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Updated: May 30

How Nesting Objectives with National Security Interests

Could Make America More Secure

Strategy Central - Written By Monte Erfourth - 05-25-2024


Have you ever read the National Security Strategy (NSS) and felt confused about its goals? Phrases like "defend the homeland" or "prosperity" seem vague and disconnected from reality. Intuitively, we understand that at the highest level, we should defend the homeland, expand prosperity, and protect our way of life. But it often seems difficult to fathom how the NSS connects means and ways to achieve those lofty ends. If logic fails, perhaps we are going on faith that if the NSS end states are achieved, the elements of national power (DIME: Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economics) did their collective job. All is well.

If we performed a social media-styled survey of the NSS, the results would surely find a common dismissal of the NSS as a useless document, seeing it as vacuous and politically driven. However, this dismissal might overlook its ultimate prize: a defended, prosperous nation with an uninterrupted way of life and global values. It is an important and serious document. Achieving these conditions is no small feat, and the military plays a critical role. The NSS serves as the United States' strategic "North Star," yet it seems to lack specific objectives that create the conditions for defending, prospering, and protecting/projecting values.  It needs improvement to act as the national strategic navigational tool it is meant to be. 

This article offers a specific solution. Imagine if the NSS listed specific objectives under "Homeland Defense" and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) nested its objectives under the NSS. Imagine doing this for each national security interest. This would transform the Geographic Combatant Commands' (GCC) ability to align their objectives with the NSS and NDS, eliminating much of the current guesswork.

Few have articulated how to develop an NSS, and Dr. Terry Deibel, a former National Defense University (NDU) professor, whose analysis remains timeless and the best interpretation to date. This article will unveil Dr. Deibel's definition of national security interests, outline the need for clear objectives under each interest, and provide an example of how to "nest" objectives within the hierarchy of U.S. strategies.



Consider the extensive conditions required for our nation to be defended or prosperous, from nuclear threats to pandemics to open trade routes. The NSS provides some big ideas and grand endstates but does not provide an exhaustive list of objectives necessary to achieve these endstates. Adding such objectives to the NSS would transform it into a clear guide for subordinate elements of power, enabling government and industry to create the conditions necessary to secure the country.  This is true for each element of national power. However, this article will focus on the military.

Explaining interests and objectives is essential to fully understanding the NSS  and the power of well-thought-out and logic-tested supporting objectives. Something not well understood in the national security community is that the four national security interests are permanent. However, the objectives are transient in the ongoing quest to defend the nation, be prosperous, and protect and project values.

Identifying what a nation aims to achieve (opportunities) and analyzing the geopolitical environment to identify threats and opportunities for each interest is a necessary first step. This analysis should form the foundation of our premier strategic document, the NSS, which aims to create the most favorable geopolitical environment for the United States to survive and thrive. These desired conditions must provide a well-defined and achievable focus for strategy development, addressing threat mitigation and exploiting opportunities to advance them.

If the NSS defined the four national security interests and developed clear, achievable objectives, subordinate commands could build their objectives to support the NSS with clarity and directness of purpose. With a solid and reliable set of NSS objectives, the NDS, NMS (National Military Strategy), and GCCs could develop coherent, achievable, and specific subordinate objectives that collectively realize the desired conditions. This ensures the strategy remains focused, viable, and aligned with the nation's well-being from the GCCs to the White House.

Sometimes, domestic political considerations may lead an administration to define a political aim without thorough analysis, potentially issuing an unachievable policy that negatively impacts security conditions. In such cases, strategists must rigorously analyze the situation, considering the costs, risks, and constraints affecting the viability of political aims. Planners should explicitly state outcomes or conditions to be avoided and, if necessary, argue against the feasibility of the national leadership's political aim.  Arguing from the viewpoint of keeping synergy of objectives and presenting logical evidence to advise the White House would likely be more successful than winging it on a gut feeling.



In the strategy world, names like Gray, Hart, Huntington, and Mearsheimer are well-known. Dr. Terry L. Deibel, while less recognized, significantly contributed to understanding strategy at the national level. Joining the National War College in 1978, he served for 32 years as a professor of national security strategy. He is best known for the "Deibel Model," a principal archetype for developing strategic plans. His book, "Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft" (Cambridge Press, 2007), continues to guide American strategists, arguing that national security interests must define strategic ends and be translated into clear, coherent, achievable political aims and specific objectives.

Deibel meticulously explores strategic formulation, defining interests, categorizing them, and examining their relationship to threats and opportunities, including prioritization. In this definition, he explains how time, grammar, identity, morality, and power converge. Deibel categorizes national interests into four broad areas: physical security, economic prosperity, value preservation at home, and value projection overseas. He emphasizes that interests under these categories become objectives for subsequent strategies, with hierarchical nesting justifying the objectives as steps toward fulfilling long-term ends.

Defend the homeland (physical security) is the primary duty of any government, protecting the state from external threats. Economic prosperity ranges from survival necessities to surplus resources for advancement, essential for funding defense and promoting growth, often requiring trade. Value preservation involves maintaining the nation’s culture, traditions, and way of life, ensuring they do not perish. Value projection extends beyond national boundaries, aiming to create an international environment compatible with the nation's internal culture and political system, rooted in national identity.

Deibel asserts that foreign policy must reflect national identity to be acceptable to citizens, emphasizing the importance of integrating security and material concerns with moral and ethical considerations. The need to distort the international system diminishes by embedding values into core interests. Both realists and liberals can operate based on moral, ethical, security, and economic needs.

Deibel's "Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft" offers a comprehensive guide to U.S. foreign policy strategy, emphasizing strategic thinking and practical policy-making. He underscores the importance of clear strategic logic, involving understanding foreign policy purposes, defining national interests, and aligning means with ends. Deibel presents a framework for developing foreign policy strategies, including assessing the international environment, identifying national interests, setting clear objectives, and determining the necessary resources and methods. He stresses the critical relationship between means (resources, capabilities, methods) and ends (goals, objectives), warning against mismatches that can lead to strategic failures.

The next section will develop an example of connecting these two vital strategy elements using Deibel's understanding of interests and objectives.



The four national security interests are permanent, but the objectives are transient in the ongoing quest to defend the nation, be prosperous, and protect and project values. Subordinate objectives of national security interests adapt to contemporary conditions as the nation pursues new opportunities, encounters evolving threats, and experiences economic and societal changes. The challenge lies in viewing environmental changes through the lens of enduring interests and adjusting subordinate objectives accordingly.

The four enduring interests serve as ideal conditions requiring adjustments over time to maintain a heading toward those conditions. The following are the four enduring national security interests and proposed objectives that help clarify what must be achieved to create conditions of physical security, prosperity, and values protection and projection:


1)        Physical Security.  Ensure the survival of the American people and territory of the United States from external attack. Prevent externally caused injury or destruction of life or property within the territory of the United States and protect American citizens or possessions abroad.

Subordinate National Security Objectives:

  • Defend American territory and citizens from space, air, sea, land, information, or virtual attack.

  • Prevent the use and deter and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as catastrophic conventional terrorist or cyber-attacks, against the United States or its military forces abroad.

  • Prevent the use and slow the global spread of nuclear weapons, secure nuclear weapons and materials, and reduce further proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapon

  • Maintain a regional and global balance of power that promotes peace and stability through domestic American robustness, U.S. international primacy and the strengthening and defending U.S. alliance systems,

  • Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on U.S. borders

  • Protect citizens and property from natural disasters and the American people from pandemics, serious diseases, famine, and other natural calamities that cause large-scale damage or loss of life.

  • Protect critical infrastructure from cyber or physical attacks that threaten lives, industry, the power grid, or defensive capabilities.

  • Maintain lead in key military-related and other strategic technologies.

  • Prevent massive, uncontrolled immigration across U.S. borders.

  • Repel terrorism, transnational crime, and drug trafficking.


2)        Economic Prosperity.  Coordinate domestic economic policy and administration with foreign policy so as to expand, enrich, and deepen American economic capabilities that are sustainable, feasible, and acceptable in the pursuit of the American way of life.

Subordinate National Security Objectives:

  • Ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment).

  • Promote the exportation of American goods and trade policy that attracts potential buyers and investors to American business.

  • Maximize US GDP growth from international trade and investment.

  • Enhance exports of specific economic sectors.

  • Prevent the nationalization of US-owned assets abroad.

  • Boost the domestic output of key strategic industries and sectors.

  • Balance bilateral trade deficits.

  • Ensure safe passage of global sea and air trade routes.

  • Protect international rule of law that ensures business trade deals and contracts sanctity.

3)        Protect American Values at Home.  Preserve the nation’s internal system of government, values, and civic culture against change coerced or imposed by an external source.

Subordinate National Security Objectives:

  • Ensure the survival of the U.S. as a free and independent nation with its fundamental values intact and its institutions and people secure.

  • Ensure the U.S. government remains formed and operational as per the design of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Ensure the U.S. government remains sovereign over U.S. territory.

  • Protect the integrity of the democratic system, elections, voter rights, and freedom to choose the government representatives that are of, by, and for the American people.

  • Protect against foreign interference and propaganda jeopardizing our democratic system, beliefs, and practices.

  • Ensure citizens are educated in the political process founded in the Constitution, trained in the expectations of living a civic life within a democracy, and taught how to participate in democracy.

  • Promote pluralism, the values of patriotism, pride in the nation, and duty to promote the rule of law, human rights, dignity, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


4)        Project American Values Overseas.  Use democratic principles, the rule of law, capitalism, and traditional morality as a basis for operating in the international system. 

Subordinate National Security Objectives:

  • Support major international institutions that promote peace, stability, and prosperity.

  • Promote pluralism, freedom, democracy, and capitalism in strategically important states as much as is feasible without destabilization.

  • Promote the well-being of US allies and partners and work with the international community to protect them from external aggression.

  • Promote democracy, prosperity, and stability in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Mexico.

  • Establish productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia.

  • Discourage massive human rights violations in foreign countries.



With National Security Interests defined and supplied with objectives, it is easier to see what is required to create desirable conditions. The next challenge would be creating subordinate objectives for the NDS, NMS, and GCC Theater Campaign Plans. This can be illustrated by taking one of the national security interests and filling in possible subordinate objectives. We will use physical security, the NDS, NMS, and GCC for this example:

PHYSICAL SECURITY - Subordinate National Security Objectives:

  • NSS: Defend American territory and citizens from space, air, sea, land, information, or virtual attack.

    • NDS: Deter and prevent attacks on sovereign territory from the five domains by hostile nations and protect citizens from harm in and out of United States Territory.

      • NMS: Develop capabilities to defend the homeland and citizens at home and abroad.

        • GCC: Utilize a network of allies and partners to deter and, if necessary, defeat regional threats to the homeland.

  • NSS: Prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons, as well as catastrophic conventional terrorist or cyber-attacks, against the United States or its military forces abroad.

    • NDS: Seek out, dismantle, destroy, or deter the use of CBRN materials held by nations that threaten U.S. interests.

      • NMS: Build a Joint  Force capable of deterring the use of CBRN, dismantling illegal CBRN retention, and destroying CBRN material wherever required.

        • GCC:  Deploy specialized Joint Force to conduct counter CBRN operations with regional Allies and Partners to dismantle and destroy illegal CBRN material.

  • NSS: Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed state on U.S. borders.

    • NDS: Conduct Competitive Campaigning to deter, degrade, and compel emerging hostile powers to avoid conflict with the United States while partnering with regional allies to support Mexico’s stability.

      • NMS: Work with the Military Industrial Base to generate material and weapons to support the Joint Force in competition and conflict. Work with the DIME elements to reinforce institution building for Mexico’s security force development.

        • GCC: Utilize a network of allies and partners to deter and, if necessary, defeat regional threats to the homeland.  Conduct stability operations in Mexico as needed.

This seems simplistic, like nested dolls encapsulating one objective in the next higher objective. Despite the apparent simplicity, this is not commonly practiced. The current set of military strategies does not present a clear and logical extension of supporting objectives from the NSS to the GCC Theater Campaign Plans. Casual observers might find general ideas and nebulous language that could be mistaken as mutually supporting elements, but the linkage between current strategies cannot withstand rigorous scrutiny.

The problem lies in structural and logical issues. Most strategies follow a structure from "Problem" to "Task" to "Objective" to "Endstate," or worse, "Problem" to "LOE" (Lines of Effort) to "Endstate." This allows for a broad inclusion of various elements under LOE with little logic or supporting argument stringing together the problem, action required, and end state to create the complete set of conditions each interest demands. For example, stating that Integrated Deterrence will defend the homeland requires far more elucidation and specificity than found in the current NDS. This is a recipe for failure and a critical weakness in our national security.

This issue can be addressed with a low-cost solution: better staff work and logical application when determining if a strategy can achieve the desired end state. An outside assessment team, led by mathematicians, should logic-test the strategy and recommend improvements. Following this, rigorous war games should be conducted to reveal any weaknesses. The President (NSC) and the Secretary of Defense should mandate this process and review the results to ensure national security is not compromised by sloppy work.


Aligning interests and objectives is crucial for effective strategy formulation. Misidentifying interests can lead to flawed strategies, posing significant risks in developing subordinate strategies, campaigns, and plans. Flawed strategies based on misguided constructs waste resources, provoke unnecessary conflicts, and drain political will during peacetime.

In wartime, strategies not grounded in realistic assessments of logic, facts, political will, resources, and national priorities put the nation at risk. Confusion of interests can lead a state into strategic quicksand, as seen with the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the prolonged engagement in Afghanistan. A sound strategy, informed by theory, history, logic, and facts, is essential for navigating toward our most desired state of security.



This article underscores the necessity of defining specific, clear, and actionable objectives within the National Security Strategy (NSS) to achieve the desired end states of defending the homeland, fostering economic prosperity, and projecting American values. The NSS, often seen as nebulous and politically driven, requires transformation by incorporating well-defined objectives to serve as a practical guide for subordinate elements of power, including the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC).

Nesting national security objectives within a hierarchical framework ensures alignment and coherence from the NSS to the GCC Theater Campaign Plans. This approach would enhance the effectiveness of military and other national power elements in the geopolitical environment, making daily missions clearer. The solution involves rigorous staff work, logical testing, and war gaming to ensure robust strategies can achieve intended outcomes.

Ultimately, this calls for a systematic and logical approach to strategy formulation that can adapt to changing conditions while maintaining a clear focus on enduring national security interests. Implementing these recommendations will strengthen the United States' strategic posture and enhance its ability to navigate the complexities of the international system.



Terrence James Deibel (May 13, 1961 – February 10, 2015) passed away from cancer at age 53. Dr. Deibel graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, L'Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His academic career included teaching at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Deibel was renowned for his research in strategic thinking. The national security community was fortunate to have a man of his drive and talent shed light on the difficult process of developing a national security strategy. His work lives on in us all; we have to read his work and apply it for a more secure America.


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