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.
But the problems with this NSS go far beyond the incremental differences between this document and preceding ones. Those tensions are actually less significant than the tensions between what this NSS states and what the president says and does. A far-from-comprehensive list of the clashes between Trump and his own NSS would include the following:
- The NSS praises international institutions built by the United States: “American political, business, and military leaders worked together with their counterparts in Europe and Asia to shape the post-war order through the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other institutions designed to advance our shared interests of security, freedom, and peace. We recognize the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.” Trump, by contrast, incessantly denigrates the World Trade Organization, United Nations, NATO, and other international bodies. As recently as December 9, in Pensacola, Trump sideswiped NATO allies—Germany in particular—that, he claims, do not pay the United States enough for their protection. He suggested that unless they “send a little of that cash flow our way,” the United States may not protect them.
- The NSS speaks of Russia as a dangerous adversary that must be countered: “The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.” The NSS even calls out Russia for meddling in other countries’ politics through “modernized forms of subversive tactics.” Trump, by contrast, refuses to say a single negative thing about Vladimir Putin or acknowledge that Putin used “subversive tactics” to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Indeed, in the days before the NSS was released, Trump had two friendly phone calls with Putin in which the two men, judging by the readouts issued by their respective governments, showered each other with praise.
- The NSS says: “Diplomacy is indispensable to identify and implement solutions to conflicts in unstable regions of the world short of military involvement.” It adds: “We must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mindset.” Trump’ secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, by contrast, plans to cut the State Department budget by a third, and his attempts to negotiate with North Korea have been slapped down by Trump himself.
- The NSS includes a coded call for nation-building, though it does not use that neuralgic term. It says that “some of the greatest triumphs of American statecraft resulted from helping fragile and developing countries become successful societies,” and it pledges to “assist fragile states to prevent threats to the U.S. homeland.” Trump, by contrast, invariably bashes foreign aid and nation-building as boondoggles. In fact, just minutes after the NSS was released, he tweeted his umpteenth repudiation of nation-building: “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”
- The NSS says, “The national debt, now over $20 trillion, presents a grave threat to America’s long-term prosperity and, by extension, our national security.” By contrast, Trump has eagerly endorsed a tax bill that will add at least $1 trillion to the debt, and he has opposed cuts to entitlement programs, the bigger drivers of the deficit.
The NSS, as written, is mostly fine. In many places it is better than fine, an eloquent summation of the United States’ role in the world and a principled exposition of what should be done to defend it. But it suffers from a debilitating credibility gap insofar as much of what it says is at odds with what the president himself believes. It might best be understood as a cri du coeur from inside the Deep State signaling to the outside world that Trumpian thinking has not entirely taken over the U.S. government, and that some influential public servants remain dedicated to the vision of U.S. global leadership enunciated after World War II.
In fairness, the actual policies of the administration have often been closer to those propounded in the NSS than the ones that Trump seems to believe in. That is a tribute to the success that McMaster and other officials have had in preventing the president from acting on some of his most extreme instincts. But the very tension between the president and his advisors adds an element of unpredictability to U.S. decision-making, because on every issue it remains unclear if the president will act in accordance with his America First impulses or defer to the internationalist vision of his aides. It is good to have that vision laid out and at least ostensibly endorsed by the president, but it is doubtful that, at the end of the day, such fine statements will prevent Trump from doing what he wants to do.