The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy was released this week, and it can readily be distinguished from many previous such strategy documents. Often, these have been bottom-up aggregations of policies, which were basically just stapled together and labeled a strategy, but were not actual conceptual frameworks or orderings of priorities. The administration deserves credit for undertaking this strategy process early on. In fact, it is the first serious top-down, government-wide strategy produced since the well-known Defense Policy Guidance produced by the Pentagon in 1992, after the end of the Cold War. While the guidance was not embraced as a national security strategy by the George H. W. Bush administration, many of its concepts did shape subsequent strategy documents and policies.
Now to substance, and here I would assess that the Trump strategy has several strengths. First, it is clear-eyed about world politics and about where we currently are as a country. In 1992, we were at a unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War, the United States was preeminent, and the issue was how to consolidate that preeminence, preclude the rise of a global rival, and prevent the domination of critical regions by hostile powers.
That brief unipolar era is over. In critical regions, China, Russia and Iran now present competitive challenges to the United States and its allies and partners. North Korea is on the verge of being able to threaten American population centers with nuclear weapons. Regional and global trends have made many regions unstable, producing streams of refugees that in turn have had major political impacts. Threats from non-state actors such as international terrorists, at times sponsored by hostile states, have grown.
We contributed to all these developments, at times recklessly disengaging, at other times rushing forward with inadequately thought-through plans or failing to take advantage of golden-hour opportunities presented by our actions, and still in other instances failing to preclude emerging threats in a timely manner. These mistakes crossed party lines and involved both the executive and legislative branches. As a result, the balance of power in key regions shifted toward adversarial powers.
Second, the just-published strategy document addresses the perpetual debate in the United States about whether its foreign policy should be guided by the national interest or by the country’s values and ideals. In the Trump doctrine, reflective of a nation that is questioning the wisdom of recent international ventures, the balance has shifted in favor of interests, but it does not abandon values; instead, it calls for “principled realism.” By this, it means a policy of still advancing values, but with greater prudence.
Third, the strategy recognizes the centrality of improving the underpinnings of U.S. power, especially its economic performance. This is very important, as the United States cannot sustain its relative power position in the world if the bases of its power atrophy. The United States faces the fiscal challenge of supporting social programs and defense and international affairs spending at a time when the national debt and annual deficits are already high. We will not be able to manage this challenge without higher rates of economic growth. Whether it will be possible to reach and sustain three or four percent growth—the president’s goal—remains to be seen. However, if we stay at two percent or less, the United States will likely be forced to choose between domestic social programs and the U.S. world role, which is not a desirable choice to face. The National Security Strategy focus on the U.S. economy is sound.
The same is true with the document’s call for restoring U.S. military overmatch against potential adversaries. The 1992 Defense Policy Guidance called for the United States to maintain a military capability that would discourage the rise of a peer competitor. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster is often quoted as saying that, since the end of the Cold War, any time we entered a military conflict it was not a fair fight and that preserving this overmatch must be a key security goal.
The diffusion of military technologies, particularly those of the precision-guidance revolution, means U.S. rivals are leveling the playing field. Sequestration, as well as congressional inability to pass regular appropriations bills, has badly undermined readiness and modernization. It will take perhaps a decade to repair the damage, and it’s high time to make a start.
Fourth, the document puts forward 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 our own, but it also acknowledges that it is better to avoid conflict and that our 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 the importance of creating a favorable balance of power in critical regions to address the potential threat from competing powers. Conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific region as a geopolitical entity and strengthening ties with a rising India are smart policies.