A Comprehensive Roundtable on the National Security Strategy

January 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: Please check out the full roundtable at our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review.


Every time an American president releases a new National Security Strategy, it provokes a round of commentary on the document itself as well as an additional round of hand-wringing over whether such strategy documents matter at all. The release late last year President Donald Trump’s inaugural National Security Strategy was no exception. If anything, the commentary became even more intense because of the unusual and (it is both obligatory and hackneyed to say it) unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency. Concerning the question of whether these strategy documents bear any weight on the actual conduct of American national security policy and strategy, ultimately that will be a question for historians to decide in the fullness of time, when the archives are opened and assessments can be made of to what extent a strategy document shaped or even resembled the policies that were implemented. However, it bears noting that the extensive commentary and attention that each strategy receives — this one being no exception — indicates that the document matters at least enough for those who think and write about strategy for a living to pay it some heed.

So what to make of this new National Security Strategy? First, congratulations are due to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and his staff, especially Nadia Schadlow and Seth Center, for the intellectual energy and dispatch with which they developed and drafted this document and shepherded it through the interagency approval process. This is the first time since the National Security Strategy was mandated in 1986 by the Goldwater-Nichols Act that a new president has issued one in his first year in office. Given that many other strategy documents produced by the national security community — such as the National Defense Strategy, the National Military Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, and so forth — take their cues from the National Security Strategy, the timing of its release also bodes well for the interagency process of strategy formulation.

As far as evaluating the content and themes of the 2017 National Security Strategy, we have assembled an expert cast of strategists and scholars who offer their takes from a range of disciplines, expertise, and ideological commitments. Writing from the vantage point of academic realism, Emma Ashford and Joshua Shifrinson offer a sustained lament that the National Security Strategy is neither realist nor restrained but instead follows the same post-Cold War blueprint of past administrations in seeking to maintain American primacy in the international system. In their assessment, “At least on paper, Trump is little different than his predecessors.” Indeed, they contend that the president’s loudest critics who have fretted that the Trump administration is abandoning America’s historic role of leading the liberal international order should instead be relieved because “In many ways, Trump’s liberal international critics are getting almost everything they could want in this strategy.” And that, Ashford and Shifrinson argue, is the real tragedy.

Andrew Hill also provides an expansive assessment of the strategy, though worries that it is beset by nostalgia. He draws on eclectic sources, such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, to ask whether the new strategy perhaps succumbs to too much wistfulness for a golden era in American strategy and political economy that never was. In contrast to these explorations of the large themes of the strategy, Ben Buchanan takes a focused look at how the strategy handles one particular issue: cyber-security. His question is evocative:

Does the Trump administration recognize and address that, in cyberspace, America’s adversaries are playing Calvinball (the famous game from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip in which there are no rules)1 while the United States is still playing a regimented and well-defined game of chess?

Yet Buchanan’s answer is a dispirited “no,” as he particularly finds the National Security Strategy wanting for failing to address Russia’s sustained cyber-operations against the American electoral system.

Zack Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper also direct their analysis to one particular aspect of the National Security Strategy, in this case China. Here they detect what may in fact be a seismic shift in America’s strategic posture when the strategy rejects the “responsible stakeholder” aspiration that had embodied the hopes of prior administrations that engagement with China would induce the Middle Kingdom to embrace the international system. While Cooper and Rapp-Hooper applaud this more accurate assessment of China’s intentions, they also raise a series of questions and concerns about how the National Security Strategy and the Trump administration’s actions thus far fail to translate this insight into the needful policies.

Another commentator who takes up the China question is Phil Levy, who does so from the perspective of international trade. His analysis probes what he sees as the sometime disconnects between the language of the strategy and the administration’s actual practices. As he puts it,

while the National Security Strategy paints a vision of working with allies and partners to confront China, Trump administration practice to date has been to work together with China while attacking allies and partners.

Carmen Medina channels the perspective of the intelligence community, befitting her own long distinguished career in intelligence analysis. She finds much in the basic worldview of the National Security Strategy that will appeal to the intelligence community, even as she worries whether American intelligence is properly organized and equipped for taking up the intelligence demands that the strategy implies in domains such as economics.

Offering a sailor’s take, Bryan McGrath focuses on the role that seapower does, or should, play in the new strategy. He is pleased to see the strategy hit many of the right notes, but is disappointed that the role of seapower is underdiscussed, despite its centrality to a nation’s ability to project force and influence:

A number of familiar campaign themes manifest themselves in the National Security Strategy’s prescriptions for promoting prosperity (fair trade deals, improving infrastructure, and reducing regulatory burdens) without much consideration of that which provides for the movement of 90 percent of world trade: freedom of the seas underwritten by dominant American seapower.

Finally, from an airman’s perspective, Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula finds much to like, offering the praise that the National Security Strategy “contains the best of Ronald Reagan’s strategy of peace through strength.” He is pleased that it focuses on rebuilding America’s military strength, which has not kept pace with competitors and potential adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Drawing on Sen. John McCain, he notes that the military services are underfunded, undersized, and unready — most especially the U.S. Air Force, which “has the oldest weapon systems, is the smallest, and it is the least ready it has ever been in its entire history” [emphasis author’s]. Deptula hopes that the strategy’s principles will be translated into material increases in the defense budget. With this document, the Trump administration has offered its argument for what drives international politics in our era, what the main threats and opportunities facing our nation are, and for why an “America First” strategy will be best for the United States and, ultimately, the world. While our commentators have offered their best initial thoughts, the final assessment of the National Security Strategy will come not from the expert pens of our contributors but from the dedicated professionals who will implement it and from the hard knocks of the international arena itself.


William Inboden is Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair at the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin.  He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and Editor-in-Chief of the Texas National Security Review