The More Things Change: Explaining Continuity in Defense Strategy


Editor’s Note: This article is based on a new RAND report, The History and Politics of Defense Review


Judging by appearances, it is hard to imagine two more different approaches to the military and defense policy than those of the Obama and Trump administrations. President Barack Obama came into office championing “smart power” — a blend of diplomacy, development, and military power, and a reliance on multilateral international institutions to solve the strategic problems. By contrast, President Donald Trump unabashedly advocates an approach defined by “hard power,” as part of a broader “America First” strategy. This military-heavy approach to international affairs often comes at the budgetary expense of civilian foreign policy institutions.

And yet, one does not need to scratch much below the surface of the two administrations’ official national security documents before these differences begin blur. Take the Obama administration’s unclassified 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance — notable for the fact that Obama was deeply engaged in its creation: He hosted a series of meetings with the senior defense leadership to talk through the document and signed the final version. The strategy was hugely influential, but also quite controversial. Among its more contentious elements were: a shift away from the “two-war” construct — whereby the U.S. military committed to being able to fight two wars simultaneously — to a conducting “a large-scale operation in one region,” and “denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” The Defense Strategic Guidance directed a “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region” away from the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Middle East. Finally, the guidance also directed the department to no longer sizing the force to conduct “large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

At the time, leading Republicans fiercely criticized all three choices, but fast forward several years and most of these decisions are still reflected in the Trump administration’s inaugural 2018 National Defense Strategy, albeit in somewhat altered form. Rather than “denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second region,” the National Defense Strategy unclassified summary uses the somewhat cleaner phrase “deterring opportunistic aggression” in a second region. However, the fact remains that the “two-war” construct is still gone. Similarly, while the “rebalance” to Asia has been replaced with a new focus on Russia and China (i.e., a sort of double-rebalance to Asia and Europe), counterterrorism is still no longer “the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Finally, although the National Defense Strategy remains mute on stability operations of any size, the strategy does imply such operations are no longer the priority.

There are other points of continuity in the current strategy as well. For all the talk of a “hard power” focus, the National Defense Strategy calls for “combined actions with the U.S. interagency to employ all dimensions of national power,” by which the Defense Department “assist[s] the efforts” of civilians agencies, rather than vice versus. And despite the “America First” rhetoric, the new strategy’s eleven pages are littered with a dozen-plus references to allies, underscoring the American commitments to “work by, with, and through our allies and partners” and to “[defend] allies from military aggression and [bolster] partners against coercion.”

It is not just the verbiage of the strategy that remains relatively the same; the numbers also reflect more incremental — rather than monumental — shifts. True, the Trump administration secured a significant increase to accompany the new strategy, but when one factors in war spending, it puts the defense budget roughly where it was during first few years of the Obama administration. Moreover, whether the defense budget secures the sustained 3 to 5 percent real growth per year for the next five years the Defense Department has argued it needs to stay “competitive” remains an open question. Even the Department’s own projections seem to suggest significantly more modest growth lie ahead.

Similarly, the budget request also included three more combat squadrons for the Air Force over five years, ten new ships for the Navy in fiscal year 2019, an active duty manpower increase of 25,900, and less visible but arguably more important gains in readiness. These are real gains, to be sure, and perhaps they will be followed by greater shift in resources in future years. For the moment, however, these are hardly the dramatic increases one would expect if the United States now wants to “remain the preeminent military power in the world” in the face of China which, according to Pacific Command commander nominee Admiral Philip Davidson, “is no longer a rising power but an arrived great power and peer competitor,” and Russia still a formidable military power even if still a shadow of its former self, plus three other credible adversaries — Iran, North Korea, and terrorism — as the National Defense Strategy claims.

The relatively small shift between administrations, however, is not unique simply to the Trump administration. As much as defense pundits focus on the differences between the strategies, the larger trend has been toward a fair degree of consistency across post-Cold War reviews from Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump, despite notable differences in presidential rhetoric and political ideology. Ultimately, this broad intellectual consistency underscores three forces — overlapping personnel, structural obstacles, and political inertia — that help ensure consistency across administrations.

First, while many people touch these documents before they are published, there is a relatively small cadre of individuals actually writing these reviews. Over the years, the small, insular circle of foreign and defense policy experts has attracted the ire of members of both parties. Even leaving aside the career civil servants, many of the political appointees who spearhead these strategies draw from a relatively small community of outside experts at an even smaller pool of defense think tanks. When not in power, the same group of experts still shape policy, albeit indirectly, critiquing the current administration’s work in the press and by generally becoming one of the prime audiences for such documents. Indeed, looking at the backgrounds of those responsible for developing and critiquing the 2018 National Defense Strategy, this trend was present. And yet, what the hyperbolic rhetoric about the “blob” and “the deep state” miss is that most occupations have their own professional communities that help define best practice — and defense strategy should be no different. Still, it does reinforce a degree of intellectual consistency across documents.

Second, these strategies — as consensus documents that speak to multiple audiences — face built-in structural obstacles limiting their intellectual freedom of movement. At one level, these documents need to mollify competing factions inside the Department of Defense, each with their own programmatic and bureaucratic interests. At the same time, strategy documents also are signals to external actors, most notably to Congress as markers in ongoing budget debates, and also to the wider policy audience in Washington and around the world. The need to simultaneously speak across audiences ultimately constrains the policy space surrounding these reviews. In theory, the National Defense Strategy was deliberately designed to side step this issue by making its final product classified. And yet, even here, the National Defense Strategy could not escape these dynamics altogether. The Defense Department still had to justify its budget and priorities to Congress and the greater policy audience, and published an unclassified summary version complete with a deliberate public roll-out.

Finally, even if there is the motivation to break with past strategies and assuming the document can thread the competing constituencies to chart a different course, all defense strategies run head-long into political and strategic reality. Big changes often require money, and money requires congressional approval. The congressional politics of the defense budget, however, do not change just because the Defense Department rolls out a new document. This partly explains why the current defense budget may come closer to, but still fall short of, the strategy’s ambitious goals. The former must play within the bounds of the recent two-year congressional budget deal. And, the enemy still gets a vote. As the Obama and now Trump administrations have found out, strategies may talk about moving away from the Middle East, but regional dynamics often pull the American strategic focus back in.

All this points to a basic truism about all such strategic documents: They are as much about politics as they are about analysis. The political structure surrounding these reviews limits how much any one strategic document can change policy. These built-in constraints lend consistency to American foreign policy and limit the fallout of any particularly erroneous decision, but also curtail any one administration from making big decisions.

Whether status quo bias is a good thing depends, of course, on whether one believes the United States is on the right path to begin with. If so, then one might find it comforting that regardless of whether it is Obama or Trump occupying the oval office, American national security strategy will continue to plod along its present track, with dramatic swings in rhetoric but fewer concrete policy changes.

If, however, one believes — as the National Defense Strategy argues — that the United States really does face the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” by multiple revisionist powers while the American “competitive military advantage has been eroding,” then more fundamental changes in terms of the size, shape, and employment of military assets may be in order. Strategies can direct smaller, more incremental changes, but absent a major exogenous shock, strategies alone will be unlikely to force large-scale, more fundamental shifts, especially in an issue area with as many vested interests as defense policy. In the end, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


A former active duty Army officer, Raphael S. Cohen is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, an adjunct professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and the author of “History and Politics of Defense Reviews,” from which this article is partially adapted.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Taylor Worley