Obama’s Security Strategy

By: Richard Fontaine

Something new or more of the same?


The present US administration's approach has more in common with past presidencies than it might admit            

Barack Obama's national security strategy is being interpreted as a break with his predecessor's. But for all of its rhetorical distancing, there is more continuity – with Bush and other recent US presidencies – than most perceive.

The transatlantic relationship is still the cornerstone of international engagement. The gravest danger to the US comes from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. The US still reserves the right to act unilaterally and does not rule out pre-emption, even if it does not trumpet that fact. It will maintain military superiority, promote democracy and human rights, isolate Iran and North Korea, and counter extremism. It will work against the Taliban and with the Iraqis. There are a few differences in substance and many in tone. But it would be wrong to say this is a break with the past – US interests and values are longstanding and the tools it possesses for pursuing them are stable.

The realities of the international system and continuing US interests always inform its foreign policy. The differences that exist are on the margin and, while that margin can be consequential, the new strategy should be seen in the context of the country's history. Yet it is wrong to describe the new strategy as Bush redux – it is more America redux. Administrations centre their foreign policy within the broad course of tradition and then describe their approach as a dramatic shift. We can expect this administration less to tread new ground but rather to pledge to do things more effectively. Time will tell.

(Richard Fontaine is a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security thinktank in Washington.)

July 2010