President Donald Trump’s newly released National Security Strategy is a pleasantly centrist document — essentially a well-written amalgam of mainstream foreign policy principles that could as easily have emerged from a Hillary Clinton White House. Despite a couple of outlying aspects, the “four pillars” of the document reflect traditional ideas of international relations and are hard to argue with: protect the homeland, promote American prosperity, preserve peace through strength, and advance US influence.
To really appreciate the striking normality of this document, just reflect back to the Trump campaign of 2016 — Nato was deemed obsolete; we were going to literally charge our allies fees for protecting them; Japan and South Korea were told to consider obtaining nuclear weapons; Russia was going to be a great friend; and we were headed toward 40 per cent tariffs on Chinese goods and possibly a global trade war.
Isolationism was a word often used to describe the trajectory of Candidate Trump’s rhetoric. Fortunately, other than The Big Beautiful Wall, a dreadful concept that has achieved a kind of mythic status in the Trump Universe, most of the truly strange ideas have vanished.
At the heart of the new strategy is a resolutely international outlook. This includes a reliance on allies and partners, an adoption of “principled realism,” and concern over what might be termed a “tri-polar competition” between the US, China and Russia. The document correctly reflects the return of dangerous levels of great-power rivalry, and sketches a fairly compelling approach to dealing with the challenges of a rapidly expanding China. It acknowledges the continuing danger posed by Islamic fundamentalism, and calls for strengthening borders and sharing intelligence aggressively. And it accurately identifies the threat from authoritarian regimes such as North Korea and Iran.
Strangely lacking, by comparison with the criticisms of China, is any sense of a similar plan for Russia. Here we see the ongoing ambivalence, presumably of the president himself, toward Russia in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. Especially in light of the two chummy phone calls of the last couple of days — Trump thanking Putin for praising him at his annual press conference, and Putin thanking Trump for counterterrorism intelligence — it seems the bubbling bromance of these two strangely matched leaders has shielded Russia of any hard-edged policy prescriptions.
There is a distinctly geo-economic feel to the strategy, with an emphasis on cracking down on “chronic trade abuses” and a pursuit of leadership in research, technology and innovation. One odd new note is a call for “energy dominance,” which feels ill-considered and somewhat undefined — but will strike an ominous tone with many allies and opponents. While the idea of using economic tools to influence global events and create security is good strategy, it begs the question of why the US pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have created enormous economic leverage in Asia. This is a good example of the fundamental tension in the document between a world in which the US leads and a desire to retreat from entangling relationships in the trade sphere. It also augurs badly for the success of the NAFTA renegotiation.
In the military sphere, the document is predictably strong on “rebuilding” American might so that it remains second to none. Since the US spends more than three times as much on the military as its nearest competition, China, that’s not really the issue. What’s missing here is more detail on how to move forward specifically in terms of military deployments, cyber-capabilities, unmanned systems, leveraging artificial intelligence, and achieving a balance between conventional and special forces. These crucial strategic decisions cannot be put off for long.
The strategy’s final pillar describes ways to advance American influence, and talks about the need to balance military hard power with the soft power of diplomacy and development. It includes a discussion of the role of values — rule of law, individual rights — that is again quite conventional and refreshingly so. This is the most idealistic portion of the paper, and the most open to criticism as other nations read it and wonder, for example, about the administration’s withdrawal from Paris climate accords.
Like its predecessors from previous administrations, this security statement will need more detail generated by subordinate departments and agencies — Defence, State, Agency for International Development, Homeland Security, etc — that will all publish strategies as well. Each must “nest” inside the umbrella of this National Security Strategy. The resulting package will come to be defined by the resource decisions the administration makes over time, beginning with the massive defence budget alongside the cuts at the State Department and in foreign aid, for example. And, finally, the strategy must survive in the real world and the digital one, where it will no doubt be battered by Trump’s itchy Twitter finger.
Overall, we should hope that the administration manages to follow the general thrust of this strategy — augmented by revisiting the idea of broad trade agreements in Asia and renegotiating NAFTA in a responsible way. (Returning to the Paris agreements, alas, seems beyond imagining.) But hope is not a strategy, as the saying goes, and we should therefore follow the advice I often give to foreign observers of our nation these days: Don’t focus on what the administration says, but rather on what it actually does. America has much riding on whether the speaking and the doing are in sync in the days ahead.
— Washington Post
James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and former military commander of Nato, is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.