National Security Definition and Examples

Military mission at twilight.
Military mission at twilight. Guvendemir / Getty Images

National security is the ability of a country’s government to protect its citizens, economy, and other institutions. Beyond the obvious protection against military attacks, national security in the 21st century includes several non-military missions.

Key Takeaways: National Security

  • National security is the ability of a country’s government to protect its citizens, economy, and other institutions.
  • Today, some non-military levels of national security include economic security, political security, energy security, homeland security, cybersecurity, human security, and environmental security.
  • To ensure national security, governments rely on tactics, including political, economic, and military power, along with diplomacy.



Concepts of Security 


For most of the 20th century, national security was strictly a matter of military power and readiness, but with the dawn of the nuclear age and the threats of the Cold War, it became clear that defining national security in a context of conventional military warfare had become a thing of the past. Today, U.S. government policymakers struggle to balance the demands of several “national securities.” Among these are economic security, political security, energy security, homeland security, cybersecurity, human security, and environmental security.

In a political context, this proliferation of “national security” definitions poses difficult challenges. In some cases, for example, they are simply a repurposing of domestic policy programs, such as infrastructure improvement, intended to shift funds and resources away from the military. In other cases, they are needed to respond to the complexities of a rapidly changing international environment. 

The modern world is characterized by perilous state-to-state relationships as well as conflicts within states caused by ethnic, religious, and nationalistic differences. International and domestic terrorism, political extremism, drug cartels, and threats created by information-age technology add to the turmoil. The sense of optimism for lasting peace after the end of the Vietnam War was shattered on September 11, 2001, by the terrorist attacks on the United States, the “Bush Doctrine,” and the seemingly perpetual war against international terrorism. The United States’ war against terrorism and constantly evolving concepts of warfare are politically intermixed with globalization, economic expansion, homeland security, and demands to extend American values through diplomacy.

During the response to the September 11 attacks, disputes within the national security establishment, Congress, and the public were temporarily muted. More recently, however, the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the continuing concerns about Iran and North Korea have magnified the challenges to U.S. national security policy and have caused a great degree of turmoil in the U.S. political system and foreign policy. In this environment, U.S. national security policy and priorities have become complicated—not due to the threat of major conventional war but because of the unpredictable characteristics of the international arena.

Today’s national security environment is complicated by a proliferation of a diverse range of violent non-state actors. Often by committing heinous acts of violence against innocent civilians, these groups utilize subversive means to exploit and disrupt the international system. 

Suicide bombers are inspired and trained by al Qaeda and its offshoots in Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen. Somali pirates disrupt shipping, kidnapping civilians, and extorting governments. As part of a “blood oil” trade, warlords terrorize the Niger Delta. La Familia, a quasi-religious drug cartel, murders its way to control of Mexico’s drug trafficking routes. Such groups are also condemned for relying heavily on children under the age of 18 as combatants and in other supportive roles.

Conventional national security strategy is ill-equipped to deal with violent non-state actors. According to global security analysts, flexible arrangements in dealing with non-state armed actors will always be necessary. In general, three so-called “spoiler management” strategies have been suggested: positive propositions or inducements to counter demands made by non-state armed actors; socialization in order to change their behavior; and arbitrary measures to weaken armed actors or force them to accept certain terms.

Beyond spoiler management strategies, international peace-building and state-building efforts challenge the position of most of these non-state armed actors by attempting to strengthen or rebuild state structures and institutions. While peacebuilding works towards the establishment of sustainable peace in general, state-building focuses specifically on the construction of a functional state capable of maintaining that peace. Accordingly, peace-building is often followed by state-building efforts in a process of intervention by external actors.

In consideration of the new problems of defining national security, noted scholar of civil-military relations, the late Sam C. Sarkesian, prominent scholar of civil-military relations and national security, proposed a definition that includes both objective capability and perception: 

“U.S. national security is the ability of national institutions to prevent adversaries from using force to harm Americans.”

Goals and Priorities 

As first stated in “A National Security Strategy for a New Century,” released by the Bill Clinton administration in 1998, the primary goals of the U.S. national security strategy remain to protect the lives and safety of Americans; maintain the sovereignty of the United States, with its values, institutions, and territory intact; and provide for the prosperity of the nation and its people.

Similar to those of previous U.S. presidential administrations since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued by President Joe Biden in March 2021, established the following fundamental national security goals and priorities:

  • Defend and nurture the underlying sources of America’s strength, including its people, economy, national defense, and democracy;
  • Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and its allies, inhibiting access to global natural resources, or dominating key regions; and
  • Lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.

Increasingly, the U.S. national security strategy is required to confront an international environment characterized by intense geopolitical challenges to the United States—predominately from China and Russia, but also from Iran, North Korea, and other regional powers and factions.

Carrier Air Wing (CVW) airplanes and the French Carrier Air Wing flying over the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush.
Carrier Air Wing (CVW) airplanes and the French Carrier Air Wing flying over the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush. Smith Collection / Getty Images

Even two decades after the event, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the resulting War on Terror continue to have a significant influence on U.S. security policy. Aside from the devastating human losses, the 9/11 attacks brought a better understanding of the scale and importance of the global nature of the terrorism threat. America’s defense and political leaders gained greater will and ability to commit the resources necessary to fight terrorism most effectively. The War on Terror also ushered in a new generation of policies like the USA Patriot Act, prioritizing national security and defense, even at the expense of some civil liberties.

Lasting Effects of the War on Terror

Twenty years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the World Trade Center has been rebuilt, Osama bin Laden is dead at the hands of a U.S. Navy Seal team, and on September 1, 2021, the last U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan, ending America's longest war while leaving the country in the control of the Taliban. Today, Americans continue to grapple with the ripple effects of the government’s response to the most impactful national security crisis since Pearl Harbor

The new powers granted to law enforcement agencies by the USA Patriot Act expanded beyond the original mission of counterterrorism. In dealing with criminal suspects who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, police departments adopted body armor, military vehicles, and other surplus equipment from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, blurring the line between warfare abroad and law enforcement at home.

As the U.S. Congress voted to pour trillions of dollars into nation-building projects, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unprecedented level of support for bolstering military power crossed into the realm of domestic policy as politicians attached what might be unpopular policy goals to the military and its role in national security. This often dumbed down debate on the issues, with the public—and politicians—blindly supporting what was presented as being “good for the military,” even when it often was not. 

While almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, those deaths were only the beginning of the human costs of the attacks. The attacks led the United States to invade Afghanistan and Iraq while sending troops to dozens of other countries as part of the “Global War on Terror.” Nearly 7,000 U.S. military personnel died in those conflicts, along with about 7,500 U.S. contractors, with many thousands more wounded from the all-volunteer military. Unlike previous wars like WWI, WWII, and Vietnam, the “War on Terror” never involved the use of the military draft.

Even greater has been the toll on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 170,000 people, including over 47,000 civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan as a direct result of the military conflicts; when indirect causes, such as destroyed infrastructure, are taken into account, that number reaches well over 350,000. In Iraq, estimates are between 185,000 and 209,000 civilian deaths; this number may be much lower than the actual death toll, given the difficulty of reporting and confirming deaths. On top of these casualties, hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees due to the violence and upheaval in their homelands.

National and Global Security

Since the War on Terror became a multinational effort there has been an attempt to establish a dividing line between national security and global security. Professor of Security Studies Samuel Makinda has defined security as “the preservation of the norms, rules, institutions, and values of society.” National security has been described as the ability of a country to provide for the protection and defense of its citizenry. Thus, Makinda’s definition of security would seem to fit within the confines of national security. Global security, on the other hand, involves security demands such as nature—in the form of climate change, for example—and globalization, which have been placed on countries and entire regions. These are demands for which no single country’s national security apparatus can handle on its own and, as such, require multinational cooperation. The global interconnection and interdependence among countries experience since the end of the Cold War makes it necessary for countries to cooperate more closely. 

The strategies of global security include military and diplomatic measures taken by nations individually and cooperatively through international organizations such as the United Nations and NATO to ensure mutual safety and security.

Since the War on Terror became a multinational effort there has been an attempt to establish a dividing line between national security and global security. Professor of Security Studies Samuel Makinda has defined security as “the preservation of the norms, rules, institutions, and values of society.” National security has been described as the ability of a country to provide for the protection and defense of its citizenry. Thus, Makinda’s definition of security would seem to fit within the confines of national security. Global security, on the other hand, involves security demands such as nature—in the form of climate change, for example—and globalization, which have been placed on countries and entire regions. These are demands for which no single country’s national security apparatus can handle on its own and, as such, require multinational cooperation. The global interconnection and interdependence among countries experience since the end of the Cold War makes it necessary for countries to cooperate more closely. 

The strategies of global security include military and diplomatic measures taken by nations individually and cooperatively through international organizations such as the United Nations and NATO to ensure mutual safety and security.

Tactics

In safeguarding national security, governments rely on a range of tactics, including political, economic, and military power, along with diplomatic efforts. In addition, governments attempt to build regional and international security by reducing transnational causes of insecurity, such as climate change, terrorism, organized crime, economic inequality, political instability, and nuclear weapons proliferation. 

In the United States, national security strategies pertain to the U.S. government as a whole and are issued by the president with the consultation of the Department of Defense (DOD). Current federal law requires the president to periodically deliver to Congress a comprehensive National Defense Strategy.  

Aerial view of The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense.
Aerial view of The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense. USAF / Getty Images

Along with stating the DODs approach to contending with current and emerging national security challenges, the National Defense Strategy is intended to explain the strategic rationale for programs and priorities to be funded in the DOD’s annual budget requests. 

Issued in 2018, the most recent U.S. National Defense Strategy the DOD recommends that due to an unprecedented erosion of international political order, the U.S. should increase its military advantage relative to the threats posed by China and Russia. The Defense Strategy further maintains that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” 

Successful implementation of any national security strategy must be conducted on two levels: physical and psychological. The physical level is an objective, quantifiable measure based on the capacity of the country’s military to challenge its adversaries, including going to war if necessary. It further anticipates a more prominent security role for nonmilitary factors, such as intelligence, economics, and diplomacy, and the ability to use them as political-military levers in dealings with other countries. For example, to help bolster its energy security, U.S. foreign policy employs economic and diplomatic tactics to reduce its dependence on oil imported from politically unstable regions such as the Middle East. The psychological level, by contrast, is a far more subjective measurement of the people’s willingness to support the government’s efforts to achieve national security goals. It requires that a majority of people have both the knowledge and political will to support clear strategies intended to achieve clear national security goals.   

Sources

  • Romm, Joseph J. “Defining National Security: The Nonmilitary Aspects.” Council on Foreign Relations, April 1, 1993, ISBN-10: ‎0876091354.
  • Sarkesian, Sam C. (2008) “US National Security: Policymakers, Processes & Politics.” Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., October 19, 2012, ISBN-10: 158826856X.
  • McSweeney, Bill. “Security, Identity and Interests: A Sociology of International Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN: 9780511491559.
  • Osisanya, Segun. “National Security versus Global Security.” United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/national-security-versus-global-security.
  • Mattis, James. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.” U.S. Department of Defense, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  • Biden, Joseph R. “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” The White House, March 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.
  • Makinda, Samuel M. “Sovereignty and Global Security, Security Dialogue.” Sage Publications, 1998, ISSN: 0967-0106.
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Longley, Robert. "National Security Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 24, 2021, thoughtco.com/national-security-definition-and-examples-5197450. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 24). National Security Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/national-security-definition-and-examples-5197450 Longley, Robert. "National Security Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/national-security-definition-and-examples-5197450 (accessed October 23, 2021).