How to Grade Trump’s National Security Strategy on a Curve
Strategizing for this president isn’t easy. But that excuse only gets you so far.
Ideally, everyone in government would be graded as in Olympic diving — that is, a degree of difficulty should be factored into their score. That’s what I wished for when when I was on the National Security Council staff working on coalition management for the Iraq War. And it’s what I wish for my friend and admired colleague Nadia Schadlow now. She is the deputy assistant to the president for national security strategy, the principal author of U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy. Schadlow had the unenviable task of taking this president’s strong views on national security and aligning them with those of his Cabinet appointees, America’s enduring interests, the exigencies of events, and the policies the Trump administration has brought into being in the past 11 months.
Schadlow has done a brilliant job. But that’s only if you grade her as in Olympic diving. Because absent that context, this is a problematic national security strategy, made even more so by Trump’s speech unveiling it. The president’s speech was heavy on campaign themes — indeed, the event felt more like a campaign rally than the solemn affairs of state. It was long on dark themes about how our country had been taken advantage of and allowed to atrophy into a weak and feckless shell of our former greatness. It was long on outlandish claims that no previous administration had understood the centrality of economics to American power or the essentiality of protecting our homeland. It was a chiaroscuro portrait of American national security — a world in which there are only winners or losers.
The Trump National Security Strategy rightly seeks to reconsider globalization in light of voters’ anxiety about the future. It identifies four pillars: protecting our people and homeland, promoting American prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence. Those are solid foundations, unexceptional in every NSS since President Harry Truman signed off on NSC-68. (For those who object that former Presidents Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama didn’t advocate strength, I encourage you to read all the times they emphasize American military power as fundamental.)
As the president and his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, both have said, the strategy is a departure from previous administrations. The strategy is long on economic policy, long on military policy, and short on other nonmilitary means of protecting and advancing our interests. It accurately captures the president’s well-known views on trade, alliances, and immigration. It tries to defang those views, or at least provide antibodies to the venom, with more traditional platitudes such as “the United States consolidated its military victories with political and economic triumphs built on market economies and fair trade, democratic principles, and shared security partnerships.” Hats off to Schadlow and McMaster for pulling the president’s well-known views that far into reasonable territory.
Its main problem, though, is that the text is implausible as either a description of administration policies or a likely template for its priorities and spending. The text is implausible as a description of the president’s actual views — the differences between Monday’s speech and the NSS text illustrate that in spades. And even where the NSS does reflect the president’s views, there is reason to doubt the administration will prioritize and deconflict its policies. President Trump extolls raising defense spending to $700 billion this year and ending sequestration, but Congress continues a third into the fiscal year operating on a continuing resolution, and the White House doesn’t appear to be working votes to produce an appropriations bill that would actually fund defense (or the rest of the government) at that level. Or, to take another example, the NSS argues that intellectual property and innovation are keys to our prosperity; wouldn’t that objective prescribe policies to benefit universities, remain a magnet for high-skill immigration, and ensure every child gets a solid science and math education? Does anyone think the Trump administration will advocate for those policies?
The purpose of national security strategies is to outline for the American public a presidential administration’s thinking about our national interests, the threats to those interests, our means to protect and advance our interests, and ways of stringing those means together expeditiously and cost-effectively. As the great Lawrence Freedman writes in his book Strategy: A History, strategy is about creating power, improving by craftiness on the outcome raw inputs would have determined as an outcome. Trump’s National Security Strategy fails that test of strategy, because inputs equal outputs without benefit of a multiplier, or even an additive.
The strategy speaks of championing American values and increasing our influence, yet both have demonstrably been diminished by a year of President Trump: Allied governments and publics trust us less, and Russian influence remains unchecked not only in the Middle East but also via its activities to surreptitiously influence free societies. Whether other enemies fear us more remains an open question, but China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea do not appear more fearful than they were under previous presidents. We are just as likely — perhaps even more so than under President Obama — to have adversaries test our willingness to honor our defense alliances, because Trump has made them seem conditional and unsentimental transactions.
Even after the 2016 campaign and a year of the Trump presidency, it is still disconcerting to hear a description of the liberal international order and America’s role in it so much at variance with how both of those things have looked to Americans and the rest of the world for the past 70 years. The hard men who built the liberal international order after World War II were no starry-eyed idealists. They had fought Nazis and imperial Japan. They knew the costs of mercantilist trade policies that made everyone poorer. They knew the costs of “America first” foreign policies that allowed threats to overtake others, growing in strength before they turned to us. They knew the hollow feeling of having the power to advance justice and prevent injustice but holding back from doing so. Those hard men built an international order where countries that could not defend themselves cooperated to defend each other, where trade was advanced to mutual benefit, and where power was legitimized by giving the less powerful a vote and constraining the more powerful by agreed rules and institutions. We, its inheritors, are failing catastrophically to preserve and advance that order. President Trump’s National Security Strategy is the measure of our failure.