President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy has been published and the early returns are in. Perhaps as with all things Trumpian, reactions are strongly-held and all over the map. Some observers praise the National Security Strategy as announcing the necessary return of an assertive America, while others denounce it as a farce or even dead on arrival. The reality is more complicated and more interesting. There is much to like in the new strategy, and a handful of key things to worry about, but its most striking characteristic is the gaps it opens between expressed strategy and prevailing policy.
National security strategies are funny things. Amb. Ryan Crocker once described them as mandated exercises that don’t tell us terribly much about national security or strategy. That’s a bit harsh, but there is something to his dismissive characterization. The document’s authors tend to aim high: to articulate a president’s vision of the world, describe his administration’s foreign policy and security priorities, and map the paths by which the U.S. will protect its interests and values. They hope the document will serve as internal guidance across the U.S. government, represent a lodestar for foreign observers, and explain the vision and logic to all the world.
Except that they generally do nothing of the kind.
National security strategies lack the traditional attributes of “strategy.” They do not spell out desired objectives, articulate the steps needed to achieve those ends, or describe the resources necessary to carry out those steps. Nor do they clearly prioritize aims. On the contrary, the objectives of these documents tend to be broad and abstract. Trump’s goals include promoting peace through strength, advancing American influence, encouraging aspiring partners, and even rejuvenating the domestic economy. The documents usually lack detailed plans of action and they do not lay out the dollars or other resources necessary to get there from here. In their aspirations, generalities and rhetoric, national security strategies often most resemble a really, really long speech. The National Security Strategy tends to impose a chain of logic on actions the government is already taking, and to highlight how the current administration differs from the previous ignoramuses who were running the show.
But for all that, it would be wrong simply to dismiss the exercise as a well-intentioned but ultimately inconsequential effort. And it’s likely that the Trump administration’s national security strategy will garner significant attention at home and abroad — likely more than any National Security Strategy since George W. Bush’s “preemption” strategy in 2002.
It’s easy to understand why: In this first year, Trump has acted as a self-described foreign policy disrupter. His administration remains short-staffed, with fewer channels of communication with foreign officials than is typically the case, and the national security team has wanted for message discipline. Observers of administration foreign policy wonder what statements are authoritative, and what Trumpism will actually mean in practice over the course of the next three years.
The administration has been at pains to emphasize that the new National Security Strategy represents a novel and more realistic approach to foreign affairs. But not everything traditional is bad, and not everything new is good. There are reasons why the United States has for decades sought strong alliances, an open international economy, and the expansion of democracy and human rights. And the new strategy is often strongest precisely when it is doubling down on traditional American approaches to the world.
In total, the new National Security Strategy reads like embroidery, weaving together strands of foreign policy traditionalism, sometimes packaged in new language, with genuine departures.
Many of the departures are nods to Trumpism, as expressed on the campaign trail and beyond: the sanctity of America’s borders, the dangers of unvetted immigration, the need for “fair” trade, the perils of an “anti-growth” environmental agenda, and the imperative of allied burden sharing. But there are more fundamental departures as well: The National Security Strategy emphasizes the return of great power competition, recasts relations with China, emphasizes the need for regional balances of power, and so on. It overstates the competitive nature of global politics. The world is and has always been a mix of competition and cooperation, and the trick is to manage both. But a number of the themes it raises deserve deeper reflection, both inside and outside the administration.
More striking still are the parts of the strategy that hew closely to the arc of recent American foreign policy. It warns, for example, that regions must not be dominated by one power (presumably the authors exclude the United States from this prohibition). This seems like a rejection of spheres of influence. “A world that. . . reflects our values,” the National Security Strategy says, “makes America more secure. . .” That line could have come from George W. Bush, with his belief that a freer world means a safer America. “Our government cannot prevent all dangers to the American people,” the document adds, and we need resilience in the face of attacks. This echoes President Barack Obama’s warning against overreacting to terrorist threats. The strategy calls for sustaining favorable balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East, while seeking military overmatch: This sounds like an embrace of U.S. primacy. And it declares that “in other regions, instability and weak governance threaten U.S. interests.” No Fortress America, this strategy.
Most distinct, however, are the gaps that the national security strategy opens between its traditionalist incantations and Trump’s prevailing rhetoric and policy. Consider a few examples.
The National Security Strategy says that the United States will “offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies,” which is both admirable and hard to square with Trump’s expressed affections for Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other autocrats. It correctly notes that Russia is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine legitimacy of democracies,” and yet the president continues to downplay Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election — exhibit A in precisely the behavior the National Security Strategy denounces. The document rightly calls diplomacy “indispensable” and says that “we must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities” — but of course the administration has tried to slash the State Department budget and is trimming its personnel. And the National Security Strategy calls out the national debt as presenting “a grave threat to America’s long-term prosperity and, by extension, our national security.” This in the same week that the president is set to sign a tax bill that will raise that debt by some $1.5 trillion, with no corresponding entitlement cuts.
Because of these gaps between word and deed, the process following the National Security Strategy publication may be more consequential than much of its reception. The president could upend the document’s careful wording with a well-aimed tweet or offhand comment. It could produce a backlash among those who believe it is un-Trumpian, and therefore not actually reflective of presidential policy, or too-Trumpian, and as a result a source of great controversy. The gaps might be closed in the direction of the National Security Strategy, and its nudge toward a more engaged America, or toward the withdrawal that has characterized much of the administration’s approach thus far. The new strategy could mark a belated shift from a campaign-style approach to foreign policy to a more balanced and mature version.
Or it might simply be ignored, a valiant attempt to pull the administration in the direction of global leadership at a moment when presidential instincts and political winds are blowing the opposite way. Time will tell.
Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security.
Image: Air National Guard/Tony Harp