In typical fashion, President Trump unveiled his long awaited National Security Strategy (NSS) last month by denigrating the foreign policy of his predecessors and praising his own as “a great reawakening of America.” Trump’s NSS reveals the ongoing tension between the president’s professional strategic thinkers to forge coherent policies and their boss’s indulgence in erratic Twitter rants devoid of basic discipline. The result is a bundle of contradictions and confusion that risks exacerbating our allies’ lack of faith in U.S. leadership and our adversaries exploiting an America that has lost its way.
The 55-page NSS document is a painstaking effort by foreign policy experts on the National Security Council to marry up Trump’s rambling Nietzschean sloganeering on the state of the world with cogent establishmentarian thinking that transcends multiple presidential administrations. The result is a hodgepodge of incongruities and contradictions.
The drafters tip their hat at such Trumpisms as “America First,” mentioning the need for a “border wall,” while repeatedly slamming other nations for “unfair trade practices.” Yet the substance is fairly conventional stuff—such as encouraging “liberty, free enterprise, equal justice under the law and the dignity of every human life”—themes that generally appear in the national security strategies of past administrations since Congress first mandated the NSS in 1986.
Identifying key threats also holds no surprises. The NSS points to North Korea, Iran, cyber attacks, terrorism, and transnational crime as principal threats. It also pegs Russia and China as “revisionist powers [who] challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” and are “antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
Here, however, is where major contradictions show themselves. In his remarks, Trump proclaimed with no elaboration that he wants to “build a great partnership” with Beijing and Moscow. He then ballyhooed Vladimir Putin’s calling him to thank the U.S. for providing intelligence that helped thwart a terrorist attack in Russia. Despite the consensus from 17 intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in our 2016 elections, Trump still gives more credence to cyber-hacking having been perpetrated by “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds” than he does to the Kremlin. He has convened no Cabinet-level meeting to address Russian cyber attacks, nor has he berated Putin on just about any issue. In a section titled, “Keep America Safe in the Cyber Era,” the NSS has a vague reference to “malicious cyber actors,” but with no mention of Russia. While the report’s section on Europe slams Moscow for “using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe,” no policy actions are specified to confront this threat.
In backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trump administration removed a powerful counterbalance to China’s burgeoning economic power in Asia. The NSS offers no replacement, making only passing mention to “bilateral trade agreements on a fair and reciprocal basis.” Game point, Beijing.
While Trump’s NSS leaves out climate change as a security threat, one assumes the experts who drafted the report sneaked in ambiguous text stating that “the United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while expanding our economy.” It’s anybody’s guess what this means in practice, especially after the United States became the sole nation not party to the Paris climate accord.
The quixotic effort to wed Trumpism to policy coherency breaks down in the NSS’s head-scratching stabs at providing a conceptual foundation to an “America First” security strategy. The authors strain to define ideas called “practical realism” and “competitive diplomacy” as underpinnings of the strategy, and the result is a muddled verbal legerdemain that confuses more than it clarifies. One is compelled to ask how the administration pulls off “competitive diplomacy” when it is systematically gutting the State Department’s human and budgetary resources while simultaneously stripping it of policy leadership. And then there are the president’s tweets undercutting his secretary of state’s efforts for diplomacy on Korea.
The ongoing competition between “globalists” (McMaster, Tillerson, Mattis) and “nationalists” (Miller, and until last week, Bannon) among Trump’s formal and informal advisors provides outsiders with a choice as to which policy stream to support or decry. Beijing and Moscow chose to overlook Trump’s impromptu comment that he wanted to “build a great partnership” with them, focusing instead on the NSS’s danger warnings. China’s foreign ministry criticized the NSS for containing distortions and “malicious slander” concerning Beijing’s strategic intentions, while a Kremlin spokesman told reporters that the NSS reflected an “imperialist character.”
It has been caustically said of the NSS that never have so many worked so hard writing something read by so few. Yet, it is no mere paper exercise. It provides the world a broad overview of the direction in which a president wants to take the country as well as the underlying values driving policies. A president who is not in sync with his NSS confuses friends and yields opportunities to adversaries. Our allies increasingly talk of the need to veer away from Washington and chart their own direction. Adversaries such as Russia and China will exploit the gaps to their advantage.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, I reached out to Trump’s people to try to get a handle on the candidate’s worldview and foreign policy plans. I ended my quest dazed and confused, having concluded not only does he lack a worldview but also the foundation upon which to form one. Two years later, nothing’s changed.