Trump’s Conventional National Security 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., U.S. December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The trouble with Trump's National Security Strategy is that its realism is mostly rhetorical.

That’s a pithy expression of how values and interest interact, which avoids the standard hooey about how they perfectly align. And the point about states needs making; contrary to much speculation, states remain the key source of problems and solutions in international politics. The document includes a few other insights with a realist bent—democratization isn’t always pacifying, economic liberalization doesn’t cause political liberalization, and states naturally compete for power.

And though it oddly asserts that great-power competition has “returned” (realists say it never left), at least the strategy acknowledges its importance, along with nuclear deterrence. Past strategy documents tend to obscure the fact that U.S. security policy is chiefly concerned with big-state rivals, which we threaten with nuclear devastation to protect allies.

The Bad

The main trouble with this strategy is that its realism is mostly rhetorical. Those points mainly serve to paint an ominous picture of international politics. The policy implications are left vague or too often contradict. The document proposes too little meaningful change in U.S. strategy, let alone a total rethink of the status quo.

A realist approach would also entail sharper choices among policies, with more attention paid to what can be curtailed. Realism focuses on tradeoffs—the sacrifices one end requires in pursuing others. Moreover, realism suggests a more optimistic take on U.S. security. It takes the sources of U.S. security, like enemy weakness and nuclear deterrence, far more seriously.

Instead, the new strategy, in fifty-five pages, runs through the gamut of current U.S. security policies, essentially endorsing everything, while sometimes applying new labels or calling for doing it harder or better. We’re told of the importance of strengthening U.S. alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to maintain a “favorable balance of power,” and the importance of U.S. activism in Latin America and Africa.

A realist national-security strategy wouldn’t just ask rich allies to spend more on their militaries. It would compel them to do more for their own defense—and to provide security for their neighborhoods, rather than relying on U.S. taxpayers and service members.

Strangely little is said about U.S. wars, all of which the administration has expanded or intensified. Short statements about staying engaged in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and general talk about counterterrorism seem to endorse all ongoing efforts, though Somalia, Yemen or Libya, three countries where U.S. drones and special attack terrorists, aren’t even mentioned. An approach focused on U.S. interests should lament how U.S. forces do much of the heavy lifting in these wars and discuss ways to better enable local forces and get major U.S. allies to contribute more. It should distinguish between conflicts that involve terrorists focused on killing Americans and those which are basically civil wars involving Islamists—while tragedies, the latter pose little threat to Americans absent U.S. intervention.

As with past National Security Strategies, this strategy’s expansive take on national interests too often exaggerates threats. It argues that today’s threats are “just as serious, but more diverse” than threats during the Cold War. That makes light of the Cold War, especially the early years, which is when communism subversion was a growing problem, the Soviet military outgunned U.S. allies, and nuclear war seemed hard to avoid.

The strategy’s concern with economics does not extend beyond U.S. shores; nothing is said of the economic flaws likely to slow China and particularly Russia’s military investments. Russia is indeed a menace to its weaker neighbors and its dissidents and energetic in hacking and misinformation campaigns. But with an economy a third smaller than Italy’s, that is hooked on energy prices and graft, and a military that remains a ghost of the Soviet heyday, despite recent improvements, it’s barely a great power, let alone a direct threat to western Europe.

The strategy also has little regard for current U.S. military capability. It asserts that lately “the Joint Force did not keep pace with emerging threats or technologies.” There are plenty of troubling inefficiencies in Pentagon spending, but the $1.7 trillion plus that went to military acquisition last decade bought was plenty to ensure that our consummately professional forces aren’t outgunned by anyone.