Resilience and Resilient in Obama’s National Security Strategy 2010: Between Prerequisite, Unique American Trait and Universal Value

  • Date: 29 October 2014
  • Time: 12:30-14:00
  • Venue: LG20, 32 Lincoln's Inn, ID Staff seminar, LSE
  • Chair: Professor Mary Kaldor
  • Speakers: Dr Sabine Selchow


The words resilient and resilience have come to be popular linguistic ingredients in the contemporary political discourse in the US and beyond. Relative to his Presidential predecessors they are particularly popular in President Obama’s political communication. A look into the archive of the public papers of the American Presidents shows that Obama has used the two words in his public papers more often than all of his Presidential predecessors together. Under Obama the application of resilience and resilient has also, for the first time, gone beyond the odd use in the document of the National Security Strategy (NSS). This is interesting not only because the document of the NSS is a symbolically weighty document in the national security discourse, but because it is of high analytical value. This value lies in the fact that the document of the NSS can be taken as a textual manifestation of ideas about the world, the global security environment and the US in it that are  held by the administration more broadly and beyond the narrow realm of what the President and their speech writers (might) think and (might) want to convey.

So what are the two words doing in the document of the NSS 2010? Which functions do they serve? What meanings are attributed to them? And which role do these meanings play within the national security thinking and strategy of the Obama Administration?

Guided by these  questions and grounded in a systematic analysis of Obama’s NSS 2010 that was informed by linguistic and text analytical premises this paper finds that two remarkable things are happening in the document. First, through the way the NSS 2010 uses the words resilience and resilient it introduces and establishes the idea of an abstract quality in the US national security discourse that is (constructed as)

    1. a foundational prerequisite for US national security,
    2. a distinctly American trait, and
    3. a universal value.

With that the NSS 2010 establishes the idea of an abstract quality that is

    1. undeniably important,
    2. legitimizes all moves in its name as truly and essentially American, and
    3. serves as the ground for a (new) global value community with the US at its heart.


Second, resilience and resilient are introduced and used in the text as words, the meanings of which are not defined. It is left open how the quality actually looks that they refer to. With that the document of the NSS 2010 introduces and establishes resilience and resilient as political keywords, understood as words that have a positive connotation but do not have a clear and unambiguous meaning. Resilience and resilient are established as highly flexible, hence, are open to be filled with diverse concrete meanings, while being a priori positively loaded – almost like ‘empty signifiers’.

The paper discusses the significance of these two symbolic moves by linking them back to the strategies  to secure US national security that are outlined and promoted in the document of Obama’s NSS 2010.