With National Security Strategy, Trump ushers new era of statecraft

The 56-page document outlines the role of the United States as a competitive player in world affairs and shifts away from its previous role as a global leader.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
President Trump delivers remarks regarding the Administration's National Security Strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington Dec. 18.

President Trump’s new National Security Strategy might be summed up by the first subhead in its introduction: “A Competitive World.” 

If the 56-page document has a defining theme, it is that the globe is a dangerous place, and the United States needs to shove its elbows out more in the struggle for comparative advantage. It plays down the importance of multilateral cooperation (though it still backs traditional US alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). It explicitly emphasizes such domestic priorities as economic prosperity and jobs as key national security components. A stock phrase used by virtually all presidents since Harry Truman, the US as “indispensable leader” of the free world, is largely missing from Mr. Trump’s new NSS.

“This is a competitive vision. It is not a leadership vision,” says Gordon Adams, former White House defense budget official and current distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan security policy research organization in Washington.

It does not promote democracy per se, and indeed seems to indicate little concern for how other countries are governed. What matters most is how the behavior of those other countries affects the welfare of the American people, an attitude the strategy defines as “principled realism.”

“This is a clear break from 70 years of American statecraft. It is a uniquely assertive nationalist approach to the way America engages the world,” says Professor Adams, who teaches foreign policy at American University.

'A competitive vision'

National Security Strategy documents are generally interesting efforts whose final product belies their name. Mandated by 1986 congressional legislation, they are not actual national strategies that spell out specific policy goals and match those goals with resources and detailed timelines. Instead, they tend to be long and detailed summaries of approaches to the globe. They tend to be serious speeches, elongated.

They are supposed to be issued annually, but recent presidents have not met that goal. Barack Obama issued two in eight years in office. George W. Bush issued one.

The Trump administration should be commended for producing an NSS so early in its term in office, say some Washington experts. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and a National Security Council aide, Dr. Nadia Schadlow, pulled it together.

“It is important that this is a first year document,” says Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh Burke Chair in National Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The lengthy NSS released by the White House is divided into four main sections: protecting the homeland and way of life, promoting American prosperity, demonstrating peace through strength, and advancing American influence in an ever-competitive world. 

The strategy depicts both China and Russia in relatively harsh terms, despite Trump’s generally good relations with the leaders of both nations. Both countries “challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” the document says. 

It also warns against the general belief that “engagement with rivals” will turn them into “trustworthy partners” – possibly a slap at former President Obama’s dealings with Iran and Cuba. 

The US has too often looked at relations with other countries as being binary, either peaceful, or warlike, according to the Trump strategy. Actually, the world is in a state of “continuous competition,” according to the NSS.

“We will raise our competitive game to meet that challenge,” says the document. 

Overall, the Trump NSS has some familiar parts and some not-so-familiar parts, according to Adams of the Stimson Center.

Its non-promotion of democracy is one unfamiliar part, he says. So is its chilly attitude toward multilateralism, with its talk of “free riders” in military alliances and insistence on allies paying up. 

Conspicuously missing from the document, says Adams, is any treatment of how the US will have to adapt to a rapidly rebalancing world, with China a rising superpower, and other nations such as Turkey increasingly playing an independent role.

“Everybody is playing outside the boxes of the old system ... that is not recognized,” says Adams. 

The nuance is in the details

In Dr. Cordesman’s view, politics in the US has become so polarized that people are judging the National Security Strategy on the extremes of the document rather than its overall tone and meaning.

Yes, the Trump NSS talks about “America First,” a slogan from his campaign that critics say carries more than a tinge of isolationism. But it’s not the same thing, according to Cordesman.

“You look at what Trump says about America First, and most of it is very international in character and has a great deal of continuity with, say, US national security policy under Clinton, Bush, and in many ways even under Obama,” he says. 

The rhetoric of foreign policy often does not match the reality, he says. In NATO and other strategic partnerships, the Trump administration has made very few changes, and in some ways has actually strengthened the American presence overseas.

“I think almost all of our allies are going to find this document reassuring,” says Cordesman. “But the truth is, most of them probably see Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis, General McMaster, and Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson as figures in which basically they see the same basic national security policies that they would have seen under Bush – or even Reagan for that matter.” 

That may be true, but the NSS document is not the only thing allies are closely studying, says Julianne Smith, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. They are closely studying the president’s behavior as well, and that often sends messages that are at odds with the most sober language of his senior staff and Cabinet members. 

Trump’s tweets and words have put very little value on NATO and other alliances, for instance.

“So there are definitely parts of [the NSS] that don’t ring true if you closely watch what the president has said over the last year,” says Ms. Smith. “It’s hard to assume that he would agree with everything that’s in here.”

Indeed, Trump’s Monday speech on the security strategy touched on many things not mentioned in the document. Much of it could almost have been a campaign speech from 2016, as it emphasized the need to control immigration, the faults of Trump’s predecessors, and other more emotional aspects of his approach to politics.

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