Obama’s National Security Strategy: Made at Princeton

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By Prof. Inderjeet Parmar** | 02 June 2010

President Obama’s National Security Strategy may echo that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but it is also almost identical to that suggested by a large group of elite academics, military officials, businessmen, and former Clinton administration insiders brought together as the Princeton Project on National Security (PPNS) back in 2004-2006. The Princeton Project was led by Princeton academics Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry, featured Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz, and Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, as co-chairs. Francis Fukuyama, erstwhile neo-con, sat on the steering committee and was co-author of the Project’s working paper on grand strategy. Henry Kissinger acted as adviser, as did Harvard’s Joseph Nye, author of the concept of Soft Power, morphing more recently into Smart Power. PPNS represented a new cross-party consensus on how to ‘correct’ the excesses and reckless enthusiasm for American power of the Bush administration.




Several PPNS-ers were appointed to the Obama administration: Jim Steinberg to the state department, Michael McFaul and Samantha Power to the national security council, for example. Anne-Marie Slaughter heads up the state department’s policy planning staff – the department’s in-house think tank, the first director of which was Princeton’s George F. Kennan, author of the concept that defined US policy in the cold war era: containment. PPNS was a self-conscious attempt to replicate Kennan’s work and impact in the post-Bush era, in the wake of the ‘war of choice’ (then supported by numerous current Obama administration members) against Iraq.

So what?


The similarities of Obama’s NSS to those of Bush and Princeton suggests that it will be ‘business as usual’, in the main. The main lines of US global behaviour – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel – remain the same, with tactical and stylistic differences. Undoubtedly, Obama’s rhetoric is less bellicose and less inflammatory than Bush’s, but that was beginning in the final months of the previous administration in any case. The military surge in Afghanistan, the identification of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as the focus of the war on terror, the military ‘draw-down’ in Iraq, were also processes begun under Bush. The attempts to close Guantanamo began under Bush, and continue, without success, today.


But Obama continues to back rendition, and is actively trying to prevent the extension of constitutional protections to inmates at Bagram and other lawless prisons holding uncharged terror suspects. He may be accused by some of declaring war on Israel, but you wouldn’t know it from his total silence on Israel’s war on Gaza or its recent illegal attack on a ship carrying aid for Israel’s million-and-a-half victims in Gaza, not to mention the billions of dollars of US military and other aid to Israel.


Obama’s mission – US leadership, military superiority, global reach, shaping the international order, making and enforcing global rules, spreading freedom and democracy, lauding postwar international institution-building under President Harry Truman (the golden age to both Bush and Obama, and PPNS-ers) – is of a piece with all post-1945 American administrations. The rhetoric and tactics vary with conditions within the US and in the world at large but the goals remain the same.


At this point in time, therefore, the US is suffering from military overstretch and economic crisis: it cannot physically fight, or financially afford, two wars at the levels of intensity required, and remains committed to a professional military rather than a conscripted one (which proved problematic during the Vietnam War). At home, there are rumblings about America’s internal problems of unemployment and other social issues, as well as increasing scepticism about the nature and costs – financial and moral – of America’s global interventionism. Hence, Obama has adopted a policy similar to British PM Cameron’s ‘big society’: building alliances with non-governmental groups, think tanks, and foundations better to intervene in world affairs, especially in the governance of other societies designated as threats or potential threats to America’s ‘security’.


Subtle shifts in policy and rhetoric help in times such as these: and Obama’s ‘face’ and ‘voice’ has worked wonders, up to now at least, across the world, just as Jimmy Carter’s did in the wake of Vietnam (and Watergate). But the impacts of such insubstantial changes are usually temporary: the Muslim world never fully bought the Obama story; and Europeans are beginning to learn that Obama is no soft touch either as he presses them to send more troops to Afghanistan and be ready to support principles for which they claim to stand.


The things that do not change are the American foreign policy elite’s strategic role in defining ‘national’ interests or the policies that flow from their definition: those are ‘vital’ interests the benefits of which are unequally distributed within the United States, maintaining social and economic inequality. And Obama’s appointments to high office were drawn from the ranks of the American elite – Wall St. lawyers and bankers, ivy league university academics, and the ranks of the Bush and Clinton administrations.



An earlier version of this article is published at USBlog. 


** Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester and Vice Chair of the British International Studies Association.

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