Earlier today, President Obama unveiled a revamped national military strategy in a major address at the Pentagon. While the full details of the strategy—dubbed "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense"—have yet to be disclosed, early reports offer some important insights into the Administration's evolving national security and defense priorities.
Transitioning beyond the War on Terror. In his remarks, President Obama emphasized that the White House was "turning the page on a decade of war," and that the U.S. withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan are part of that process. So too, according to the President, is a reorientation of U.S. military strategy toward a qualitatively new set of strategic priorities. This suggests that, with the death of Osama bin Laden, the White House is eager change the conversation away from counterterrorism, even though al-Qaeda and other terrorist actors still represent a serious threat.
More emphasis on cyberspace. The strategy pledges new investments in defense against hostile intrusion and cyber attack. This is an area where the Obama administration, for all of its rhetoric to the contrary, has done comparatively little. Of the 24 near- and medium-term priorities for bolstering national cybersecurity outlined by the Administration in its May 2009 cybersecurity review, the Government Accountability Office last year found just two to have been fully implemented. The U.S. military, to its credit, has done a bit more. Yet a comprehensive strategy for cyberoffense and cyberdefense remains a long way off. That the Pentagon now plans to invest more heavily on those fronts is unequivocally a good thing.
A retreat from Europe? The strategy suggests a major shift in America's relations with Europe is in the offing, stressing that the U.S. presence on the Old Continent must "evolve." What that means, concretely, remains to be seen. Most likely, it foreshadows a reduction of U.S. troop basing there in favor of deployments in Asia, a region that has taken center stage on the Administration's foreign policy agenda of late. But political compromises could figure into the equation as well, since the Obama administration's efforts to erect a missile shield in Europe have met with stiff resistance from the Kremlin, and the White House is still heavily invested in its "reset" of relations with Russia. As such, it could easily be tempted to pivot away from the idea of defending Europe from ballistic missile attack—something that would leave vulnerable Eastern European allies in the cold while handing Moscow a major geopolitical victory.
Shrinking the strategic arsenal. Perhaps most significantly, the strategy lays the predicate for further (and potentially steep) reductions in U.S. strategic forces. The strategy raises the possibility that "deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force." This suggests that the White House plans to proceed along the road of strategic nuclear reductions begun with the New START treaty it hammered out with the Kremlin late in 2010—and that it is willing to do so even though the "reset" with Russia, which that treaty is supposed to shore up, is clearly on the rocks. It also tracks closely with President Obama's penchant for the idea of "global zero," in which the United States unilaterally draws down its arsenal in hopes that other nuclear powers follow suit.
Notably, most of these changes have been put forth under the banner of fiscal austerity, of effectively doing as much—or more—with less. But can we? More than a few officials have waxed skeptical. Indeed, House Armed Services Committee chair Howard "Buck" McKeon already has lambasted the new strategy as laying the predicate for an American "retreat from the world."
Administration officials, of course, maintain that it does no such thing. But the devil will be in the details of how the new strategy is applied, and whether it allows the United States to successfully navigate an increasingly grave new world.