Starting With “Why”: The National Security Strategy and America’s National Interests
Theresa Cross, Aaron Bazin and Montgomery Erfourth
In many ways, national interests are the DNA of strategy and the underlying structure upon which every nation bases its strategic thinking. To understand America’s current actions on the international stage requires a look deeper than the partisan-inspired rhetoric in the headlines. One way to approach this is to elevate the discussion beyond threats and adversaries to an analysis of national interests. Interests drive political decision-making and help us understand U.S. foreign policy. They describe the “why,” reveal the underlying logic, and provide the standards of measurement upon which to base decisions.
Strategic thinkers with military backgrounds often tend to fixate on threats. Without question, at the tactical and operational level, threats provide a valuable lens. However, when facing strategic-level complex adaptive problems, such as great power competition and trans-regional violent extremism, a focus solely on threats could quickly lead to miscalculation and loss of focus. If this occurs, the U.S. could find itself trying to chasing competitors everywhere, thereby remaining reactive instead of proactive, hence, strategically adrift.
Beyond this, discussion of interests is valuable because it helps strategic thinkers approach problems with a more open mind. Fundamentally, if strategic thinkers focus on interests it helps move beyond one-dimensional discussions on positions. Positions change, interests are less dynamic and remain more stable over time. Where positions are solutions, interests reveal the concerns, desires, and motives that underpin those positions.
If we introduce the topic of interest into any discussion, it serves to raise the level out of the tactical and operational weeds and helps strategic thinkers focus on the bigger picture. Fundamentally, if every service member asked to go into harm’s way understands the U.S. interests that he or she is going forward to advance or protect, they understand their why. One can rightfully assume that America’s service members have the training, experience, and capabilities required to figure out the how.
This article provides an analysis of the National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 and the national interests described within. First, this article discusses American interests in the context of past and then details a logical categorization of these interests by criticality (vital, important, or peripheral). Finally, this article discusses the implications of these interests through a regional lens.
American Interests in Context
In an environment where political positions are dynamic, interests provide a stable basis upon which a strategic thinker can discern what is truly important. An examination of the key aspects of the previous four National Security Strategies published between 2002 and 2015 highlight this continuity of thought over time:
NSS 2002: Political and Economic Freedom, Peaceful Relations, Respect For Human Dignity
NSS 2006: Promote Freedom, Justice, and Human Dignity; Lead a Growing Community of Democracies
NSS 2010: Security, Prosperity, Values, International Order
NSS 2015: Security, Prosperity, Values, International Order
Although these narratives differ slightly, some themes emerge. First, each version of the NSS makes a clear statement concerning the security of the nation globally. Second, each discusses economic prosperity and wellbeing. Third, each document emphasizes the importance of American values. Taken together these three elements; security, prosperity, and values, form the common threads that connect documents from differing administrations. Similarly, as one looks at each of these primary ideas of the NSS 2017 in context these elements arise again and provide a degree of conceptual congruence and continuity over time. NSS 2017 described the following main ideas:
Protect the American People, the Homeland and the American Way of Life
This statement is the core of the Administration’s “America First” policy. It highlights keeping threats out of the homeland by securing borders to protect Americans from WMD, pandemics, unwanted immigration, terrorist and organized crime incursions, blocking cyber-attacks (specifically to critical infrastructure) and focusing on resilience for the American people and the Homeland. The main theme focused on the control of inflows of threats that can endanger the U.S.’s sovereignty, stability, and security.
Promote American Prosperity
This main idea conveys that American economic prosperity is fundamental to the American way of life and, more importantly, the foundation of America’s power projection. Given the high level of importance of a strong economy in sustaining American power, this pillar’s overall approach promotes viable economic concepts that should enable America to reestablish itself both domestically and internationally.
Preserve Peace through Strength
This notion focuses on the need for the U.S. to renew its competitive advantage and capabilities after a long period of complacency and stagnation. As the U.S. focuses on strengthening the military, our allies and partners must also contribute capabilities, and demonstrate the will to confront shared threats. Adversaries, often more agile and faster at integrating economic, military and especially information, are finding advantages in the gray zone. The U.S. must confront and compete with adversaries in this space by leveraging the public and private sectors to develop such an advantage.
Advance American Influence
Similar to preserving peace through strength, this idea is a guarantor of security and prosperity. It gives guidance to U.S. agencies to ensure partners, allies, aspiring partners, and adversaries are clear about America’s intentions, goals, and interests. Influence, as discussed in the NSS, is the U.S.’ persuasive interactions in the international community that demonstrate partnership with the U.S. is mutually beneficial.
Categorizing U.S. National Interests
Looking at the current NSS in a deliberate and systematic way, key conclusions emerge. Realism and hard power are certainly at the forefront of American foreign policy. Protecting the American people, the homeland and the American way of life, and promoting American economic prosperity reflect the heart of “principled realism.” When one categorizes current interests, it is clear that enhancement of homeland protection and emphasis on prioritizing bilateral approaches over multilateral ones to maximize return on investment for America are top priorities. “America First” also extends to the domestic context as technology, innovation, and revitalization of the domestic industrial base increase in importance.
Arguably, one of the comprehensive and critical frameworks one can use to categorize interest is the one developed by Graham Allison in 2000. Under this framework, interests fell into four categories: Vital, Extremely Important, Important, or Peripheral. In 2018, the Joint Staff authored Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-18, formally codifying a similar framework based on critical categorical question, as follows:
Vital - What are we willing to die for?
Important interests - What are we willing to fight for?
Peripheral interests - What are we willing to fund?
The ones that will ultimately determine the criticality of an interest and its associated level of commitment are policymakers as they make decisions that allocate resources. Outside these circles, opinions and criticality will always vary widely depending on the individual perspectives and perceived risks. However, for strategic thinkers and planners, it is important to analyze criticality of interests as a basis for the development of supporting documents such as strategic guidance, plans, and policies. In summer of 2019, planners and analysts at USSOCOM looked at, discussed, and debated where the descriptions of American interests in the NSS 2017 fell along the spectrum of the framework described in JDN 1-18 (See Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Interest Criticality Analysis
Unsurprisingly, in this analysis, security-related interests came to the forefront as some of most vital. Generally, the group categorized prosperity-related interests as the next most important. Finally, the group generally found the interests related to values as important rhetorically, just not always as important in practice. Again, one can debate the specific categorization of U.S. interests. The true value is the ability of interests to help strategic planners and thinkers frame out and identify what really matters most. Although, this provides a valuable global perspective, in practical application, it is important to look at interests by region.
The United States must tailor its approach to different regions of the world to protect U.S. national interests. Policy makers and agency leadership require integrated regional strategies that appreciate American interests to protect or advance them. Integrated regional strategies should recognize the nature of relevant competitions and actors and the promise of available opportunities, all in the context of local political, economic, social, and historical realities.
This NSS, both directly and indirectly, prioritizes interests, global regions, and primary areas of focus. It lists the Indo-Pacific and Europe as the priority regions because of the obvious geopolitical realities of both China and Russia. Therefore, the U.S. must understand how these nations have structured a network of influence across states and other relevant actors. With a better understanding of these networks and relevant actors, the U.S. can alleviate a monolithic threat-based analysis and chart its own course for U.S. influence and competitive advantage. Moreover, U.S. Special Operations Forces should have a basic understanding of the interests that the Nation may ask them to defend or advance globally (Figure 2).
Figure 2 – Regional Interests Analysis for U.S. Special Operations Forces Consideration
The U.S. maintains important interests in this region that include ensuring freedom of navigation, in the Malacca Straits and securing sea lines of communication in the South China Sea. Securing American interests requires traditional deterrence, ballistic missile defense, counter-proliferation, anti-piracy and counter terrorism. The U.S. will continue its forward military presence to counter/deter the proliferation of ballistic, WMD and other weapons from states and non-state actors who wish to disrupt U.S. engagement. In response to a rising China, the U.S. will expand defense and security cooperation with India and support India’s influence in the region. Alliances and partnerships with regional partners and allies catalyze the pursuit of America’s interest in the region. America will also defend Taiwan and protect its sovereignty.
U.S. economic engagement in the region is significant. The American way of life and prosperity links to continued access, economic engagement, and shared technological advances with Indo-Pacific states. The U.S. seeks to both cooperate with and influence these regional sovereign states to support U.S. political, economic and security interests while balancing China’s geopolitical aspirations.
In sectors where the U.S. seems to lag in global competitive advantage with China, the U.S. will need to invest and innovate. Finally, American influence and competitive advantage can only succeed by using all tools of national power. The region spans a multitude of states that align with China, the U.S. or both when it suits their own values and interests. Therefore, keener synchronization of all elements of U.S. national power will enable achievement of “America First” for the long term.
Europe is an essential trading, political, and security partner for the United States. In general, Europeans share U.S. values of freedom and democracy. The NATO military alliance remains resilient despite Russian efforts to disrupt it. Further, the U.S., England, and the EU align with efforts against non-state criminal and violent extremist groups that may seek to disrupt the European way of life.
Through highly skilled propaganda and misinformation efforts, Russia is working to undermine the faith of Western institutions and the international rule of law. Russia’s asymmetric cyber and information skills are preying on widening wealth gaps, crumbling infrastructure and seemingly waning opportunities. To mitigate these malign efforts, the NSS calls for a more robust and resilient polity and increased cooperation between the U.S. and European NATO allies to counter growing cyber and other asymmetric aggression.
The U.S. and Europe can curtail Russian attempts to divide it and Chinese efforts to change the interpretations of international law. Through combined initiatives, partners can diversify energy reliance on Russia, lessen Chinese efforts to infringe on trademark and unfair trade policies, and reinforce security commitments to our Eastern European partners.
The U.S. has broad strategic interests in the Middle East. Primarily, America is concerned with the stability of the oil and gas market. Maritime security is key to economic stability as state and non-state actors continue to threaten transit via strategically and economically significant global maritime chokepoints including the Straits of Hormuz, Suez Canal, and Bab al-Mandeb Strait.
The U.S. must also concern itself with the export of jihadist terrorist networks and influence on U.S. and allied soil. Decades of instability have created opportunities for these actors to exploit weak governance and create divisions throughout the population due to conflict and war. In response, the NSS states that the U.S. will maintain the necessary forward posture in the region in pursuit of these groups when appropriate.
Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear program also warrant specific concerns. The Iranian missile capability has the potential to degrade U.S. military strength and power in the region. While Iran continues to spend on weapons, its preferred approach to achieving aspirations for regional competitive advantage and influence is by means of diplomacy, alliances, and the irregular use of cognitive maneuver through cyber, information, proxy and other networks.
America will work with aspiring like-minded partners in the region to facilitate stability and ensure the regional balance of power does not tip towards regional players hostile to American interests. It will also promote good governance that creates stability through gradual political reforms instead of direct and overt promotion of democracy.
South and Central Asia
The South and Central Asia region has struggled through decades of invasion and colonialism. After the demise of empires, the withdrawal of colonialists and the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has transformed into a system of sovereign nations.
The region has vast opportunities for cooperation through economic and security initiatives. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have abundant oil and natural gas reserves and Uzbekistan's own reserves make it more or less self-sufficient. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have gold reserves and Kazakhstan has the world's largest uranium reserves.
In the context of countering violent extremist organizations, Central Asia has once again become the center of geostrategic calculations. However, these countries present political challenges that inhibit the U.S. from fully capitalizing on these opportunities. Afghanistan continues to suffer from violent extremist, criminal and terrorist organizations that have come to rely on both tacit and outright support.
In addition, two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, pose challenges of greater conflict in the region. The security of nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and their technology are at risk for transfer or illicit acquirement by transnational criminal and violent extremist groups.
In addition, energy and geopolitics play a big role here. India does $115 billion in annual trade with the U.S. India also has a robust trade partnership with Iran amounting to upwards of $13 billion a year. On the surface, it seems easier for New Delhi to sacrifice trade with Iran for the more lucrative American one. However, India needs Iran’s petroleum and natural gas for its future, and wants to use Iran to circumvent Pakistan to the northwest.
The strengths and opportunities of our hemisphere—democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law, and military-to-military relationships rooted in education, culture, and values—are matched with a troubling array of challenges and threats to global security and to our homeland. These include disasters, weak government institutions, corruption, under-resourced security organizations, violent crime, criminal organizations, and violent extremist cells. China, Russia, and Iran have accelerated expansion, supported misinformation campaigns, and exported state support for terrorism into the hemisphere, respectively.
Illegal immigration is a key factor in U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. The Administration is committed to the protection of the homeland through a physical border prohibiting unlawful entrance into the U.S. due, in some part, to rampant economic, societal, and governance instability in many parts of Central and South America, and even parts of the Caribbean.
The African continent is ripe with opportunity and abundant in resources. Unfortunately, it is replete with instability, ill-governed spaces, organized crime, and violent extremist groups. It also has areas of strong climate variation, irregular rainfall, food insecurity, and poverty. Although Africa represents a rich opportunity both for potential American markets and goods and many security partner prospects, instability remains a challenge. China and Russia are also exploiting African opportunities. Each is expanding its military footprints while China is replacing the U.S. as Africa’s partner of choice by investing in significant trade and infrastructure projects.
Interests matter. As such, strategic thinkers should continually ask themselves the hard and uncomfortable questions related to interests. If they fail to do so, the strategies and plans they develop could squander the valuable blood and treasure of America without requisite political support. In the worst-case scenario, the nation could find itself looking back on its strategic decisions of the past decades and asking itself: “Why are we in [country X] again?” Simply put, these are not one-time questions and strategic thinkers should ask them continually and put the answers they develop in a contemporary context.
Overall, the NSS reflects the many aspirations of the American government. Without question, the Nation will continue to face both direct and indirect challenges in applying the priorities of the NSS 2017. These challenges will manifest in each region in different ways and, in application, will demand carefully tailored policies and military action. Of course, this strategy has and will continue to change and mature in practical application. However, it remains a fundamental piece of the puzzle for those seeking to understand how America sees itself and acts within a complex and dynamic world.
As defined in § 3601.102, and the DoD the views presented herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of USSOCOM, DoD, or its components.
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 Allison, Graham, Blackwell, Robert (lead authors), America’s National Interests, The Commission on America’s National Interests, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2000.
 Department of Defense, Joint Doctrine Note 1-18 Strategy, 2018.