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.

The report worries about Chinese aggression and missile capability, but it does not explore U.S. countermeasures, the massive superiority of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, or the sterling track record of U.S. extended deterrence. It suggests without explanation that U.S. nuclear deterrence is somehow prone to failure unless spending on nuclear weapons increases.

The strategy is especially frightened by lesser powers. It promises to contain Iran’s nuclear program but ignores the agreement in place now doing so. It calls Iran the world’s greatest terrorism sponsor, but it does not mention its reformist elements or how shrewd U.S. diplomacy could empower them. It ignores all that our Gulf “allies” do to promote extremist views conducive to terrorism.

The treatment of North Korea departs most sharply from realism. The strategy implies that North Korea’s regime type makes it unreliable and that deterrence can’t work. Realism is more sanguine about our nuclear weapons’ ability to deter aggression, especially by weak states already overmatched in conventional arms, doubtful about claims that autocracies are especially hard to deter, and pessimistic about preventive war (attacks meant to diminish a rival’s capabilities without any imminent threat of its attack).

The strategy also repeats traditional errors in refusing to acknowledge how the goals it values compete. It doesn’t say, for example, how the many national-security missions it supports, including the wars, erode the military readiness it wants. It fairly criticizes the belief that revolutionary technology allows less manpower in wars, but it doesn’t ask if the idea that drone strikes and special-operations raids will defeat insurgencies and terrorists might be similarly misplaced. The strategy is similarly myopic about the Pentagon spending increase it wants. It doesn’t mention that the Pentagon’s budget increases the debt or that it goes largely to unproductive ends like encouraging wealthy allies to free-ride on U.S. defenses.

The Ugly

This strategy’s ugly departure from its predecessors is its protectionism. It advocates restrictions on legal immigration that are likely to harm many U.S. business and the technological innovations it seeks to accelerate. The strategy’s laudable focus on protecting U.S. prosperity is likewise marred by zero-sum thinking on trade. A key example: it fails to note how China’s economic success creates a vast market for U.S. goods, lower prices for U.S. consumers and companies, and a deluge of foreign investment, much in debt that ambitious strategies like this fuel. The document likewise proposes greater restrictions on foreign investment in the United States in order to protect intellectual property without substantiating the risk or weighing the lost investment.

President Trump’s National Security Strategy, as critics note, doesn’t seem to match Trump’s views. But it does reflect his policies, which adhere far more closely to the establishment foreign-policy view than he or they like to admit. That includes a refusal to prioritize. Because resources are always limited and goals inevitably compete, U.S. national-security policy can’t entirely avoid such choices. But without a true strategy that guides those decisions, they’re likely to adhere to the overreaching status quo, abrading the simple goals this document aims to serve.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a fellow at Defense Priorities and an Adjunct Lecturer at George Washington’s Elliot School.

Image: 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

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