Paul Pillar

America Alone


The congressionally mandated national security strategies have for the most part not merited the term “strategy”.  They are public documents meant for public consumption rather than as guides to decision-making about individual foreign policy problems.  They are essentially an additional opportunity, along with presidential speeches and other vehicles, for expressing to the public an administration’s favored themes.

This observation applies at least as much to Donald Trump's newly released national security strategy as to those of other administrations.  Although some of Trump’s senior subordinates are quite capable of thinking strategically, the president himself has given scant indication of having a strategic bone in his body when in comes to national security.   Trump’s utterances on the subject have shown evidence less of any deep thinking than of inconsistency, ignorance stemming from inexperience, and a demagogue’s concern with applause lines.

Moreover, a document published under the name of a president who has taken lying to a level far beyond that of most other politicians is, unsurprisingly, duplicitous as well.  The duplicity extends not just to individual mischaracterizations but to absconding of entire concepts—or more precisely, to the use of terms that refer to such concepts without making policy that conforms with them.  The administration’s document claims to be a “strategy of principled realism,” while the Trump foreign policy has not been realist at all, especially given its tendency to divide the world rigidly into friends and foes. The document also favorably refers to the realist concept of “balance of power,” but Trump’s foreign policy has been far different from one that would observe the principles and reap the benefits of a balance of power.

The administration’s document brazenly claims to be pursuing objectives that it instead is trashing.  It says that “diplomacy is indispensable to identify and implement solutions” and that “we must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities” at the same time that it is running the State Department into the ground and, on issue after issue, blowing off the department’s diplomatic mission.  The document declares that “the national debt, now over $20 trillion, presents a grave threat to America’s long-term prosperity and, by extension, our national security” as the president is about to sign, with celebration and no reluctance, one of the biggest deficit-ballooning pieces of legislation in recent history.

The over-arching theme of the strategy document is the now-familiar slogan of “America first”.  An outward-looking sub-theme involves American leadership abroad.  White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, in a much-noticed op ed earlier this year, explained that “America First does not mean America alone.”  But in its first eleven months, the Trump administration has descended more quickly into self-generated isolation than has any other U.S. administration in memory.  Much of this descent stems from Trump’s insistence on doing the opposite of whatever his predecessor did. The United States is the sole country on the planet that disavows the Paris climate change agreement aimed at saving the planet—now that the last two other previous holdouts, the Assad regime in Syria and the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, have signed on.  Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left the other participants to proceed without the United States, as well as giving new opportunities for regional influence to China.  Trump’s efforts to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. the Iran nuclear agreement, which seven countries negotiated, have left the United States, not Iran, as the isolated party.  And just this week, Nikki Haley cast the first U.S. veto in six years at the United Nations Security Council, against an otherwise unanimously supported resolution opposing the Trump administration’s declaration about Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem move illustrates another of the Trump administration’s proclivities that run directly against the idea of “America first”.  This tendency is the subcontracting of policy to certain favored foreign regimes, rather than independently pursuing U.S. interests.  Bowing to the preferences of the right-wing government of Israel is the most glaring example, with the decision on Jerusalem going farther in this direction than even previous U.S. administrations had gone.  Not as far-reaching but just as obvious over the past year has been the bowing to preferences of the Saudi regime regarding rivalries and tensions in the Persian Gulf.