Trump Security Strategy a Study in Contrasts

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tags: Trump, National Security Strategy



Max Boot is a military historian and foreign-policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Boot is the author of the forthcoming book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, which has been called a “superb history of the Vietnam conflict” (Booklist) and “essential reading” (Kirkus).

To the extent that the National Security Strategy (NSS) matters—and it is not clear that it matters much—it is not because it constrains the choices that policymakers can make in the future. No senior decision-maker has ever confronted a crisis by looking at a copy of the NSS to find out what to do. NSSs are not even important in guiding spending and procurement decisions; they make no attempt, as real strategy documents should, to reconcile ends and means—to suggest which programs should be funded and which defunded to achieve the results desired. NSSs are really wish lists of capabilities and laundry lists of threats. They are worth paying attention to mainly because they represent an attempt by an administration to bring some intellectual coherence to the day-to-day press of decisions on myriad matters.

What, then, does Donald J. Trump’s NSS—the first ever delivered in a president’s first year—say about the Trump administration? It reveals an administration in conflict between the isolationist, protectionist impulses of the president and the more traditional, internationalist beliefs of his senior aides.

The principal authors of this NSS are the national security advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and senior National Security Council staffer Nadia Schadlow—both conservatives who could easily have staffed a Jeb Bush administration. They have tried to smuggle as much of their own foreign policy thinking into the NSS as possible while still paying ritual obeisance to Trump’s America First rhetoric. Remarkably, given that this is the administration of a president at odds with decades of foreign policy thinking, much of the NSS reads as if it could have been issued by any of Trump’s immediate predecessors. There is nothing novel about a president pledging to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction, defeat terrorists, dismantle transnational criminal organizations, strengthen cyber capabilities, or promote “American prosperity.”

There are four principal differences between the Trump NSS and those of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama:

● The 2017 NSS makes no mention of global warming as a national security threat; Obama’s 2015 NSS emphasized it as a “top strategic risk.” Instead of calling for U.S. leadership to fight global warming, Trump’s NSS says, “U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests.” This is the rationale for Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accords.

● The 2017 NSS makes no pledge to expand free trade, unlike Bush’s 2006 NSS, which promised to “ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade” or Obama’s 2015 NSS, which pledged to “advance high-standard trade deals.” The discussion of trade in Trump’s NSS is wholly negative, with its authors complaining that other countries have “exploited the international institutions we helped to build.” It continues: “They subsidized their industries, forced technology transfers, and distorted markets. These and other actions challenged America’s economic security.” Although the Trump NSS does make a tenuous commitment, deep in the document, to “pursue bilateral trade and investment agreements with countries that commit to fair and reciprocal trade,” its main thrust is to “counter unfair trade practices” through retaliatory mechanisms.

● The 2017 NSS makes no mention of democracy promotion, unlike Bush’s 2006 NSS, whose first pledge was to “champion aspirations for human dignity,” or Obama’s 2015 version, which stated upfront that “defending democracy and human rights is related to every enduring national interest,” this one relegates language about “American values” (which could actually be seen as universal values) to a small subsection near the end. It suggests that the United States will promote those values by example rather than by action: “America’s commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny,” the NSS says, while making clear that “we are not going to impose our values on others.” This echoes John Quincy Adam’s famous quote, beloved by generations of isolationists, about the United State: “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

● This NSS places scant importance on international cooperation. Instead, it emphasizes protecting “American sovereignty” from supposed threats. As the introduction states, “We will pursue this beautiful vision—a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom, and peace—throughout the upcoming year.” This may be a “beautiful vision,” but it is a very different vision from the one propounded in Obama’s 2015 NSS, which pledged “a rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.” Trump favors competition, not cooperation, and the NSS reflects that preference.

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Read entire article at Council on Foreign Relations


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