essentially the same thing in the opening paragraph of his cover letter to the NSS when he notes that “globalization”—the buzz word of the post-Cold War era — has “made peace possible among the major powers.” The dangers that remain are of a different sort, “from international terrorism and the spread of deadly technologies, to economic upheaval and a changing climate.”
That the world looked like the classical liberal model expounded by Clinton in 1999 was doubtful even then. A decade later, the cracks are even larger. Five months before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a Chinese fighter rammed a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, an area Beijing has been trying to claim as sovereign territory. The rise of China and the emergence of other ambitious powers herald not a new world but a new cycle in the old world of international rivalry. The NSS explicitly rejects the “world as it is” in its attempt to fashion “the world we seek.” But the NSS does not lay out a path between worlds; it simply assumes the new world already exists.
There are still a few odds and ends to be cleaned up from the Bush administration, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NSS pledges “a focus on defeating al-Qa’ida and its affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the globe” but sees no real dangers after that which would require a military effort. Though the NSS identifies the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear and biological) as problems, the two most menacing rogue states, North Korea and Iran, are to be dealt with through diplomacy. As the NSS states on page 23, “If North Korea eliminates its nuclear weapons program, and Iran meets its international obligations on its nuclear program, they will be able to proceed on a path to greater political and economic integration with the international community. If they ignore their international obligations, we will pursue multiple means to increase their isolation and bring them into compliance with international nonproliferation norms.” This is at best a containment policy.
But how can Pyongyang or Tehran be contained, let alone “isolated” when they have friends among the other major powers? The NSS depends on there being a consensus among the powers on issues like non-proliferation within a general spirit of cooperation. That is not how world politics is evolving.
According to the NSS, “The European Union has deepened its integration. Russia has reemerged in the international arena as a strong voice. China and India—the world’s two most populous nations—are becoming more engaged globally. From Latin America to Africa to the Pacific, new and emerging powers hold out opportunities for partnership, even as a handful of states endanger regional and global security by flouting international norms.” Under the Obama policy, “We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence—including China, India, and Russia, as well as increasingly influential nations such as Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia—so that we can cooperate on issues of bilateral and global concern, with the recognition that power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero sum game.”
The integration of the EU is being called into question by the sovereign debt crisis that has ripped through Greece and has threatened to spread to Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. The single euro currency, once thought to be an alternative to the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, is in free fall. Euro skeptics in England, France, Holland and Germany are balking at “saving” the Mediterranean and Eastern members of the bloc.
The NSS singles out Brazil for special praise saying, “We welcome Brazil’s leadership and seek to move beyond dated North-South divisions to pursue progress on bilateral, hemispheric, and global issues.” Yet, Brazil just brokered a deal with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program meant to shield it from a new round of UN sanctions being pushed by the U.S. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had told President Obama personally at the Nuclear Security Summit that he would not back additional sanctions on Iran, and repeated this stance when meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Brasilia immediately after the two leaders left Washington. The Hu-Lula meeting took place within the larger context of a BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) summit where the emerging powers coordinate policies formulated primarily against the positions of the United States and EU.
South Africa joins the mix in BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), a coalition at the UN that opposes the American and European demand for mandated limits on green house gas emissions to fight alleged global warming. Supported by Russia and the group of 77 developing nations, BASIC represents the world’s rejection of President Obama’s obsession about climate change that appears repeatedly in the NSS as a priority global threat.
The core value of BASIC and its allies is unrestricted economic growth, which means intensified competition in domestic and world markets. For some time, American officials have made it clear that unless China, India and Brazil provide substantial market access to U.S. exports commensurate with their high economic growth rates, there can be no conclusion to the Doha Round of trade talks. These negotiations have been stalled virtually from their inception in 2001 due to a fundamental clash of national interests.
The Obama administration has hailed China and Russia for supporting a draft sanctions proposal against Iran at the UN. Yet, Beijing and Moscow watered down the resolution to prevent it from crippling the Tehran regime. Most importantly, Russia and China will be allowed to continue investing in Iran’s energy sector, which will boost the country’s revenues which the mullah’s use to finance their aggressive foreign policy as well as nuclear development. To improve relations, the Obama administration dropped sanctions against Moscow’s state arms export agency and three Russian entities previously found to have transferred technology or weapons to Iran. The UN sanctions proposal would also allow the Russians to sell S-300 air defense missiles (which have an anti-missile capability) to Tehran. So even if the UN Security Council adopts the resolution, it will not “isolate” Iran from its main international backers.
Nor is international rivalry confined to economics and rogue states. China’s massive military modernization program, led by new weapon systems designed to attack U.S. and allied forces across Asia, is not mentioned in the NSS. To do so would have undermined the fanciful vision of a peaceful, cooperative world. It would also have called into question why the Obama Pentagon is cutting back on the high-end conventional forces, from armored units and air superiority fighters to missile defense and naval shipbuilding, that would be needed to not only counter rising “peer” competitors like China but to defeat major regional powers like North Korea and Iran.
The NSS attempts to conjure up a world in which an NSS is not needed, but the Obama administration does not have the power to change the true, dangerous nature of global politics. What the NSS reveals is the unwillingness of President Obama to deal with the world as it is. Thus, America will remain vulnerable, as its leaders are continually blindsided by the strategies of adversaries they cannot bring themselves to think about.