The New National Security Strategy: An Effective Blueprint for theWar on Terror

Report Homeland Security

The New National Security Strategy: An Effective Blueprint for theWar on Terror

September 25, 2002 6 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

President Bush has submitted to Congress the first National Security Strategy (NSS) of his presidency.  This forward-looking document is firmly rooted in the nation's post-September 11 fight against terrorism.  It is built upon the tenet that America's interests are best served by promoting freedom around the world and defeating tyranny.  It makes clear that the nation's struggle is one of long-term consequence and that the nation is prepared to "make use of every tool in our arsenal-military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing." 

The Strategy addresses an array of issues.  These range from the need to strike terrorist threats preemptively to the expansion of international trade.  While national security policies of recent years also addressed a wide range of issues, they failed to develop them into a coherent strategy that advanced the national interest.  The new National Security Strategy, however, is firmly embedded in the idea that the nation has a defined purpose-to advance freedom and defeat tyranny--and it develops a plan to advance that.

The Strategy promotes the security of the United States; defines when American interests are served by working in multilateral institutions; identifies the threats to that security; and then focuses America's resources on defeating those threats. To achieve greater security for the nation, the new National Security Strategy recognizes that:

  • American preeminence should be used to sustain the peace.  America's unique economic, military, and political primacy in the world today must be used as a tool for peace.  Instead of apologizing for American power and leadership, or using power aggressively, the President embraces this as an opportunity to advance the nation's primary objective: "to not just make the world safer but better."
  • The principle of freedom should be advanced around the world.  America's security is directly related to political and economic freedom around the world.  From the beginning of the document, the new National Security Strategy draws on America's responsibility to promote global freedom.  It does so, however, not as an unattainable ideal but as part of a comprehensive national security strategy.  The United States will seek opportunities to expand freedom and expend resources on those opportunities.  The NSS also makes clear that nations unwilling to help themselves will not receive support from the United States.  And foreign aid will be grounded in those principles.
  • Traditional deterrence will not work in the war on terrorism.  Deterrence will not work when the enemy seeks "wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents" and "martyrdom in death" according to the NSS.  Both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban could have expected that the United States would respond to their attacks, yet they acted anyway.  The NSS correctly reasons that "Deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people, and the wealth of their nations."
  • Threats can materialize with little or no warning.  The emergence of global communications, advances in technology, and the globalization of terror have significantly decreased the time it takes for a potential threat to be identified and for that threat emerge as an act of aggression.  The NSS states that those wishing harm to the United States would "rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction-weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning." 
  • Preemptive action is a legitimate defensive measure given the threats America faces today. The nation has an inherent right to self-defense and this includes the right to take preemptive action against imminent threats.  According to the NSS, "As a matter of common sense and self defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."  The fact is that the United States, like all other sovereign states, has long maintained the right to defend itself through preemption and centuries of recognized international law supports this right.  Such action may be able to prevent another September 11-like attack.  Moreover, a nation may be deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction or working with terrorists if the U.S. threat to strike is credible. More importantly, if the President acts on sound information that the American people will be attacked, he will save American lives.
  • Multilateral institutions have an important role to play, but do not have veto power.   The war on terror is a global effort, and the United States must work with the international community to ensure long-term success. According to the NSS,  "Alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations."  However, it also points out that these institutions will not prevent the United States from acting in its own self-defense. Furthermore, the United States will take all of its international obligations very seriously. It will not sign onto an agreement for political or symbolic reasons when none of the signatories has any real intention of living up to its tenets.    This new and healthy approach to international institutions will allow the President to use multilateral institutions to advance American interests, instead of the United States advancing the interests of the institution.


While the National Security Strategy provides a good framework to guide American policy as the nation proceeds through the war on terror, in order to sustain the vision described by the NSS, it will be necessary for the Administration to apply similar foresight to other issues of vital national security interests.  These issues include:

  • Prioritizing America's national interests. The United States has many national interests on which to expend its resources in defending. However, some interests are more important then others.  Clearly, executing the war on terrorism is a top priority, but the nation must be prepared to defend other interests.  This becomes especially important as the war on terror expands and America's military resources become stretched.  It will be important to prioritize America's secondary and tertiary interests.
  • Assuring America's ability to control space in times of conflict. On September 11, America's enemies took advantage of a glaring vulnerability in its defenses.  America's reliance on satellites could provide another opportunity for a devastating attack.  Protecting those space assets and developing the capability to replace them should be part of the nation's security strategy. 
  • Influencing the arms control debate.  The United States has much to gain by driving the global arms control debate. With the Cold War over, there is a movement to strengthen global arms control institutions.  The United States must stay involved in the development of these institutions to protect its own interests.
  • Maintaining a strong nuclear posture.  Although the United States no longer needs to rely on nuclear weapons as the centerpiece of its defense posture, they still have an important role.  As long as these weapons exist, the United States must maintain an adequate arsenal of ready, reliable, and effective weapons. This means maintaining a stockpile of sufficient size to counter any nation in the world, and it means testing those weapons.
  • Keeping complacency at bay.   Perhaps the greatest threat to America's long-term security is complacency.  In the decade following the Cold War, the nation became complacent about its own security. This led to drastic cuts in defense spending, which have thrust America's armed forces into modernization crisis.  The nation once again understands the need for defense as the war on terror wears on; however, complacency will again take hold.  This must be avoided.


The President's National Security Strategy provides an effective blueprint to guide the nation through its war on terrorism while staying vigilant on other issues.  It defines a national purpose and explains how to harness the nation's resources to advance it.  Furthermore, it explains the rationalization for some of the President's most controversial policies, such as preemption, and how those policies are necessary to achieve the nation's objectives.    The document's only drawback is that it lacks depth in detail for some issues that are of legitimate national security concern. For the most part, however, the President's National Security Strategy will serve the nation well.

 -Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom