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Elephants in the Room
Trump Should Abide by His Own National Security Strategy
The United States could restore its global influence by adhering to its commitments.
With any other president occupying the White House, the above would be a strange headline. It typically goes without saying that presidents should follow their own strategies. But President Donald Trump’s raises a few questions — and not because it is a poorly crafted template for how the United States should engage with the world. Quite the opposite. The new National Security Strategy, released last month, is a commendable document that recognizes the reality of how countries interact and provides a comprehensive framework for the advancement of U.S. interests around the globe.
In many ways, Trump’s National Security Strategy stands apart from its recent predecessors. It embraces and candidly identifies America’s rivals. These include revisionist powers like China and Russia, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, and what the document refers to as nonstate “jihadist terrorists.” This terminology warrants praise. It represents a responsible compromise between two extremes. One — violent extremism — ignores the Islamic origins of the predominant contemporary terror threat facing the United States, while the other — radical Islam — is too often interpreted as condemning an entire religion.
Trump’s National Security Strategy also embraces American exceptionalism, which stands in marked contrast to its predecessor, under President Barack Obama. The previous administration sought to downplay the distinctiveness of American history, values, and institutions. Whether at global forums like the United Nations or at bilateral negotiating tables, the Obama administration pursued policies that were founded on the core premise that the United States must view itself and behave just as any common country does. This belief was as earnest as it was mistaken. The new National Security Strategy is quick to correct such flawed thinking.
Trump’s strategy for American engagement with the world embraces international competition. While its post-Cold War predecessors devoted too much attention and resources to promoting cooperation where none could be fostered, the new strategy acknowledges that certain regimes define themselves in opposition to the United States. Dedicating America’s limited political and financial capital to working with these governments is futile and often comes at the expense of more achievable aims.
One such aim is engagement with what the new strategy calls “aspiring partners.” These are often fragile countries that seek closer ties to the United States and its allies. They are far from perfect. Some are closer to authoritarian societies than to liberal democracies. But their desire for more intimate cooperation provides the United States with an opportunity to generate an incentive structure for them that will result in positive change. Moreover, although in no way unique, Trump’s National Security Strategy assertively commits the United States to supporting human dignity in societies where governments repress their own people. It does well to explain that such policies are consistent with U.S. values and interests.
The new strategy is a cogent document that provides an effective framework for American engagement around the world. Its success, however, will ultimately depend on Trump. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has emphasized that the president approved each of its principal concepts, and in an unprecedented move, Trump publicly announced the strategy himself. The latent message is that this is indeed his strategy — not one written by a group of disconnected advisors who do not know or reflect the president’s vision.
Trump is said to be personally invested in the strategy’s conclusions and commitments — and by extension its full implementation. But only time will tell if this is truly the case. He has done well to support human dignity in Venezuela and implement the Global Magnitsky Act against corrupt officials and human rights violators around the world. He has pushed back against Russian hostility by allowing lethal military assistance to Ukraine and closing down Russian consulates in the United States. He did not shy away from a robust but calibrated use of force in Syria. Working both unilaterally and multilaterally, he has adopted the most severe economic sanctions against North Korea in history and developed a holistic strategy to roll back Iran’s malign influence throughout the Middle East.
At the same time, Trump has thus far in his presidency too often deviated from or ignored the central tenets of his own national security strategy. The United States cannot promote American values abroad if the perception — rightly or wrongly — is that it is violating these values at home. American exceptionalism becomes a delusional and hollow mantra unless it conforms to reality. The country’s civil servants cannot fulfill a call to upgrade U.S. diplomatic capabilities if they feel dejected, disheartened, and underappreciated. To advance its interests at international forums, the United States cannot simultaneously dismantle these institutions without a clear set of alternatives and the authority to lead those alternatives.
By choosing to abide by his own commitments, Trump could restore America’s global influence.