The Missing Element in Trump’s NSS: A Competitive Strategy

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks regarding the Administration's National Security Strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington D.C.

America should focus on finding and exploiting asymmetries in long-term great power competition.

China’s major strategic vulnerability at the moment is its lack of allies, regionally and globally. For instance, while China’s partners in Asia and Africa have enjoyed Chinese financial largess, they have increasingly grown wary of broader strategic partnerships. Major infrastructure projects in Pakistan, Nepal, and Myanmar have been cancelled over the last year, out of distrust of Chinese motives and high-handedness.

More generally, an increasingly confident China has difficult relationships with a number of its neighbors, including India, Japan,and Vietnam. General Secretary Xi Jinping's increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the South China Sea has exacerbated some of these tensions and improved U.S. relations with a number of states. And China’s continued partnership with North Korea remains an albatross around its neck in building bridges to neighbors. America has the tools to take advantage of this vulnerability by strengthening its regional alliances while maintaining—or indeed expanding—a credible military presence in the region.

In addition, both Russia and China share another vulnerability: the nontransparent structure of their political systems. While Russia and China have seen American openness as a weakness, America has traditionally wielded it as a strength. President Putin may not remain in office after 2024, and there are no clear successors or political institutions that seem capable of managing that transition. The greatest fear of the ruling clique in Moscow remains a “color revolution” of the sort that has deposed post-Communist autocrats in Georgia and Ukraine. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also has an inordinate fear of losing its monopoly of power. The recent purges of the CCP and the intensification of the crackdown on reformers, NGOs, and non-Communists suggest that Beijing sees its political opposition as a major and growing vulnerability. Countering foreign news narratives and political meddling could be done with tools the United States developed during the Cold War. It might run against Trump’s political instincts, but bringing back the United States Information Agency to coordinate U.S. counterpropaganda responses could go some way to redressing American vulnerabilities and taking advantage of rivals’.

Finally, turning from others’ weaknesses to U.S. asymmetrical advantages, the new NSS appropriately highlights two key issues: “New advances in computing, autonomy, and manufacturing are already transforming the way the United States fights. When coupled with the strength of our allies and partners, this advantage grows.” These two advantages should indeed represent the backbone of a U.S. competitive grand strategy versus our rivals. But the administration now needs to do the hard work of investing economic and political capital in each of these areas to tie them together in a coherent approach for the long-term. More specifically, the uncertain status of the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” strategy of investing in leap-ahead technologies needs to be quickly remedied, while Washington’s management of alliances in key geopolitical theaters needs to be better integrated into this overall framework of competitive great power strategy.

The new NSS signals a sea change in American strategy. Making it work will require the sort of long-term thinking pioneered by Andy Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment.

Ian Ona Johnson is Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, and author of the forthcoming The Faustian Bargain: Secret Soviet-German Military Cooperation in the Interwar Period (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Ionut Popescu is a Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, and author of the recently released Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Image: Reuters


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