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America’s 2022 National Security Strategy

The White House released the United States (US) National Security Strategy (NSS) on 12th October. For those who read such documents regularly, there were few surprises. American values are mentioned in the context of the US position in the world and vis-à-vis perceived adversaries, such as Russia, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the administration’s lines of effort are laid out in a typical ends, ways, and means format. Finally, there are sections on each region of the world, where targeted strategies are laid out with a bit more context.

Despite similarities with previous national security strategies, a word count of the key terms within the new NSS, as well as past (1994 under President Bill Clinton, 2002 under President George W. Bush, 2017 under President Donald Trump), and the UK’s own Integrated Review (2021 under Prime Minister Boris Johnson), hints at the evolution in American and British foreign policy. The key terms include ‘alliance’, ‘Asia’, ‘China’, ‘Russia’, ‘Europe’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘women’, ‘immigration’, ‘free trade’, and ‘terrorism’, among others (see Table 1). When seen across time, the variation in usage of these terms highlights the correlation and change between the various strategies.

For all the differences between the two parties in the US system and the yawning gulf of so-called ‘culture wars’, the four NSSs analysed are fairly similar to each other. And this is not because they are mundane documents written by bureaucrats – they are in fact usually led by the White House of each administration with many agencies working hard to put the president’s stamp on US security posture. Rather, they are similar because ultimately both parties – despite their domestic differences – still share a common world view and an idea of America’s role within it.

While US universities and think tanks are full of realists, the various strategies have continued to stress the importance of values and the American political system to its foreign policy. Whatever is written in academia, US policy makers continue to stress the role of American values in achieving its paramount position and in improving the global system, though different NSSs vary on how the administration expresses those values. Democratic administrations mention ‘democracy’ more than ‘freedom’, while Republican administrations are the opposite (the UK’s Integrated Review mentions both equally). 

The latest NSS struggles with a tension point in knowing there is going to be a long drawn out ideological struggle with the PRC and Russia whilst not wanting to use the term ‘cold war’ due to an aversion from third-party countries. Despite rejecting the idea of a new cold war, the 2022 NSS nevertheless borrows heavily from strategic documents of the 1950s, particularly when it comes to framing its adversaries through values. Indeed, it divides freedoms into two forms – freedoms to (voting, political freedoms, free media, etc.) and freedoms from coercion and oppression – which echoes Truman’s 1947 speech to Congress which formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine. While the first form would be attractive to fellow democratic liberal states in Europe, the second is more attractive to small and medium-sized non-democratic states whose sovereignty may be threatened by Moscow or Beijing. If a democratic country is to fight a long, drawn out ideological competition with a powerful authoritarian state, then it must appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

The 2022 NSS asserts that its goal is, at the systemic level, to create an order that is free, open, and prosperous – language that echoes that found in the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, and language that has developed with allies such as Japan over the past decade to frame the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea and its Belt and Road Initiative, and Russian efforts to destabilise and dominate the European periphery. For the most part, this is about attempting to offer freedoms from coercion and oppression, rather than promoting liberal values.

Overall, the 2o22 NSS is in line with those that came before it, but more attention should be taken to understand how values – freedoms to and freedoms from – are being developed in order to frame US adversaries, namely the PRC and Russia.

The new NSS also notes that the PRC is projecting its own (authoritarian) values onto the international system as it seeks to re-order it, a theme first articulated in the 2017 NSS. 

Consequently, it lays out an architecture for out-competing the PRC across all domains, and there is a real sense that this is the administration’s priority. Despite this, ‘Russia’ still gains 71 mentions compared to ‘China’ or ‘the PRC’, which had 63. The most likely explanation for this is Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, which dominates the section on Europe. The NSS does raise questions about resource allocation between the two challenges among American allies in the Indo-Pacific.

One might expect to see the word ‘Europe’ mentioned more than ‘Asia’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’ in earlier NSSs but fade out as the PRC’s rise became a more pressing issue for US strategists, and indeed this is borne out by analysis. Dropping from a high of 48 in the 1994 strategy, ‘Europe’ is only mentioned 35 times in the 2022 NSS while ‘Asia’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ are mentioned 43 times.

It notes – like the British Ministry of Defence’s Integrated Operating Concept (2020) and His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s Integrated Review – that the lines between domestic and foreign policy are blurring in the age of social media, insecure supply chains, and technologies related to data processing. The latter of these, like 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and other emerging and critical technologies have grown in importance as Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has accelerated the Digital China strategy. ‘Technology’ was mentioned six times in 1994, nine times in 2002, 25 times in 2017, and 41 times in the 2022 NSS. Notably, the UK’s Integrated Review more than doubles the number of mentions in the 2022 NSS with 91.

The 2022 NSS also stresses the importance of allies, which is fairly common to most American strategic documents. Interestingly, the 2022 NSS mentions ‘alliances’ 17 times, which is only matched by the Bush Administration’s, which was planning a global ‘war on terror’ in 2002. 

For those who track US trade policy, it will come as no surprise to see that ‘free trade’ has also almost completely disappeared from the document. Curiously, this is not the case in HM Government’s Integrated Review, which mentions it 11 times compared to the two mentions in the 2022 NSS, a divergence between the two. This of course reflects the US’ continuing domestic debate over free trade agreements, sparked during the 2016 presidential election, which contrasts with the UK’s strategy of diversifying its reliance on European trade. 

If a democratic country is to fight a long, drawn out ideological competition with a powerful authoritarian state, then it must appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Ultimately, for those who follow US national security strategy closely, it would seem that there are few surprises. Overall, the 2o22 NSS is in line with those that came before it, but more attention should be taken to understand how values – freedoms to and freedoms from – are being developed in order to frame US adversaries, namely the PRC and Russia. US strategists realise that the term ‘cold war’ is still unpalatable to many, but also know that the US must compete long-term with the PRC and Russia in the ideological, technological, military, and economic domains. This tension remains a sticking point, and the sooner the US realises it is in a new ‘cold war’ with both authoritarian powers, the sooner it should be able to frame the competition more clearly.

After all, the term ‘cold war’ and its cousin ‘containment’ have suffered a sustained campaign of criticism from Beijing and Moscow over past decades. That’s unsurprising. It’s in their interest to do so. What is surprising is that it has been allowed. A more proactive approach would be to rehabilitate the term ‘cold war’, point out Russian and Chinese messaging against it, and openly look for useful lessons from the first competition.

Table 1: Mentions of key terms in the 1994, 2002, 2017 and 2022 American NSSs and Britain’s 2021 Integrated Review
Key termsMentions in
1994 NSS (Democratic)2002 NSS (Republican)2017 NSS (Republican)2022 NSS (Democratic)2021 Integrated Review (UK)
Climate Change2101451
Free trade10162211

Dr John Hemmings is Senior Director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the Pacific Forum, a think tank based in Hawaii.

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