Trump administration’s National Security Strategy depicts a dark world and views international relations as a field of many competitions
By Richard Weitz*
Difficulties dealing with China and Russia continue to impede the Trump administration’s ambitious foreign-policy objectives despite some first-year military successes against transnational terrorism. The president tweeted disappointment that Chinese ships are transferring oil to North Korea and seems prepared to escalate pressure to change Chinese trade policies. Some Russian vessels are also reportedly circumventing sanctions against North Korea, but the administration expresses more concern with growing Russian-Iranian ties. Still, Trump expresses hope, again by Twitter, that the Iranian people will curtail Tehran’s ties with terrorism.
Trump’s newly released National Security Strategy, NSS, identifies China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and terrorism as the main threats to US security. The text reaffirms longstanding US security perspectives and policies in some areas, but deviates from others in crucial ways. Above all, the Trump NSS is unique in stressing the imperative of strengthening US advantages in a perceived hyper-competitive world, emphasizing an unabashed defense of American sovereignty “without apology.”
The 2017 NSS follows more than a dozen versions from previous administrations in affirming that Washington must remain engaged abroad to avert global disorder and critical costs to US interests and values: “when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States. When America does lead … in accordance with our interests and values, all benefit.” The document avows a traditional “peace through strength” philosophy that US weakness invites challenges whereas US strength deters threats.
This current NSS continues the post–Cold War tradition of affirming the value of non-kinetic tools such as diplomacy, economics, and soft power. Earlier US strategies likewise stressed the need for a “whole-of-government/society” approach pooling government, nongovernmental and international resources. Despite its overt “America First” posture, the 2017 NSS follows past versions by valuing foreign allies and multinational organizations, providing they contribute fairly to achieving common objectives.
The document espouses a liberal internationalist ideology even while denying it. The administration boasts of its “clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests” based on “a strategy of principled realism … guided by outcomes, not ideology.” It further avows “that the American way of life cannot be imposed upon others.” Yet, the text presumes that “American principles are a lasting force for good in the world” and wants an international system that “reflects our values.”
The uneasy mix of “principles” and “realism” is only partially resolved by stating that, “we are guided by our values and disciplined by our interests.” All three of the main threat categories – the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia, the “rogue states” of North Korea and Iran, and “transnational threat organizations” like terrorists – are depicted as presenting “fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those (i.e., Americans) who favor free societies.”
The current document departs from previous versions in depicting a darker world besieging the United States, viewing international relations as a field of “growing political, economic, and military competitions” in which the United States faces global challenges “within and across these contests,” including “economic aggression.” Even diplomats are told to “embrace a competitive mindset.” In this document, globalization, seen as largely positive by earlier administrations, destructively empowers malign actors to “exploit our free and democratic system.” In contrast, the administration will pursue a “beautiful vision – a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom, and peace.”
Previous national security strategies also stressed the imperative of renewing US economic strength to sustain an impactful foreign policy. Yet, this strategy emphasizes domestic economic policy more than previous versions, calling for lower taxes, fewer regulations, but more infrastructure development. The text also offers a more comprehensive technological foundation of US power, vowing to protect a broad “national security innovation base” rather than solely the defense industrial base. It also uniquely calls upon the United States to become “an energy-dominant nation” and for US leadership to combat “an anti-growth energy agenda” based on climate change concerns.
The long list of threats reads as a bureaucratic compromise in which multiple agencies inserted their preferred problems in the text. Better prioritizations of these challenges and sequencing of US responses would recognize their varying magnitude and urgency. Although many past texts also obfuscated priorities, recent strategies were more open in discussing risk- management methodology, which is critical for revising strategies as assessments change. The administration is aware of the need for constant assessment and revisions. The section on cyber threats, for instance, remarks that, “the United States will be risk informed, but not risk averse, in considering our options.” Such deliberate ambiguity is presumably designed to deter threats while reassuring partners that US policies will manage escalation risks without being paralyzed by such dangers.
The question of affordability is also skirted. The 2017 NSS calls for sufficient resources to “overmatch the combination of capabilities” of all potential adversaries and in a range of scenarios. The text calls for expanding the size of the US armed forces, increasing their readiness, and modernizing their capabilities – begging the question of unavoidable spending tradeoffs. It also aims for deterrence by denial – the high standard of denying an aggressor any gains – rather than the threat of retaliatory punishment, of making the likely costs of aggression exceed its probable benefits. Still, the Trump NSS does single out the need for society as a whole, from the local to the national level, to become more resilient against a wide range of unpredictable threats, acknowledging that Washington “cannot prevent all dangers to the American people.”
The text identifies China and Russia as the two main “revisionist powers” seeking to subvert US leadership and values. Yet, Chinese government representatives publicly see benefits as well as costs to Beijing from the existing US-built international system. They do not seem overly eager at present to try to build an alternative world order due to stated doubts about China’s limited skill, capacity and costs. Russian leaders are more comfortable claiming the mantle of global leadership. Whereas Chinese leaders speak in terms of “win-win” diplomacy, Russian policymakers readily echo the new NSS in viewing international affairs as a competitive game.
Trump embraced the draft NSS and became the first president to present it in a major public speech. Yet, even in his remarks, divergences persisted between presidential rhetoric and the administration’s actions. For example, Trump highlighted the benefits of cooperating with Moscow and focused on past failures rather than future opportunities. Yet, at least in the national security realm, Trump’s first-year policies evince substantial continuities with those of the second Obama administration. The gap between presidential statements and actions can be useful for confusing rivals, but also can unnerve friends and allies.
The NSS is more conceptual framework than actionable playbook. The extent to which any strategy document enjoys buy-in and understanding throughout the expansive US government is not visible until the more detailed departmental sectoral strategies appear, such as the upcoming National Defense Strategy, nuclear and missile defense reviews, and integrated space strategy. And none of these strategies will be fully executed without adequate funding and sustained presidential attention.
*Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his research and writing on nuclear non-proliferation issues.
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