Elephants in the Room
The Hardest Part of Trump’s National Security Strategy to Write
Sometime this year, the Trump administration intends to release the legislatively mandated National Security Strategy (NSS). What will it contain about Russia?
Sometime this year, the Trump administration intends to release the legislatively mandated National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS is a top-level document that purports to lay out the president’s worldview, outlining the range of interests and objectives America has, the challenges and opportunities America faces in securing those interests and values, and the ways and means the administration intends to use to confront the challenges and seize opportunities. President Donald Trump’s NSS is likely to garner considerable attention.
As I have previously argued, the critics who pooh-pooh such strategy-writing exercises are not very persuasive. To be sure, every NSS disappoints at some level, and there are certainly ways to improve the NSS-drafting process; for instance, it probably makes sense to add a classified annex (understanding that there is a high likelihood portions of it will nevertheless leak), and it absolutely makes sense to expand upon the NSS with more programmatic elements that tie directly to budgets and policy initiatives.
But the very act of drafting the NSS serves as a (modest) disciplining device on an administration, obliging the team to confront hard truths about previous policy statements and efforts.
Which brings me to the question I have been pondering for quite a while: how hard will it be for President Trump’s team to draft such an NSS? The answer I keep coming to is: pretty hard.
The team starts with some advantages: 1) a capable national security advisor who knows a thing or two about writing strategy; 2) a capable NSC staff tasked with running the drafting process; and 3) fairly good relations among the Cabinet principals with equities most directly involved.
But there are also some disadvantages: 1) Trump, as candidate and then as president, has produced far less “source text” than any of his predecessors — fewer big speeches and white papers with thoroughly hashed-out stances on a wide variety of issues; 2) what source text he has produced is rife with apparent contradictions (e.g., Is NATO obsolete or vital? Is China a threatening rival or a partner?); and 3) when you reach beyond the national security team to include the president’s other political and policy advisors, the administration is riven with fundamental divisions that will require either painful policy debates to resolve or artful prose to mask.
It is too soon to tell whether the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages, though an early trailer for the NSS — an op-ed penned by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and National Economic Advisor Gary Cohn — opened to mixed reviews. For instance, Dan Drezner’s sharp critique points directly at the way the op-ed appears to paper over fundamental contradictions between elements of Trump’s basic worldview: If the administration trumpets “America first” as its mantra, what is the basis for America’s “moral strength”? If the world is a Hobbesian nightmare of unfettered competition what prospect do we have of deepening our “friends’ respect for America”? And so on. The grade pundits award Trump’s NSS will pretty much hang on how candidly the team confronts and resolves these structural problems — and that will be a daunting assignment.
Yet, for my money, that challenge pales in comparison to an even more formidable task: how will Trump’s NSS talk about Russia’s information war against the United States, which culminated in extensive meddling in the 2016 elections? Note that the Russian effort extends well beyond the much-publicized hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails. It is ongoing, and includes full spectrum disinformation campaigns, with sustained attacks against state and local election officials and against U.S. military members. It even includes the development and testing of weapons that might take down key parts of the U.S. energy infrastructure. Deciding what actions to take in response to Russia’s information war is one of the thorniest national security and foreign policy issues we face today — in part because it is just one element of Russia’s broader geopolitical opposition to the United States and our allies, and in part because there is every reason to expect that Russia will continue to attack us in this way on an ongoing basis, including in upcoming elections.
Most of the press commentary these days is on related but analytically separate matters: whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians in any of these nefarious activities and whether the president’s efforts to fight such allegations crossed ethical or legal redlines? Trump and his supporters have been adamant that they are not guilty on all of these allegations. And they claim to be confident that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, if it is fair-minded, will vindicate them accordingly.
Here’s the rub. Even if Trump is correct that he has not engaged in collusion or cover-up, that nevertheless leaves a very important matter to address: the Russians still have been engaged in a massive information war against the United States, one that cuts to the very heart of our safety and security as a democracy. Best-case scenario: Trump and his advisors are innocent, but Russia still is guilty. What is the Trump administration going to do about Russian misbehavior — and, for that matter, what have they done about it since January 20, 2017?
You cannot write a credible National Security Strategy today that ignores one of the biggest ongoing current threats to American national security: Russia’s effort to undermine our democratic institutions and divide our nation both internally and from our allies. It would be like writing an NSS in the late 1940s and not addressing global communism. Or in the early 1990s and not discussing nuclear proliferation. Or in the early 2000s and not mentioning militant Islamist terrorist networks.
If the Trump administration has a coherent strategy for dealing with Russia’s attacks on the United States, I have not seen it reported on yet (though there are reports of concern at middle levels of the administration).
Doubtless it is very difficult for the administration to talk about such efforts while the media is preoccupied with the appearance of scandal. And it is certainly the case that Trump-haters in Congress and the media tend to view this issue through bitterly partisan lenses that deflect attention away from the underlying security issue.
That said, Congress does appear to have done some serious bipartisan thinking on the matter, witness the effort to bolster sanctions against Russia. But this is only a start, and, in any case, it is impossible for Congress to take the lead in drafting and implementing a sustained and effective strategy on a foreign-policy matter of this complexity. The president and his team will have to lead; if they do not, America will fail to meet the Russian challenge.
Perhaps the awkwardness of drafting language on this problem in the NSS will help spur the administration to confront the challenge and actually do something about it. If so, that will prove again the utility of these documents — and will show that the Trump administration is serious about addressing the threat from Russia. If not, it will be painfully evident for all to read when the NSS is published.
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