The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy starts by declaring that it will use “principled realism” to put American interests, values and prosperity first. It says that engagement with the world needn’t mean abandoning national self-interest, that great power competition should be the main preoccupation of U.S. security, and that allies should do more to provide for their own defense. Such realist rhetoric offends most foreign-policy pundits in Washington, who tend to deny that U.S. interests and global goods are distinguishable.
The critics have it backwards. The strategy isn’t too realist or too narrowly focused on American interests. Its problem lies in its shortcomings in properly applying those principles. Rather than chart an overdue departure from the overwrought approach to security that this administration inherited, the strategy endorses it with vaguely realist rhetoric. It proposes too little meaningful change aside from a few protectionist measures, which would harm our economic prosperity even though the strategy claims that as its lodestar.
This lack of prioritization mirrors U.S. security policy. Formal strategy statements like this one are supposed to guide security policy, but mostly they promote it. As U.S. foreign policy has grown more ambitious , especially since the Cold War ended, strategy statements have become less focused . They avoid the fundamental purpose of strategy, which is to prioritize, guiding the allocation of limited resources to most efficiently protect our national interests. Instead they indulge in flights of rhetorical fancy about the virtues of U.S. power, imagining that peace, liberalism and stability everywhere depend on our self-appointed role as global sheriff.
The Obama administration’s last National Security Strategy , for instance, lists eight “top-strategic risks,” including “disease, economic slowdown, and climate change.” It mentions “hard choices” and warns against “overreach” but declares that “there are no global problems that cannot be solved without the United States.”
Defining security so capaciously exaggerates danger, making our strong geopolitical position seem precarious when it is the envy of every other country. The document’s lack of prioritization demands excessive Pentagon spending and calls for missions that needlessly overburden the military. Its preoccupation with peripheral concerns comes at the expense of core U.S. interests: defending Americans, enhancing our prosperity, and protecting our way of life.
With its stated focus on those goals and its relatively direct language, the Trump strategy initially seems poised to avoid these pitfalls. But upon close inspection, mostly it doesn’t, and it adds a few of its own. Let’s take its good ideas, its bad execution and its ugly new problems in turn.
In addition to its promising start, the document deserves praise for focusing on U.S. values and prosperity. These goods are too easily sacrificed when dangers are invoked. The strategy correctly calls the $20 trillion and counting in national debt “a grave threat to America’s long-term prosperity and, by extension, our national security.” That’s a useful reminder as spending hikes threaten to send the debt even higher.
The new strategy’s conclusion also contains a noteworthy paragraph:
This strategy is guided by principled realism. It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines America’s national interests. It is principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity around the globe. We are guided by our values and disciplined by our interests.
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 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.