At a news conference in Washington on Friday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice presented the National Security Strategy of the United States, a comprehensive statement by the administration of United States interests around the world, as well as plans to achieve security for all Americans in the face of new threats and challenges.

The timing is certainly appropriate, as the last National Security Strategy was released in 2010. Since then, we’ve witnessed the occupation of parts of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a multitude of other geopolitical challenges.

In many respects, the document is hardly surprising: It reaffirms the importance of America’s worldwide leadership on peace and security issues, and the president’s strong commitment to working through international coalitions, while retaining the prerogative to use force and to “act unilaterally against threats to our core interests.” At the same time, many other parts of the strategy reflect a distinct Obama administration effort to recognize new security challenges:

Global issues: The strategy reaffirms the president’s conviction that the United States must give high priority to global issues — those that impact the security and well-being of all of the world’s citizens — such as global health security and climate change. This is reflected in the November 2014 agreement between the United States and China on measures to reduce carbon pollution.

A focus on economic and social policy at home: Foreign policy has not traditionally been about domestic economic and social issues, but the National Security Strategy comes close to asserting that foreign policy begins at home. It argues that a strong economy is critical to American influence abroad, and it calls for “expanding access to early childhood and affordable higher education,” increasing access to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and health care for all Americans. At a time when we are witnessing large-scale worldwide shifts in wealth from west to east, this discussion about domestic strength and resiliency will only become more important.

American vulnerability: The 9/11 attacks undermined the sense of many Americans that we were invulnerable to attack from abroad, and the National Security Strategy does not attempt to conceal that reality. It notes that the “threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished but still persists,” and it describes other threats such as cyberattacks and pandemics — all of which further underscore the importance of domestic resilience.

Practicing at home what we preach abroad: The strategy asserts a position held by presidents of all political persuasions — that the defense of “democracy and human rights is related to every enduring national interest.” It then states that “our ability to promote our values abroad is directly tied to our willingness to abide by them at home,” and it reasserts the Obama administration’s commitment against torture and so-called enhanced interrogation, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and the rights of “people with disabilities; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals; displaced persons; and migrant workers” worldwide.

No more nation-building: Finally, and significantly, the National Security Strategy considers the U.S. troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, from a total of about 180,000 some six years ago to 15,000 today. While declaring that the U.S. military “must remain dominant in every domain,” the strategy acknowledges that our military will be smaller. Rather than large-scale U.S. deployments to unstable environments, the strategy declares that the United States “will focus on building the capacity of others to prevent the causes and consequences of conflict.” This approach is consistent with President Obama’s 2011 statement about the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, when he declared that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” And, indeed, the president’s comment almost certainly struck most Americans as reasonable, in light of the enormous costs incurred by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thus, the key question that may emerge from the National Security Strategy is not about the importance of U.S. leadership, on which there is broad consensus within the national security policy community. Rather, the public discussion of the National Security Strategy is likely to focus on the nature of that leadership and the military capability necessary to exercise it — whether that involves multilateral efforts to combat genocide; provide security in states emerging from conflict; offer support for forces opposing repression, or other security, human rights, or humanitarian challenges. This is an important and welcome debate, which should be of concern to all Americans.


Eric P. Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He formerly served as U.S. assistant secretary of state (2009-2011) and as special assistant to the president for national security affairs (1998-2001).