“First time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him. This is not a man who’s immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.” - Secretary of Defense James Mattis, August 2017
As we enter a second year of U.S. foreign policy under the current administration, sometimes it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise. Is there a guide for the perplexed?
The new National Security Strategy (NSS), designed to clarify the administration’s foreign-policy concerns and objectives, may be one useful starting point. Its release received largely positive reviews. Even many of the administration’s opponents conceded that national security adviser H. R. McMaster and his staff—led in this instance by Nadia Schadlow, deputy assistant to the president for national security strategy—did good work in crafting a serious and perceptive document ahead of schedule.
Here were some of the most outspoken, disappointed critics of the new U.S. National Security Strategy: the People’s Republic of China; the government of Russia, under Vladimir Putin; prominent liberal Democrats inside Congress and out; strict noninterventionists on the Right.
A common theme among some other critics was that the document could not possibly represent the president’s actual beliefs on foreign policy. Interestingly, this is also the fear of some Trump supporters—i.e., that there is a “deep state” clique around the president. Still, in relation to these profound conspiracy theories, I have a friendly question for all those convinced they fully understand Trump’s current innermost thought process: How do you know?
The United States has, and continues to have, a president-centered foreign policy system. Bureaucratic influences are quite significant, but can also be overrated. At the end of the day, presidents make the big decisions. So does this one. The problem with ascribing Trump’s foreign policy decisions to overpowering bureaucratic pressure is that he has made—from the perspective of most experts—some broadly conventional decisions (Afghanistan; continued reinforcements to Poland; pressure on North Korea) along with some highly unconventional ones (Jerusalem; Paris climate accord withdrawal; the travel ban.) The best explanation for the variance is probably the president’s own determination of what he finds convincing in each case.
Keeping this in mind, perhaps the real meaning of the new NSS is not so esoteric. Reading through the document, here are some of its main themes:
- We live in a competitive environment, internationally.
- The United States has the right to pursue its own interests within this environment.
- Restoration of economic competitiveness as the basis for American power.
- Rebalanced U.S. alliance relationships including increased burden-sharing and commercial reciprocity.
- Border control and homeland security as fundamental.
- American energy dominance.
- Pushing back against numerous adversaries of the United States overseas, including rogue states and major competitors.
- Acceptance of great power rivalry as a fact of life, combined with hopes for regional stability and cooperation where possible.
- A U.S. military buildup.
- Hunting down jihadist terrorists wherever they live.
The upcoming National Defense Strategy, to be released by the Pentagon, will hit on similar themes, having been written in consultation with the White House.
Now you may agree with the above themes and priorities, or you may disagree. But if you’re absolutely convinced that Trump does not believe in them, go back and read the list again. Clearly, the president has offered significant modifications on key issues from his earliest language on the campaign trail. Up through the opening weeks of 2016, for example—and for the previous thirty years—most of what Trump had to say on the subject of America’s allies was negative and critical. He cast them mainly as free-riders, taking advantage of the United States.
Since Trump’s inauguration a year ago, however, the majority of what he himself has said about America’s alliances has been to reaffirm their place in U.S. foreign policy. To be sure, he still calls in the bluntest of terms for increased defense spending from allies overseas, especially in relation to Berlin. But the actual practice of the current administration—including the president’s own language—has been, in many ways, to affirm and even sometimes bolster existing US alliances.
This leads to a truly unorthodox thought: perhaps Trump is learning. In fact, he can be amazingly candid in admitting as much. As he said last year of the presidency: “I thought it would be easier.”
The suggestion that Donald Trump is capable of positive learning will, of course, trigger howls of indignation from all sides. This would really be awkward. It would be awkward for the president’s most ferocious ongoing critics, because it would contradict their fixed conviction that he is utterly incapable of learning anything constructive. But it would also be awkward for some of Trump’s most fervent longstanding admirers, because they will resent the implication that he ever had anything to learn in the first place.