Elephants in the Room

Five Takeaways From Trump’s National Security Strategy

“America First” is officially all grown up.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28 in Washington, DC. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28 in Washington, DC. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump unveils his National Security Strategy (NSS) today in a big set-piece speech at the Reagan Center. There is a lively debate about the utility of these documents among experts and I am squarely on the side of those who argue that they provide an important window into the thinking of an administration. As I explain below, such windows may be especially important for this administration and so this is a document worth studying. Such deeper reflection may change my assessment, but I have a more-positive-than-expected reaction, however, as reflected in five quick takeaways:

1. Give the administration credit for some unusual achievements related to the NSS. This is the first Administration to publish the NSS in its inaugural year. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all tried and failed to make that deadline. Real-world events hijacked their early drafts and they spent months writing to catch up with where their actual policies were heading. President Trump has not had the foreign policy shocks Clinton (Mogadishu) or Bush (9/11) had, though he has had legislative gridlock slow down his agenda as had Obama (trying to pass Obamacare vs. trying to repeal Obamacare). Many people, myself included, thought the NSS would also bog down and come out sometime early next year.

This is also the first time that I can recall that the president himself has given a big speech as part of the first-day roll-out. In the past, National Security Advisors have served that function, and given how few set-piece speeches this president gives on any big topic, it is notable that he is doing one on this. In fact, the Team team deserves credit for a very professional roll-out, something that was noticeably lacking at key points during the first year. I hope this is an indication of maturing and stabilization.

It is also the longest NSS, beating Obama’s 2010 behemoth by 10-15 pages. Length may well be linked to speed, as Blaise Pascal has observed. A few more edits could have pruned the text, perhaps, without losing vital substance.

Yet overall, the team that produced the NSS, H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell, and especially Nadia Schadlow and Seth Center (the two with the pen), deserves a lot of credit for herding the interagency cats through the wickets to produce this document on schedule.

2. Give the administration credit for an NSS that is, to a surprising degree, well within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign policy. One of the challenges that the drafters had was that this administration had relatively little source material. The Trump Campaign never produced the high-quality policy documents and big speeches that presidential campaigns usually churn out and that go on to serve as the rough draft of the NSS. And the transition was chaotic with reports of multiple reboots leading to a very messy start to governing.

Moreover, a good portion of the limited early source material was problematic. The inaugural address was widely panned for its dark vision of “America First”. The sudden departure of then National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and a subsequent shake-up in the NSC staff meant that it was not until mid-March that the current team really got started.

Even then, it seemed like there was a struggle for the soul of the administration on foreign policy between those who favored Trump’s radical impulses (Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller) and those who favored Trump’s more traditional impulses (Jim Mattis, John Kelley, Rex Tillerson, and McMaster). Until Bannon departed in August, it was not obvious which side would prevail and which perspective would permeate the NSS. Would Trump’s strategy pretend that institutional alliances were a rip-off for America and that adequate international cooperation could be elicited with short-term transactions, or would it recognize that our institutional alliances are an important part of America’s advantage in geopolitical affairs?

Gradually, over a half-dozen big foreign policy speeches this past year, these debates got resolved in a more hopeful direction and what the Trump team produced was an NSS that will remind people more of previous NSS’ than one would expect given how unconventional President Trump is in other respects. In fact, I find distinct echoes to Obama’s 2010 NSS, and not just in length. For instance, both NSS’ devote considerable space to making explicit what is implicit in every other NSS: the idea that American economic strength is the foundation of American geopolitical strength, so efforts to improve the economy can be considered part of “national security.

The four pillars – protecting the American people/homeland, promoting prosperity, peace through strength, and advancing interests/values — could have been used by any president since Reagan. This is not a criticism. On the contrary, doing the opposite would be more susceptible to criticism; one of the major concerns about President Trump is that he has at times seemed so bent on breaking with establishment precedent that he has failed to appreciate just how much of what has made American great has been the produce of these core establishment ideas and institutions.

3. Give the drafters credit for trying gamely to reform Trump’s problematic catch phrase label – “America first” – by reinterpreting it to mean something more benign. From the beginning, “America first” was an unfortunate labeling choice for a national security strategy.

Capitalized, it evoked the discredited pro-Nazi isolationists of the 1930’s. Uncapitalized, it was a banality. As Trump himself observed in his UN General Assembly speech, every state looks out for its own interests.

Sometimes the administration invoked the term to explain decisions that looked like “go it alone-ism” in global affairs: seeking to get out of NAFTA, abandoning the TPP, withdrawing from the Paris Accords, and so on. This has led many observers, myself included, to worry that the administration is committed to a narrow, materialistic, short-term-transactional understanding of American interest that fails to appreciate how American interests can be advanced by advancing our values and also by incurring the short-run costs of helping underwrite the global order and compromising, as needed, to bring along other partners.

The administration is understandably wedded to the term, but this NSS seeks to reinterpret it in ways that makes it less objectionable. In pursuit of this, it offers the perspective of “principled realism,” where “principled” is an umbrella term that allows for statements like this: “We recognize the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.” Or “Our America First foreign policy celebrates America’s influence in the world as a positive force that can help set the conditions for peace and prosperity and for developing successful societies.” What makes these sentences comment-worthy is that they would not be comment-worthy in any other NSS but many worried this administration could not sincerely offer it. This NSS is replete with language embracing our allies and the core institutions of the global order that America built and that has sustained America’s global standing until now.

Similarly, the language on immigration is noticeably less harsh than the rhetoric accompanying the campaign and the original executive orders. It is not the pro-immigration message the last three presidents would have offered, but nor is it a crass nativist rhetoric that leaves no room for reasonable reforms and compromise measures.

The language on the ideology of the terrorists is standard fare. The document uses the term “jihadist,” which some outside experts find problematic but is in fact the most widely used short-hand term inside government since 9/11, regardless of who has been president. Given the controversy over this language a few months ago, it is striking how much this is a non-factor today.

Even the language on human rights reflects a straddle. On the one hand, the NSS promises, “We are not going to impose our values on others.” On the other hand, the NSS promises, “We will continue to champion American values and offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies.” That sounds more like Bush’s 2006 NSS than not, to my ears. Ditto the language on development aid (including the shout-out to the Millenium Challenge Corporation).

4. That said, this is a bleaker, less optimistic NSS than the last several – in that respect, something of a throwback to Bush’ 2002 NSS, which was written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The implicit theme of this NSS is competition – the word or its cognates appears nearly 75 times in the document. The NSS repeatedly reminds the reader how the United States faces competition and even exploitation from adversaries and partners alike.

While the NSS does have some boilerplate language about what we have achieved with our allies, I suspect that our allies will also note that they are just as often referred to as rivals as they are as partners – and just as often called out for not doing enough as they are acknowledged for what they have done.

The language here occasionally sets fire to some straw men. For instance, I don’t think anyone who worked on national security issues over the past 25 years will recognize themselves in this paragraph: “Since the 1990s, the United States displayed a great degree of strategic complacency. We assumed that our military superiority was guaranteed and that a democratic peace was inevitable. We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations, and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation.”

However, even in the harsher tone I found something to like. The NSS advanced a concept that has not had wide currency until now: the “national security innovation base (NSIB),” referring to the “American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people—including academia, National Laboratories, and the private sector—that turns ideas into innovations, transforms discoveries into successful commercial products and companies, and protects and enhance the American way of life.” The NSS notes, rightly, that the efforts by China (and others) to steal U.S. intellectual property should be viewed not merely as an economic problem, but also fundamentally as a national security threat. I think the NSS misses a step here in failing to recognize that this is not merely an “American” network, but rather a globalized network with America as a critical node. Thus, steps that have the unintended effect of hobbling the flow of ideas and human capital into the United States might hurt the NSIB. But Trump deserves credit for raising the salience of this concern.

5. The devil will be in the details of execution, which will require bridging gaps between the rhetoric of Trump’s NSS and the reality of the policies pursued thus far.

The problem here is not with the “priority actions” outlined in the NSS. The vast majority of them are sensible, or at the least (as in the case of the border wall or regulatory/tax reform), sensible articulations of well-established Trump policy priorities. If the administration carries through on these priority actions, they will indeed have helped make America safer, stronger, and more resilient.

Rather, the problem is in the awkward bits the NSS elides over. Consider just a few:

  • Trump’s NSS insists that the United States must “rethink … policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” This is a worthy cautionary, but it rather draws attention to one of the most inexplicable parts of Trump’s own foreign policy approach: his insistence that pursuing a non-confrontational approach with Putin will turn Putin into a trustworthy partner despite Putin’s extensive efforts to undermine American democracy.
  • Similarly, the NSS acknowledges that (unnamed) rival actors “use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners.” This is a pithy summary of Russia’s (and other’s) malign activities and a step in the direction of addressing the toughest writing challenge in this NSS: developing a comprehensive strategy for responding to Russia’s attacks. The Russia language later in the report is pretty tough, at least as hard-hitting as Obama’s 2015 language if not as candid as I would like. Unfortunately, the NSS still is too vague on what the administration is going to do in concrete terms to confront Russia on this issue.
  • Trump’s NSS calls for free, fair, and reciprocal economic relationships with our trading partners. This is, in fact, what every president has pursued. Previous administrations would defend the deals Trump has derided – NAFTA, KORUS, TPP, etc. – using precisely the same criteria. The acid test will be met at the negotiating table. If not this NAFTA, then which NAFTA? If not TPP, then what? So far, it is too soon to determine whether Trump’s approach to trade negotiations will yield a better result.
  • The language on climate change is less than satisfying. Energy dominance is fine, but climate change is a real problem in its own right. The administration could have done more to confront this issue.
  • Trump’s NSS is absolutely right to insist on rebuilding America’s military strength, repairing the gap between ends and means that President Obama allowed to get too large. However, Trump’s own initial defense budgets have fallen short on this score.

It is unreasonable to expect any omnibus document to bridge every gap between word and deed. And some of the candor missing in this document may show up in the classified annex the administration apparently plans to develop in the new year.

Overall, however, this is a workable foundation for Trump’s national security efforts and a welcome respite from the melodrama that has surrounded the administration in other respects. The NSS will not rebut the administration’s critics, but it will serve as a useful point of departure for future debates and dialogue. That is not a noteworthy achievement for a team that has faced a tough first year.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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