America Lays It on the Line

Thursday, January 30, 2003
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Until several months ago, the United States had issued only one document describing its national security strategy. In 1950 National Security Council 68 stated how and why America would fight the Cold War. NSC 68, carried out in accordance with the concepts of “deterrence” and “containment” of the Soviet Union, guided free- world policies toward the Soviet Union until President Reagan’s more dynamic and assertive approach drove the USSR to collapse.

With the Cold War over, commentators watched and waited for a strategy to replace NSC 68. What would be the new American vision? But no such document appeared, and the decade of the 1990s—the post–Cold War period—came to an end without a new American strategy in sight.

In September 2002, however, a new National Security Strategy (NSS) put forward an approach to world affairs that turned conventional thinking on its head. The paper sets out a line of argument that could transform international relations for the next generation.

Flying in the face of contemporary trends toward moral and cultural relativism, the NSS asserts that a set of “universal values” is shared by all peoples, no matter what their culture, religion, ethnicity, or tradition might be. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely, the NSS says, and to choose their government, worship as they please, educate their children (both male and female), own property, and benefit from their labor. Note that these are not expressed as “rights,” for rights can be granted, conditioned, or diluted. No, these values just are, and they are “right and true” for every human being.

The new reality is that a network of rogue states and terrorist organizations that reject these values threatens to force civilization into chaos. Traditionally, danger to world peace has resulted from great-power rivalry, but today the great powers find themselves on the same side, as renegade regimes and fanatic ideologues oppose the international state system and the peace and progress it makes possible.

To deal with this challenge, the NSS puts forward three major concepts. Taken together, they amount to a “Bush Doctrine”: preemption as a strategic necessity, the requirement that America remain the world’s paramount power, and a wholly new definition of “the balance of power.”

Preemption has been recognized by international law only in extremely rare circumstances. Leaders of the West, in order to hold “the moral high ground,” commonly have not gone to war until they have been attacked. That approach may have made sense when the danger was that one state’s professional armed forces might attack another state’s military or naval assets, as the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. But when weapons of mass destruction came on the scene in the mid–twentieth century, this changed. Could a leader afford to wait when an attacker could kill on a hitherto unimaginable scale? Today the situation is far worse, as the NSS makes clear: Even outlaw groups can obtain weapons of mass destruction to use against civilian populations. Under these new circumstances, preemption may be a moral imperative.

The paramountcy of American power is stated clearly in the NSS: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” Like other parts of this audacious new Bush Doctrine, this assertion has stimulated reactions ranging from horror to hand-wringing. But it simply tells the truth. No one familiar with the history of international security would expect anything of the United States other than a resolute program to stay ahead of any potential enemy’s effort to achieve parity with or surpass it militarily. The clarity of this NSS assertion may check the ambitions of dictators; if they are put on notice that the United States won’t stand still while they amass arsenals for war, they might just channel their resources to more peaceful and productive ends.

The most far-reaching aspect of this groundbreaking NSS may be its transformative view of the balance of power, traditionally a matter of states banding together to confront and counteract one overweening nation. This new Bush Doctrine declares that the United States will cooperate with other “centers of power.” Our Cold War allies, the Europeans, appear here as one of several such centers, as do our former adversaries, Russia and China, and a new addition to the ranks of great powers, India. This means that, from now on, our allies can come from anywhere. They may be large or small, mighty or not; the key will be whether they understand and foster the values the NSS describes as universal and whether they are members in good standing of the international system of states, which is under assault by rogue regimes and terrorist groups. This new “balance of power that favors freedom” can create working relationships among coalitions of states willing to address a particular problem, be it health, security, migration, the economy, the environment, or any issue from the range of world concerns.


Above all, the Bush Doctrine stresses that, despite the unprecedented dangers of the present time, the potential for shared human achievement has never been greater. Economic freedom and political freedom are indispensable to the fulfillment of this promise. The NSS provides both a rationale and a road map for a better future. For the United States, or any world power in history, to lay out its grand strategic doctrine in such blunt and honest language is rare and may be unique. President Bush’s NSS has aroused the attention it deserves. It is the standard to which George Bush will be held when the time comes to assess his presidency.