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National Security Strategy Reports Overview

The National Security Strategy Report is published by the executive branch of the United States government.  It is intended to be a comprehensive statement articulating the worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States that are important to its security. Among the reporting requirements are those actions needed to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy.

Under the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986 (amending Title 50, Chapter 15, Section 404a of the US Code), the President must submit a report on the national security strategy of the United States to Congress each year along with the budget proposal. In addition, each incoming administration must submit an additional report within 150 days of taking office. However, for various reasons, these reports have been made late or not at all. This is especially true in recent years. (See individual report pages for further information).

The original or overt intent of the reporting requirement is to force the President and the executive branch to formulate a coherent and integrated strategy for the mid- and long-term defense of those interests most vital to US national security. However, the report has not turned out to be a neutral planning document. Instead, according to Don Snider it serves at least five different purposes, including to:

  1. Communicate the Executive’s strategic vision to Congress, and thus support its funding requests.
  2. Communicate the Executive’s strategic vision to foreign constituencies, especially governments not on the US’s summit agenda.
  3. Communicate with select domestic audiences, such as political supporters seeking Presidential recognition of their issues, and those who hope to see a coherent and farsighted strategy they could support.
  4. Create internal consensus on foreign and defense policy within the executive branch.
  5. Contribute to the overall agenda of the President, both in terms of substance and messaging.

In practice, the report is not written by a single author, but is the result of “an iterative, interagency process of some months” involving high-level meetings and multiple drafts to resolve differences within the administration. (Snider, 6). As seen in the first Bush Sr. report in 1990, the process of writing the report can be of immense importance where the strategic environment is quickly changing, by forcing the administration to confront those changes head-on and in a rational and deliberate manner.

Additionally, the national security strategy report is often looked to by those wishing to determine the overarching doctrine that the President will apply in his foreign policy. After all, given the role of Congress and the Courts in constraining the President, no Presidential report can be more than that: a statement of preference as to current or future grand strategy.

More pessimistically:

National security strategies are funny things. Amb. Ryan Crocker once described them as mandated exercises that don’t tell us terribly much about national security or strategy. That’s a bit harsh, but there is something to his dismissive characterization. The document’s authors tend to aim high: to articulate a president’s vision of the world, describe his administration’s foreign policy and security priorities, and map the paths by which the U.S. will protect its interests and values. They hope the document will serve as internal guidance across the U.S. government, represent a lodestar for foreign observers, and explain the vision and logic to all the world.

Except that they generally do nothing of the kind.

National security strategies lack the traditional attributes of “strategy.” They do not spell out desired objectives, articulate the steps needed to achieve those ends, or describe the resources necessary to carry out those steps. Nor do they clearly prioritize aims. On the contrary, the objectives of these documents tend to be broad and abstract. . . . The documents usually lack detailed plans of action and they do not lay out the dollars or other resources necessary to get there from here. In their aspirations, generalities and rhetoric, national security strategies often most resemble a really, really long speech. The National Security Strategy tends to impose a chain of logic on actions the government is already taking, and to highlight how the current administration differs from the previous ignoramuses who were running the show.

Richard Fontaine, Trump Should Mind The Gaps In His National Security Strategy