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By Paul Lubliner Senior Editor September 26, 2011

By redefining the U.S. National Security Strategy, America can send a stronger message to the international community that its actions have clear purpose.

One can only guess what the definition of U.S. national security might be when reading the U.S. National Security Strategy. This ambiguity allows policy makers a great deal of flexibility to determine how to engage the world. Yet a clear and appropriate definition of U.S. national security would allow policy makers to create a more cohesive narrative and clearer justification for the actions they undertake. In the wake of two major wars, at a time when President Barak Obama’s foreign policy is gaining critics and while Democrats and Republicans have a hard time compromising, creating and utilizing a cohesive definition of national security is worth a try.

The current U.S. government’s definition of national security is from the Department of Defense (DOD). According to DOD, national security is:

A collective term encompassing both national defense and foreign relations of the United States. Specifically, the condition provided by: a) a military or defense advantage over any foreign nation or group of nations; b) a favorable foreign relations position; or c) a defense posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert.

This definition cannot be used effectively as a basis for U.S. National Security Strategy because of its deficiencies. First, it states that national security is actually a collection of three definitions. Given that these definitions are not mutually exclusive, separating them into different silos confounds the creation of a cohesive national security strategy based off of the collective definition. Basing a strategy off of either the first or second definition is too restrictive.

Furthermore, in the third definition, it is not clear what “from within and without” refers to, although presumably the U.S. homeland. This third definition is also too restrictive to stand alone because a good definition involves more than a “defense posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action.” Indeed, providing “the condition” is also a matter of being able to successfully preempt or avoid hostile or destructive action through international aid, diplomacy and constructive political, economic and social policies. Further, “the condition,” might be broadly defined to reassure people that it is foreseen as something positive. A more useful definition though would describe national security in terms of the ability to provide a given condition rather than as the condition that is a result of that ability because the former’s greater focus on ability is psychologically more empowering. Finally, it should be clear that national security keeps individuals safe both physically and psychologically; hence integral to the definition is that Americans must have confidence in the very mechanisms and efforts that exist to keep them safe.

With this in mind U.S. national security might be defined as the ability to safeguard U.S. national interests, including human physical and psychological well-being by defensive and/or proactive actions capable of successfully resisting, defeating, avoiding and/or preventing hostile and/or destructive action from within or outside the United States. The elements that this improved definition provide are clearly relevant to the current U.S. National Security Strategy, which emphasizes security, prosperity, American values and international order. While new threats emerge and other threats fade away, and while different administrations will weigh threats and interests differently because of unique ideologies, this improved definition proves broad enough to last for decades to come.

The impact of U.S. policy is felt strongly throughout the world. U.S. actions have significant consequences. By redefining the definition of U.S. National Security, the U.S. can send a stronger message to the international community that its actions have clear purpose. Such a definition will not fundamentally alter how the U.S. conducts foreign policy, nor will it fundamentally change the world’s perception of the U.S, but in the long-term it would likely make the U.S. a little more credible as a benevolent world leader.

Paul Lubliner is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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