Based on these documents, the administration has a lot of work to do. Trump has made a down payment on improving readiness, but the defense budget must be raised further to overcome reckless past decisions. It will take perhaps a decade to repair the damage.
The second line of action is to shift key balances of power in favorable directions. Like the 1992 DPG, the Trump administration’s NSS recognizes that the important contests lie at the regional level—which, if not managed, can lead to global rivalry. China is seeking to be a regional hegemon. Once it achieves this goal, it will seek to become the world’s preeminent power, creating a new bipolar system. Russia wishes to restore its dominance in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Iran aspires to control the Gulf and project power to the Mediterranean. North Korea seeks unification of the peninsula on its terms.
The National Security Strategy is refreshingly blunt on some regional issues that have been soft-pedaled in the past. For example, it clearly calls out the destabilizing role that Pakistan has played in prolonging and complicating the Afghanistan conflict, by protecting, arming and supporting the Taliban and other insurgents. Previous administrations allowed the Pakistani military to play a double game, receiving America’s aid while undercutting its efforts. This document should put them on notice that America knows what they are doing and is not willing to let it continue.
The NSS sets forth realistic courses of action. It advances a sensible formula for relations with other great powers: counter disruptive actions, deter conflict and cooperate in areas of common interest. This recognizes that the purposes and goals of China and Russia are at odds with America’s own, but it also acknowledges that it is better to avoid conflict, and that all parties’ interests are aligned on some important issues.
A sophisticated policy toward an adversarial power ought always to involve a mix of engagement and containment, or what I previously have termed “congagement.” The document rightly recognizes that the containment element requires restoring the hard-power balance of forces and to compete actively against adversarial powers, while also noting the possibility that engagement can yield important benefits. Yet, taken as a whole, the NSS clearly suggests that the emphasis needs to shift toward containment.
It is gratifying, in light of his campaign rhetoric, that the president now embraces America’s alliances and partnerships. Previously, he had given the impression that these relationships had little—or even negative—value. The NSS highlights the importance of alliances to the balance of power. The aggregate GDP of the United States and its allies exceeds 50 percent of the world economy, and the alliances enable U.S. forward presence. Conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical entity and strengthening ties with a rising India are smart policies.
At the same time, President Trump—correctly—calls on America’s partners to carry an equitable share of the burden of common defense. As adversaries increase their capabilities, maintaining the balance of power cannot be done by the United States alone. Although he has been criticized for demanding more from U.S. allies, the thrust of President Trump’s approach is on the mark. Realistically, without greater effort by America’s allies, it is hard to imagine the American people remaining committed to the United States’ role in the world.
A third—and distinctive—line of action is the competition in the new domain of data and information. These new tools can affect competition through cyber offense and defense embedded in wider military operations. They shape economic competitiveness through theft of intellectual property and relative performance of firms by improving their productivity and efficiency. They have brought entirely new concerns and potential deformations to political contests through, for example, the weighting of messages in social media. There is also competition over who sets the rules that govern the structures and operations of the internet. The document’s identification of the importance of this issue accurately recognizes the new challenge before us.
The fourth line of action is the competition of ideas. As a country, we need an informed discussion about the means and limits of ideological influence and democracy expansion. We certainly don’t want to abandon those goals, but it is important to do a lessons-learned analysis from our experiences, including whether we have been appropriately organized to carry out democracy promotion in the broader Middle East.
While abandoning the effort altogether would not be right, simply heralding the American example might not be enough. It should be recalled that our greatest adversaries have been ideological foes, and their greatest weaknesses lay in the denial of the human quest for freedom. Our greatest geopolitical triumphs have typically involved the transition of formerly authoritarian or totalitarian powers to more democratic forms of government. We have a strong hand in this domain. To play it poorly would leave potential winnings on the table.
The strategy’s final line of action points to the need for institutional change. From my personal experience as an ambassador in conflict zones, I can testify that our departments and agencies are not as well structured, staffed and integrated as they should be to succeed in the missions we assign them. The strategy document repeatedly emphasizes the need to renew and reform our policy instruments. It highlights the need for a more competitive diplomacy to advocate for U.S. interests.
WITH THESE advantages, the bad news for the Trump administration is that the hard part still lies ahead. A strategy is just a piece of paper until it is operationalized in policies, funded in the budget and implemented on the ground. Reforming departments and agencies is even more challenging. In recent years, the United States’ record in this part of the process has been spotty.
While the Trump administration has set its course in some areas, such as the strategy for Central and South Asia, it is unclear how the strategy will be operationalized in other areas. With respect to China, the administration has made clear its intention to build up a U.S. naval presence, but has not articulated an operational concept. It should work with Japan and other partners to establish a strong line of defense at the first island chain, running from the main islands of Japan through the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the Philippines. It should maintain the ability to project power into the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, it must develop an approach to negate the advantages that China has sought through the creation of bases on a set of strategically located man-made islands. In the wider Indo-Pacific—a helpful geographic concept—the goal should be strengthening alliances and partnerships into a networked security architecture. This would be less than a formal alliance, but would entail a useful alignment of states.
At the same time, President Trump should roll out a campaign of action to create an equitable trade relationship and prevent China from using economic ties to bolster itself in the military realm. Even as it works to establish this position of strength, the United States should seek to work with China on the North Korean question.
When it comes to Europe, the Trump administration emphasizes the centrality of the NATO alliance in dealing with the Russian threat, instability from the south and terrorism. NATO faces two issues regarding the balance of power. The first is the conflict in Ukraine, where the United States has made the first steps toward abandoning Obama’s policy of withholding lethal military assistance from Kiev. The pace and extent of the effort to arm Ukraine should be guided by the goal of defeating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and setting a balance that can lead to productive negotiations. The second issue is the need to restore NATO’s deterrent capability against modernized and highly capable Russian forces. The United States needs to lead an effort to work out a division of labor and investment within the alliance that will develop the capacity to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Russian action against the Baltic states. Most of the effort should come from the Europeans, with the United States playing a reinforcing role. This will require determined diplomacy and creative military thinking.
In the Middle East, the United States requires a more comprehensive strategy to check Iran’s quest for hegemony. President Trump has indicated his dissatisfaction with the Iran nuclear deal, but he has not set forth a competitive strategy for the region as a whole. In light of the unrest in Iran, there may be a moment of opportunity. In Iraq, we should work with leaders of all communities to diminish Iran’s influence. In Syria, the United States should continue supporting partners such as Turkey and Jordan, as well as local Syrian proxies, to consolidate success after the defeat of the Islamic State. In doing so, America should create a blocking position against Iran in eastern Syria, as well as a buffer zone along the borders with Jordan and Israel. This would obstruct Iran’s strategic aim of establishing a land corridor to the Mediterranean.
In terms of institutional reform, the agenda is long. For the State Department, the greatest need is not reorganization but cultural change. While the Foreign Service is talented at traditional diplomacy—reporting and delivering talking points—it needs to become more mission driven and expeditionary. Younger officers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq represent a unique opportunity. They know it’s not enough to “watch and report”—and they are motivated to deliver a political outcome. The Trump administration, which has been tragically slow in staffing the State Department, needs to restructure the recruitment, training and incentive system for diplomats, in order to develop a Foreign Service that can operationalize—and lead—the strategy it has set forth.