The article will analyze America’s current National Security Strategy (NSS 2010) from the point of view of neorealism, seeking to show the way in which the document confirms neorealism’s theoretical expectations.
This attempt may seem problematic considering the apparent incompatibility between the centrality of systemic analysis in neorealism and the fact that the article will focus on the national security strategy of a unit of the international system. However, the analysis of a security strategy can outline the way in which systemic factors generate constraints and opportunities for the international system’s units in their interaction and the fact that the units are aware of the system’s structure and of their position in it, an awareness that in turn influences their behavior.
The drafting of public strategic planning documents is only a recent development. At the first glance the NSS does not offer sufficient elements for an extensive analysis carried out from the point of view of neorealism.
Neorealism sees states as the main units of analysis because the system is ordered on the basis of the anarchic principle and the states’ territoriality and sovereignty form the basis of that anarchy. According to the neorealist theory, states are the units whose interaction creates the structure of the international system and the structure of the system depends on the distribution of capabilities between the constituent units.
In the neorealist approach, great powers are the main actors – states that occupy a dominant position in the international distribution of capabilities and whose number determines the polarity (structure) of the system. In its turn, the structure of the system is a constraining and ordering force. Constraining because, similar to a market, it rewards and punishes the units’ behavior, and ordering because through competition and socialization it stimulates units to follow the acceptable and successful practices.
Units are able to notice and understand the structure of the system and its attributes, adjusting their behavior in accordance with it. Thus, neorealism can show how and why expectations about the interactions between units vary along with the system’s structural changes.
A neorealist analysis starting off strictly from the theoretical assertions listed above would be limited to empirically showing, through methods of measuring national capabilities on the basis of statistical data, whether the document accurately reflects the reality (the distribution of capabilities within the system and the changes within that distribution, America’s place in the system) as it plans to do from the start – “to succeed, strategy must face world as it is” – and possibly to compare, through case studies meant to compare similar documents drafted in different polarities of the system, the way in which structural realities impose constraints and offer opportunities for strategic planning.
Such an extensive analysis however would go beyond the framework of this article without fully using the possibilities of analysis that the document in fact offers. Consequently, without ignoring the arguments listed above, we will focus on a different part of the neorealist theory, a part that is reflected in the NSS.
Apart from the basic theoretical points listed before, neorealism also focuses on the international order. Thus, since the structure of the international system can be transformed by changing the distribution of capabilities among units and the degree in which a unit’s interest merges with the interest of the system is directly proportional with the relative capabilities of the unit, the consequence is that order and stability are ineluctably connected to the structure of the international system and to structural changes. This assertion also forms the basis of the hegemonic stability theory and hegemonic war theory.
According to the hegemonic stability theory, the existence of a hegemon favors the establishment of stable international regimes that create public goods that are distributed to the other states without the latter having to bear the costs of creating and sustaining them.
Neorealism does not reject the existence of international organizations and the possibility of institutionalizing interactions between units, however it sees them tightly connected to and at the same time undermined by the material capabilities of the great powers that create and sustain them, in other words dependent on the structure of the system.
In the neorealist view, the smaller the number of great powers and the higher the differences between their capabilities and the capabilities of the other units, the likelier it is that they will act in the interest of the system, taking responsibility for assuring collective public goods since their consumption at international level is in their own interest.
How does the NSS fit the neorealist theory?
The NSS points out that America is the only superpower, capable of projecting and sustaining wide scale military operations over great distances, maintaining superior capabilities that allow her to ensure the credibility of her security partnerships. Moreover, the document underlines the developments registered in the distribution of capabilities within the system, pointing out the continued integration of the EU, China’s and India’s emergence as globally-committed powers and Russia’s re-emergence and develops a security strategy meant to live up to these challenges.
Apart from the fact that it points out America’s dominant position within the structure of the international system from the start, the document underlines that the United States is the nation that helped build the post-WWII international system and its immutable interest is “an international order advanced by US leadership.”
America is fully aware of the fact that the international order she promotes will support her interests. Her strategy will consist of promoting an international system based on rules, in which states will have to be offered incentives to behave responsibly or to be isolated when they fail to do so. The document defines responsible behavior as respect for international norms and for the responsibilities inherent in sovereignty, while incentives are understood as rewards inherent to political and economic integration into the international system.
Being aware of her position in the system and of the power of her own example, a power she will seek to strengthen, America considers that by adhering to the standards that govern the use of force at international level she will strengthen those that respect international standards.
At the same time, being aware that the international architecture established after WWII is having a hard time dealing with the growing pressure of new threats, America plans to lead once again the global efforts meant to modernize the infrastructure of international cooperation. The strategy for this being that of building more efficient partnerships with other important centers of influence and also to expand her ties with emerging nations that can play the role of regional models of success and stability.
Enjoying a power edge over her competitors, neorealism predicts that America’s strategies will no longer be limited to interests defined strictly in terms of security. Indeed, despite the fluctuations in perception registered recently, her uncontestable status of being the system’s main great power determines America to take on special systemic responsibilities that other states cannot fulfill. Thus, she is willing and capable to offer incentives to the states that adhere to the order she promotes and also has the strength to impose coercive measures against regional opponents that reject that order. America chooses “regional champions” that in turn become the international order’s levers at subsystemic level. America is also trying to strengthen the power of example, stimulating other units to emulate her.
Last but not least, the documents points out how America carefully monitors changes in the distribution of capabilities in the system and how she tries to answer them by integrating the emerging power centers in the international order she wants.
Thus, the NSS confirms the theoretical expectations of neorealism both from the point of view of the system’s influence on unit behavior and that of a dominant unit’s influence on the system.
The transparent character of this vision and document undoubtedly limits the full and detailed listing of threats, goals and strategies. For example, the document lists as state-level threats only hostile regional powers and does not go into detail when it comes to grand strategies towards great powers that have the potential of becoming “peer competitors,” that may have their own strategic relations with the aforementioned hostile regional powers and that may reject America’s attempts to make them behave “responsibly” by supporting the international order she promotes.