Trump’s National Security Strategy: Positioning the US In the 21st Century Global Game


2018-01-01 By Richard Weitz

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) has likely had a more impact than most previous versions of this document. Foreign observers are probably reading the text closely, especially the sections referencing their own country.

The strategy has four primary pillars:

(1) protecting the homeland by securing U.S. borders against malign state and non-state actors, pursuing terrorists and similar threats at their source, and increasing U.S. resilience against cyber and other dangers:

(2) making Americans prosperous by rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, facilitating research and innovation, promoting fair and reciprocal foreign partnerships, and embracing energy dominance:

(3) achieving peace through strength by renewing U.S. strategic advantages, regional balances of power, and applying the entire portfolio of U.S. military, economic, cyber, space, intelligence, and diplomatic capabilities; and

(4) advancing U.S. global interests and influence by inspiring others, catalyzing complementary private initiatives, and leading reformed international organizations that promote American values.

President Trump announcing the new national security strategy.

The new strategy shares similarities and differences with the approximately 16 previous versions of this document.

As in the past, there is an insistence on the imperative of U.S. global leadership, using all elements of power but especially military, at the head of an international network of like-minded democracies.

There are also several points of emphasis not found in past strategies.

For example, the Trump NSS stresses the need to cultivate U.S. energy power and protect an extended U.S. national innovation base—not just defense industries–from foreign predation.

Additionally, there is more focus than previous versions on challenging a rising China; the previously common language about Sino-U.S. ties having an unavoidable mixture of cooperation and conflict is largely absent from Trump’s strategy.

In this regard, the new NSS identifies many more types of international threats.

The administration’s national security team believes, “the global balance of power has shifted against U.S. interests,” as seen by the growth of potential adversaries’ military power, their economic rise at U.S. expense, and their development and application of new cyber information tools.

Trump’s team sees the general global environment as decidedly darker than the more hopeful texts released by previous administrations. For example, its NSS sees globalization, embraced by previous presidents as a generally positive force, as weakening barriers against international menaces such as illegal migration and Chinese economic aggression.

The conceptual framework of the Trump NSS is competitive.

The text’s goal is to reverse U.S. decline by renewing American strengths. In the words of President Trump, “We are declaring that America is in the game and that America is going to win.”

At the conceptual level, the text recommends that Washington join Moscow and Beijing in seeing global politics as “an arena of continuous competition” that transcends false binary distinctions between war and peace.

At the global level, the strategy calls for modernizing U.S. diplomatic, economic, cyber, space, intelligence, and military tools “to operate across these environments.”

The NSS offers several principles to guide the revitalization of each instrument, which will need to be supported by adequate financing.

Denying that “America first” meant “America alone,” Trump observed that, “Our strategy emphasizes strengthening alliances,” based on shared values and a fair distribution of “responsibility for our common security.”

At the regional level in Europe, the NSS sticks to fundamentals.

It begins with the observation that, “A strong and free Europe is of vital importance to the United States” for strategic as well as “our shared commitment to the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”

Looking ahead, the administration will work with European allies and partners to improve energy security, fortify national and regional defenses, punish Russian aggression with costly sanctions, and disprove the Kremlin’s propaganda with truthful messages.

The NSS arguably employs the most critical tone regarding Russian behavior yet issued by the Trump administration.

The words “Russia” and “aggression” regularly appear together, including the first four times the text mentions the country. The fifth occasion makes an equivalent reference to “Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

According to the authors, Moscow strives to subvert U.S. power through cyberattacks, political interference in foreign countries, flexing Russian military power, asserting spheres of influence, and weakening U.S. allies and alliances.

The text warns that, left unchecked, Russia’s regional ambitions, expanding military power, and “unstable frontier in Eurasia” could lead to Russian miscalculation and conflict.

Our colleague Stephen Blank has already noted how the 2017 NSS breaks new ground by warning of Russian challenges to U.S. interests in Latin America, including Mexico, through various disruptive economic and security policies.

Another difference with previous versions in that the current NSS, besides repeating longstanding concerns about Russian and Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities, bemoans how the two countries are impeding U.S. access to “critical commercial zones during peacetime,” such as Eurasia.

The NSS stresses the need to resist Russian sub-conventional (also known as “hybrid” or “grey-zone”) aggression, which is problematic since it often falls “below the threshold of open military conflict” that would provide a clear-cut trigger for U.S. military counter intervention, such as the provisions for activating NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause.

Another difficulty for Western planners is that the lack of internal checks and balances in “repressive, closed states” like Russia, in comparison with the Western democracies, allow their governments to more rapidly mobilize and combine their military, economic, and informational resources “to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and others to respond.”

Despite these complications, the NSS adumbrate various principles to cope with the Russian challenge.

More detailed plans will likely be offered in the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review.

The NSS does say that the administration will “keep the door open to greater collaboration with Russia in areas of common interests,” should Moscow change course and respect “the sovereignty and democratic development of neighboring states.”

Yet. Moscow needs to change its behavior first since the NSS says that the Trump administration has lost faith in “the assumption [attributed to previous administrations] that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”

Moreover, the United States needs to restore its instruments of power to ensure that it can negotiate with Russia and other countries from a position of strength.

As Trump put it, “weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unrivaled power is the most certain means of defense.”

Editor’s Note: There is a clear shift from assuming a multiple-sum hidden hand of globalization creating a greater global good, to one where competition and cooperation are forged on a case by case basis. And that is at the heart of the shift associated with the Trump national security strategy,