Leaders’ preambles and world ordering in national security strategy documents: the (un)surprising global strategic ambitions of the US and UK

1 March 2024, 0900 EST

I recently attended a workshop organized by Andrew Hom and Benjamin Day on “Leaders and World Ordering.” The workshop aimed to bring together different strands of IR scholarship – foreign policy analysis, IR theory, and grand strategy – on the question “How do leaders think about world order?”

There I presented results from my ongoing study of top-level security and defense documents from around the world. There has always been a lot of scholarship and commentary on the US NSS, and some on similar documents from other important states, but little on those of less powerful countries. No one, as far as I know, has compared documents from all the world’s countries. 

So far, I’ve collected over 600 docs from 126 countries. Having checked 249 countries three times over two years, I’m convinced this is very close to all the countries that publish a public national security or defense document (I’ll put the whole collection online soon). 

Because the workshop focused on “leaders,” I decided to do some new analysis on my corpus. I selected the 45 documents with preambles ostensibly written by the leaders of their respective countries. All of these are (according to Freedom House) democracies or semi-democracies. I write “ostensibly” because I doubt presidents and prime ministers, who seldom pen their own speeches, actually took the time to write these preambles. Nonetheless, they signed off (often literally) on them, and the preambles are not merely introductory remarks; they encapsulate the governments’ strategic visions and implicitly convey the states’ roles within the global order.

What does a comparison of these preambles reveal? More than I expected. Of all the leaders’ preambles, only two—the United States and the United Kingdom—talk about shaping the world order. I was surprised to say the least. This can’t be a coincidence, given their history and foreign policy. 

For example, President Biden’s preamble to the “United States of America National Security Strategy 2022” reads: “From the earliest days of my Presidency, I have argued that our world is at an inflection point. How we respond to the tremendous challenges and the unprecedented opportunities we face today will determine the direction of our world… The 2022 National Security Strategy outlines how my Administration will seize this decisive decade to advance America’s vital interests, position the United States to outmanoeuvre our geopolitical competitors, tackle shared challenges, and set our world firmly on a path toward a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow.” [emphasis added]

Similarly, Prime Minister Sunak’s preamble to the “United Kingdom Integrated Review Refresh 2023” reads: “The 2021…Review…anticipated some but not all of the global turbulence of the last two years. It recognised that the intensification of competition between states was sowing seeds of instability…we must shape the global strategic environment…” [emphasis added]

The preambles are a nod to their history of global influence, or perhaps from some views, their history of imperialism. Recall that the United States and United Kingdom are the primary architects of the post-war world order, including the UNNATO, World Bank, and IMF.[1] The US and its UK junior partner are usually the first amongst Western allies to lead military interventions. Currently they’re trying to send a “a clear message” with air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen to protect freedom of navigation in the strategically vital Red Sea

It’s a stark contrast to other Western countries that, despite their imperial pasts, now talk of resilience and cooperation rather than world-shaping ambitions. Preambles from Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and Spain acknowledge the changing world order, but don’t talk about shaping it. These leaders’ visions are outward-looking yet concentrated on safeguarding their own state’s interests and stability in the context of a rapidly changing global landscape. They call for adapting and securing themselves, not the world. For example, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz writes: “the global order is changing: new centers of power are emerging, the world in the 21st century is multipolar.”

All seven of these Western European countries have imperial histories, and again this can’t be a coincidence. These countries used to shape parts of the world directly, but now they highlight the need for resilience and cooperation. Perhaps being members of the EU explains this, since one of its founding objectives was to prevent expansionism.

Only three other countries mention the world: New Zealand (in reference to Christchurch attack of 2019), Palau (which mentions a “rapidly changing world”), and Nigeria (which talks of an “interconnected world” and the “global security environment”). Nigeria is often seen as a regional hegemon, which may explain its more global outlook.

The remaining 33 countries, most of which are postcolonial states, barely mention the outside world, let alone shaping it. Beyond challenges to their domestic security, at most they discuss regional alliances and external threats, but avoid discussing the world order entirely. 

These patterns in leaders’ comments about the world (or lack of) reveal a striking correlation between a country’s history and its leaders’ articulation of global strategic roles. They show states positioning themselves in the global order, painting a complex picture of ambition and history that continues to influence our present and future. They do more than set the tone for national security strategies; they reveal the enduring influence of historical power structures in shaping contemporary visions of world order. 

A key aim of my national security strategies project is to break away from realist strategic tropes and look for other patterns. IR debates are often dominated by the strategic maneuvers of great powers, and the global landscape is more diverse and intricate than our preoccupation with these actors suggests. Well over a hundred countries now publish national security and defense documents, writing their own strategic narratives. But it’s clear that great powers — or states that think of themselves as great powers — talk about their national security in distinctive ways, expressing status and ambition. 

[1] “After World War II, the United States launched history’s most ambitious era of institution building. The UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO, GATT, and other institutions that emerged provided the most rule-based structure for political and economic relations in history.” Ikenberry, G. John. “Power and Liberal Order: America’s Postwar World Order in Transition.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 5, no. 2 (2005): 133–52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26156571, 140.