Elephants in the Room

Does Trump’s National Security Strategy Have a Values Deficit?

The administration notices growing competition with authoritarian countries, but skirts around the source of conflict.

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)

The new U.S. national security strategy released today by the Trump administration appropriately reflects the heightened challenge to the United States posed by China’s singular rise, Russian interventionism, the pretention of rogue states Iran and North Korea, and global terrorism. It vows to enhance American influence and restore a balance of power that has been dangerously eroded by American competitors. And while the strategy of “principled realism” pledges not to “impose our values on others,” its central premise is in fact that the overriding challenges to the security of the American people emanate from actors who are most hostile to democratic freedoms.

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests,” argues the new report. “They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” China maintains a “repressive vision”; its authoritarian capital is “corrupting elites” in Africa and seeking to pull countries in Europe and Latin America “into its orbit.” Both China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”

Meanwhile, hostile dictatorships in Iran and North Korea are investing in advanced missile and nuclear capabilities, and in Iran’s case, one of the world’s most capable transnational terrorist organizations. To say this puts the core interests of the United States and its allies at risk is an understatement. North Korea is openly threatening to attack the American homeland, as are an array of transnational terrorist groups.

The new national security strategy vows to target these threats at their source. It also places a priority on protecting American sovereignty and rebuilding American power, including by leveling the economic playing field against mercantilistic competitors.

“Geopolitics is back, creating new threats to freedom,” argued National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster before a forum in Washington organized by Britain’s Policy Exchange think tank last week. America needs to enhance all elements of national power and influence to compete against hostile competitors who expanded their spheres of influence following the policies of retrenchment pursued by President Obama, says a senior White House official. “The new strategy empowers us to compete. The United States has vacated competitive space, our rivals have filled it, and we need to come back.”

In addition to the traditional goals of protecting the homeland and promoting economic prosperity, the Trump administration’s strategy appropriately emphasizes “promoting peace through strength” and “enhancing American influence.” A senior White House official says America must “rely on all tools of statecraft” to pursue these goals, including to manage threats that fall below the threshold of eliciting a military response. Hard power matters, but alone is insufficient to the task. To “preserve and extend our influence overseas,” the United States must “champion our values and encourage others to embrace them.”

As General McMaster told the Policy Exchange audience, “Enhancing American influence includes promoting the rule of law abroad and protecting the dignity of every human life.” It also includes using non-military tools to promote moderation in parts of the Muslim world that have been hotbeds of violent extremism. To this end, the national security advisor argues that it is important to create political space for opposition groups to operate freely: “Otherwise these dictatorships seed extremism and radicalism, because political opposition has nowhere else to go.”

“Remaining true to American principles is key to restoring U.S. strategic confidence,” argued McMaster before the Policy Exchange forum. “It is our values that underlie our partnerships.” The national security strategy’s emphasis on pushing back against hostile powers and helping fragile states combat violent extremism takes shape in the promise that Trump’s administration will protect American sovereignty and help allies and partners protect theirs. This will necessarily involve helping friendly nations build strong political institutions resilient to subversion from without or within. U.S. democracy and governance assistance is central to this effort.

Although the Trump administration’s national security strategy embraces a realist approach focused on restoring American competitiveness in an era of power politics, it is clear that one of America’s most potent competitive advantages stems from our open society and the fact that people everywhere want to be free to determine their own destiny. This acknowledgement is implicit in the tone and policies set forth in the national security strategy — but it would do the administration well to acknowledge this strength openly and ensure that it is embedded in their geopolitical agenda.

Few people are happy to surrender their freedom to live under an authoritarian great power’s sphere of influence; fewer want to live under a repressive medieval caliphate of the kind the Islamic State tried unsuccessfully to construct in parts of Syria and Iraq. Unelected dictators in countries like North Korea have one overriding fear: their own people. Empowering repressed publics to exercise political choice in countries hostile to the United States thanks to their autocratic leadership would fit neatly into the White House’s new approach.

America’s support for universal values can and should be part of any strategy to enhance U.S. influence and build a world that is safe for our people and our interests, in an era when hostile competitors are challenging U.S. leadership. The new national security strategy puts it best: “These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.” Let us remember that America’s great strength lies not just in our nuclear arsenal — it is in the values that make our system far more appealing than those of our competitors.


Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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