Will the National Security Strategy defund the government?

Associated Press/Patrick Semansky
National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 22, 2022, in Washington.

President Biden’s National Security Strategy is set to be released at any time, and if it follows the interim version faithfully, it will be radical — and doomed to failure. That is, unless a dependency mentioned like an afterthought on the second-to-last page sees the light of day.  It’s easy to miss; just a few sentences, buried after much fuller coverage of looming threats such as China, Russia, climate change and equality. No one is talking about it, but it’s crucial — the single most important piece of guidance, and it goes like this:  

“Because traditional distinctions between foreign and domestic policy — and among national security, economic security, health security, and environmental security — are less meaningful than ever before, we will reform and rethink our agencies, departments, interagency processes, and White House organization to reflect this new reality.”  

Why, among all other pressing national security concerns, is this the most salient? The Interim National Security Strategy approaches national security in terms of human security, addressing the many causes of human vulnerability: armed conflict, human rights violations, environmental challenges, and resource deprivation. In doing so, it places a remarkable burden on the existing national security apparatus, which is structured to meet the traditional definition of security: protecting citizens against external aggression and internal subversion.   

The proficiency of the U.S. government to mount an effective national security strategy with limited input from outside the government is a thing of the past. It used to be relatively simple, or at least straightforward: The U.S. military was the hammer, and foreign nation-states and rogue actors were the nails. But now, global interdependencies create instruments of power that no longer resemble hammers or nails. The United States simply cannot use its military, its Intelligence Community, or even the federal government to tackle everything it has identified as a national security threat. But to address any of the nontraditional threats facing the country, policymakers must overhaul a national security community that amounts to more than 70 percent of the federal workforce — and that’s just to start with.  

If these reforms are not enacted before charging the existing national security apparatus with human security problems, the Biden administration has only itself to blame for the resulting catastrophe, because this is a problem with which the U.S. has more than a passing familiarity. In fact, the country is dealing with the fallout of two centuries of shortsightedness right now. Look to the nation’s police forces, embattled and faltering under a century of strain that has left them overtasked, ill-trained, and collectively despised and feared. This came about because the mandate of the police was substantially broadened from its original purpose; the first night watchmen in 1636 were volunteers, charged with protecting the colonists from a short list of threats, namely prostitution, gambling, fires and wild animals. The mid-19th century saw the formation of municipal police departments in large cities to deal with “disorder.” Now, anything that is not the specific directive of another government agency is hastily and clumsily defaulted to the police. 

Police gradually and unwittingly have been saddled with mounting responsibilities, most of which have little to do with their core crime-fighting mission. America’s police forces are trained to be warriors and then sent out to be social workers, dispute mediators, mental health counselors, traffic controllers, and investigators. The resulting (and in hindsight, predictable) disaster has led to calls to defund the police, a term with more than a small helping of misnomer. Most who use this term aren’t suggesting we abolish police departments; rather, defunding suggests other government municipalities should take on tasks that have been unceremoniously dumped at the foot of police officers who aren’t trained, equipped or, quite frankly, interested in performing them. Despite this approach having a less than desirable outcome, the same thing is poised to happen on a larger scale if the entire federal government is not considerably restructured.  

National security is now defined as anything that threatens the American way of life. That is a tremendous amount of territory for the military and Intelligence Community to cover. If the federal government does not immediately begin to transform itself, the U.S. security apparatus soon may become overtasked and unable to meet the country’s needs. But the government is a lumbering bureaucracy for a reason, and lumbering bureaucracies … well, lumber. They’re not fast, agile, or even especially innovative — hence, the need to work with state, municipal, tribal, civil society, nonprofit, diaspora, faith-based and private-sector actors to address the country’s needs. This is an undertaking worthy of a national security strategy all by itself, with a clearly delineated plan, rather than the casual mention it received.   

The mission of the Department of Defense (DOD) is “to provide the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” The federal government should consider whether to have an Oxford comma debate about that mission set; is the DOD charged with ensuring U.S. security with or without military forces? If so, the U.S. must carefully rethink how it wields the hammer.  

Deb Pfaff, Ph.D., is an associate professor of research with the Ann Caracristi Institute for Intelligence Research at the National Intelligence University (NIU). She has 20 years of government service, 17 with the intelligence community. Prior to the NIU, she served as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and not those of the NIU, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the U.S. government.

Tags Biden intelligence community National security National Security Strategy Police

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