Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The National Security Strategy of Strategic Patience and Persistence?

The National Security Strategy of Strategic Patience and Persistence?

On Friday the Obama administration released its second, and likely last, National Security Strategy. Such strategies are produced in both classified and unclassified forms and have been required since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Goldwater-Nichols Act). They are supposed to be submitted annually along with the president’s annual budget. Like the Obama presidency, the Bush 43 administration also only produced two. By statute, USC 50, § 3043(b), they

…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 the 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 the national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.

(5) Such other information as may be necessary to help inform Congress on matters relating to the national security strategy of the United States.

Such strategies, while they help to elucidate a president’s vision of threats and opportunities vis-à-vis their foreign and defense policies, are also very aspirational.

President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy reiterates the 2010 vision that the United States’ enduring interests are:

*The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;

*A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;

*Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and

*A rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

The top strategic risks are listed as:

*Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure;

*Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies;

*Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown;

*Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction;

*Severe global infectious disease outbreaks;

*Climate change;

*Major energy market disruptions; and

*Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).

President Obama in his introduction to the strategy states that 

On all these fronts [from diplomacy to military strength to nonproliferation to the promotion of democracy and human rights], America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes. The United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners. But, we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear. Moreover, we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power. Indeed, in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield. 

The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence. They require us to take our responsibilities seriously and make the smart investments in the foundations of our national power. Therefore, I will continue to pursue a comprehensive agenda that draws on all elements of our national strength, that is attuned to the strategic risks and opportunities we face, and that is guided by the principles and priorities set out in this strategy. Moreover, I will continue to insist on budgets that safeguard our strength and work with the Congress to end sequestration, which undercuts our national security. 

According to the strategy the U.S. will lead with strength, by example, with capable partners, with all instruments of national power, and with a long-term perspective. But the document claims that five recent transitions are complicating current international politics:

First, power among states is more dynamic [particularly India’s potential, China’s rise, and Russian aggression]…

Second, power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state [e.g, the rise of mega-cities and non-state actors]….

Third, the increasing interdependence of the global economy and rapid pace of technological change are linking individuals, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways….

Fourth, a struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa….

Fifth, the global energy market has changed dramatically…. [D]eveloping countries now consume more energy than developed ones, which is altering energy flows and changing consumer relationships.


While the document seems to make many good arguments about the challenges facing the United States and wisely accounts for the limits of American power, particularly in the realm of the use of military force, it is unclear whether “strategic patience and persistence” will always be effective or will simply put us further behind the eight ball. The leading from behind strategy which debuted in Libya, for instance, likely created as many problems as it solved as witnessed both by the chaos unleashed in Mali after Tauregs fighting in Libya brought arms back to the Sahel and by the current instabilities in Libya itself. The sanctions in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine–and its support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia–also have not severely impacted their behavior contra claims in the strategy.

In Syria, meanwhile, strategic patience has led to a worsening situation there, in Iraq, and–increasingly–in Lebanon. Clearly the situation is not one open to easy fixes and it is not at all clear that earlier support to opposition forces would have made the situation on the ground better today. But patient reaction certainly has not made the situation better either. The “coalition” of forces corralled to deal with the situation has been disjointed and the myriad interests of partners may be creating a policy that is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Finally, the current situation in Yemen appears to show the weakness of applying a doctrine of surgical strikes (by drones and special operations forces) to deal with a metastasizing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Rather than working to build effective Yemeni security forces we seem to have focused on building their strike forces that might be useful for conducting raids, but not so much for building effective security forces that can control territory and work at building legitimacy.

Undeniably, the United States faces myriad current and future challenges. As noted in the strategy, the tools of U.S. power are limited and cannot be applied everywhere. Even U.S. military power is still encumbered by a sequestration policy that impacts readiness and procurement. The administration is right to try to undo that policy, although it is unclear if the domestic political realities will allow that to happen. We must certainly come to grips with trying to use all elements of national power, to include the use of military force, to deal with the current and future strategic environment, both in terms of threats and opportunities. However, it must also be remembered that while patience may be a virtue, sometimes selective, thoughtful assertiveness across the elements of power may help us improve conditions on the ground and advance both the United States’ and its partners’ interests.