In speaking at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington today, President Trump sought to delineate a new foreign-policy strategy for America. Trump alluded to his election victory, noting that “you spoke loud and you spoke clear. On November 8, you voted to make America great again. You embraced new leadership and new strategies and also a glorious new hope.” The most interesting part of the speech may be the fact that Trump delivered one at all, in contrast to his predecessors. If his administration uses the strategy as a true lodestar, then it would mark a break with a liberal internationalism based on the idea that economic and political cooperation, not confrontation, is the best way to protect American interests.
The document is bound to attract close scrutiny, coming as it does in the first year of an administration that vowed to pursue an “America First” foreign policy. When he assumed office, Trump sounded traditional realist notes in the mold of the nineteenth-century statesman Lord Palmerston, whose maxim was that England had “no eternal allies” and “no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Since then, however, Trump has, among other things, voiced his support for NATO and refrained from pursuing a China-bashing policy.
Now, a year into office, Trump spoke against a background of increasing foreign-policy turmoil. In Asia, China has been flexing its muscles, relentlessly expanding its artificial islands in the South China Sea and dismissing American concerns about them. North Korea, which the Trump administration has alternately tried to threaten militarily or to woo into diplomatic negotiations, continues to work on its nuclear program. In Europe, Russia remains ensconced in Ukraine, with no quick end to its division in sight. And in the Middle East, Russia is moving steadily to increase its influence in Syria, Egypt and Iran, even as Trump remains largely aloof.
In his speech, Trump suggested, much as he did during the election campaign, that his predecessors got it all wrong: “On top of everything else, our leaders drifted from American principles, they lost sight of America's destiny, and they lost their belief in American greatness. As a result, our citizens lost something as well. The people lost confidence in their government and eventually even lost confidence in their future.” Trump argued for a strategy of what he deemed “principled realism” that would arrest what he depicted as American decline in recent decades. The administration says that there are four pillars to Trump’s new strategy: safeguarding the homeland, maximizing American influence, maintaining peace through military power and, above all, fostering economic prosperity. Specifically, Trump pointed to Russia and China as “revisionist” powers that need to be countered.
The national-security document itself parts ways with the past belief that economic and political cooperation with Russia and China will lead to a new, irenic age. Instead, it takes a more cold-eyed approach. It says that Russia and China “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. . . . These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” The document also states that America will respond quickly to any instances of “economic aggression” by foreign powers and that it seeks “energy dominance.”
What all this adds up to in practice is, of course, unclear. George W. Bush entered office talking about the new for America to become more humble, and ended up overseeing a massive expansion of the national-security state, not to mention embarking upon two wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Barack Obama pledged to end the war in Afghanistan and never did. Trump, too, vowed to exit Afghanistan, only to order a modest troop surge at the behest of his generals.
An unpredictable event abroad—a Russian foray into the Baltic states, or a North Korean attack on the South, or a massive terrorist attack in the United States—could upend Trump’s national-security strategy. It’s also easier to express the hope of countering Russian and Chinese revisionism than to accomplish that goal.
Perhaps what the document reveals most clearly is the mental scaffolding of the Trump administration, which is to seek American dominance. Whether the Trump approach, encapsulated in its maiden national-security statement, restores that dominance or accelerates its erosion is the standard by which the administration will be judged in coming years.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
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