Tradition’s Quiet Victories: Trump’s National Security Strategy


Despite the temptation to dismiss America’s new National Security Strategy, we should read it, even if the president won’t.

Oddly, President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy is largely a traditional restatement of American idealism and purpose. Given Trump’s twitter-raging and unplanned outbursts, his most developed articulation of America’s foreign and defense choices is non-Trumpian. It is filled to the brim with the familiar. There is the muscular assertion of military preponderance, with shades of George W. Bush. There are soothing noises of reassurance and leadership, bolstering homeland defence, targeting long-standing ‘rogues,’ nodding to allies and partners, and with shades of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, calling for economic reconstruction as the foundation of national power. Like previous iterations of this document, it strives to differentiate this presidency from its predecessors and promises to “restore” the republic. There are some areas of real and significant departure: Climate change is dumped as a concern, for example. “Human rights” are referenced only once. But neither of these are constants in a U.S. grand strategy of primacy that is decades old. In its substance, Trump’s National Security Strategy practices continuity in the fundamentals that would have been emulated in a Hillary Clinton presidency. It rededicates America to a traditional orientation: unrivalled preponderance in key regions, an outsized level of military power and advantage, a continuation of traditional alliances, and a world safe for the penetration of American capital and trade. How much does it matter?

Not very much, according to some observers. A case can be made that the main significance of this document, and all such declaratory documents, is to waste forests.

Consider a general problem with this genre. There is something inherently anti-strategic about codified “strategies” published for all to see. Grand strategy for most of history was secretive and adversarial. In a world where states compete for security and must react to the unexpected, strategy to a degree must be covert and must allow for flexibility. To lay out in full view the state’s calculations would be worse than foolish, while the price of publishing a less revealing document is vacuity. Something must be lost when Washington codifies it to be downloaded in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. As historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, dropping a design for statecraft into the laps of a global audience “would have surprised Metternich, Bismarck and Lord Salisbury, though not Pericles.”

Because America does institutionalize strategy-making as a regular process, the National Security Strategy as a ritual of state is more a signalling than a strategic device. It usually does not rigorously or precisely align means and ends. It does not rank goals or commitments in specific ways that would guide action, except where Washington wishes to convey exact messages. It lays out a dog’s dinner of goals and a list of capabilities that will be used to pursue them. And it refuses to admit the trade-offs and compromises that any workable strategy must cope with. The whole process, some warn, is now compromised to the point where it should be rethought, to become more secretive and more precise.

Some fear the problem is even worse. The very repertoire of the national security state —  its advisory councils, its declaratory documents, its performance of statehood —  is geared towards continuous reinforcement of militarist excess, of constant threat-spotting and war-making, and the exhausting doctrine that the United States must shoulder burdens everywhere to handle just about everything, presenting a false antithesis between primacy and weakness. That debate aside, there is rightfully skepticism about whether attaching the word “strategic” to a document makes it coherent.

And then there is Trump. The notion of a coherent, sustained grand strategy appears at odds with the erratic ways of the new management. As if to underline the point, the president appeared to disown the document’s vision in the speech he made to accompany its publication. He reverted back to his campaign themes of hostility to illegal immigration, denunciation of allies’ free riding, and general narcissistic hyperbole. Where his National Security Strategy reaffirmed tradition, though with a more explicitly competitive edge against American rivals, Trump fired off his signature themes of nativism (America is imperilled by feral foreigners), imperial fatigue (America is the victim of delinquent allies), anti-globalization (walls and protectionism are needed) and his own brand of exceptionalism (only He can save us). He did not name Russia as an information-warfare adversary, when his National Security Strategy did. If the president won’t honor his written strategy, and if it clashes with his own world view and preferences, what’s the point?

Yet despite these limitations, the National Security Strategy does reveal significant things about the Trump presidency, now approaching its first anniversary, that despite Trump’s blustering rhetoric, he is maintaining a traditional strategy of primacy. Contrary to criticisms, to announce a strategic vision publicly both reflects and reinforces the assumptions that inform behavior. In practice, it is hard to keep what the authors really think about grand strategic fundamentals out of a manifesto running to somewhere between 30 and 50 pages. The National Security Strategy of the Clinton administration signalled a relative shift towards economic rebuilding and U.S.-sponsored liberalization and the revitalisation of established institutions and alliances. This was indeed the shape of things to come. The National Security Strategy of the Bush II administration eyed the War on Terror as the defining struggle, promised to double down on primacy, and to adopt anticipatory war and revive democracy promotion. Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy pointed towards the relative shift of priorities towards Asia as the focus of the shifting weight of power. It returned emphasis to the value of multilateralism and the legitimation of American power. And Obama’s strategy was anxious both to adopt a prudential stance on the use of force while reaffirming its commitment to U.S. primacy, making “lead,” “leader,” and “leadership” appear 94 times in the context of America’s role in the world. All these documents proved accurate predictors of the general impulse. Each introduced or re-introduced important variations. Each grew also from internal turf wars and bureaucratic struggles. But each reflected the dominant mindset of Washington, namely an intramural debate about how best to practice primacy, rather than whether to.

As with these past presidents, so too with Trump, at least as far as we can reasonably infer from his first year. There is more to a presidency’s strategic behavior than the personal views of the president. Trump may personally prefer to disdain allies, embrace tyrants, and disentangle America from depleting military engagements. His day-to-day behavior may exhibit a small-minded disregard for the protocols of international life. His own administration, however, does not on the whole behave in this way. No president, and certainly not this president, makes foreign policy alone, but must delegate, and for their own survival, must maintain enough of a stable group of advisors. It is striking how much analysis of the Trump era neglects the simple exercise of observing what Trump’s United States actually does, with regard to its first-order choices, on the world stage. To focus too much on the spectacle of Trump is to fall prey to Trumpism. The less exciting detail also matters. Even Trump’s rhetoric is not simply maverick. He works hard to invoke, and sound like, Ronald Reagan, a mainstream tradition as established as the Democratic equivalent of invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy. The job of commentators is to go beyond zeitgeist-sniffing, to distinguish what is new from what appears to be new.

Quietly, tradition has been racking up victories. Trump has increased Obama’s effort to bolster deterrence and reassurance in Eastern Europe. He increased deployments to NATO’s eastern flank, raising the budget of the European Reassurance Initiative by 40 percent, and has just approved sales of lethal arms to the Ukraine to aid their efforts against Russian-leaning separatists. Reluctantly or not, his administration has not ended America’s opposition to Russian adventurism, but if anything has reinforced it. Trump and Trump’s advisors take a hard-line position on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. At least for Trump’s advisors who busily embark on “reassurance” tours, this is intended not only to prevent the coming of a rogue state’s dangerous capability, but to prevent a nuclear arms race in Asia and to maintain an existing order under Washington’s extended deterrence. Not accepting a mere deterrence relationship or the reality of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons is a basic starting position within the foreign policy establishment. North Korea’s stubborn pursuit of a nuclear ICBM has complicated Washington’s efforts to resist China’s expansionism in Asia, but in July of this year Trump approved plans to increase U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and these are ongoing. The United States strongly backs Saudi Arabia, its long-term client state and the pillar of its dominance in the Gulf.

We can debate which version of primacy of all these measures add up to. We can speculate whether they are “enough” to be effective, or whether Washington in the long haul will prove willing to tolerate the costs and risks they entail. But there is little doubt about the overall picture. A firebrand candidate who ran on a platform of retrenchment, alliance abandonment, and tolerance of proliferation is now overseeing an orthodox strategy. If the 2017 National Security Strategy is like its predecessors and its author’s first year, it points towards a similar trajectory in the future.

In one important respect, the National Security Strategy does mark a departure. Instead of promising a harmony of interests between the United States and the rest of the world, the document is explicitly competitive. This departure reflects not just the pen of the authors, but material change in the outside world. The past few years mark the acceleration of significant shifts in the balance of power and the steady erosion of unipolarity. There was a lag between these developments and the outlook of previous National Security Strategy visions. But were we now living under a Clinton presidency, we may have also seen in their National Security Strategy a franker acknowledgement that China and Russia are now open competitors. The cumulative pattern of subversion and resistance after a certain point cannot be wished away as temporary blips on the path to ultimate submission to a “liberal world order”: annexing the Crimea and intrusion into the Ukraine, seizing territories in the South China Sea, aggressive trade practices, or intensifying cyber and propaganda mischief.

American primacists long hoped that Washington’s main potential geopolitical rivals would submit themselves to Washington’s aegis even as they got richer under the globalisation that Washington itself stewarded. For years, Washington could maintain an optimism that the main threat was transnational jihadism, and the main project was to transform the Middle East. That hope is dead, or at least dying.

Thus, Trump’s National Security Strategy is symptomatic of the changing structure of world politics. It is not that Trump has abandoned primacy. But he faces its growing perils. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the coming of unipolarity, America in its written strategy acknowledges that its primacy (at least in Asia) now confronts serious challenge by contenders who will not be reconciled, and who have proven that the embrace of capitalism and projects of imperial domination are not contradictory. That is one more reason to take notice of the National Security Strategy. One of its authors is history itself.


Patrick Porter is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Exeter.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Nicole Keim