President Trump’s National Security Strategy: Consistent National Message

The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act mandated that the President must submit annually a report to Congress on the National Security Strategy (NSS).

by J. David Patterson

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

In the intervening years, presidents have to a greater or lesser extent, complied. President Reagan provided two National Security Documents in the final two years of his administration. During the four years of the George H. W. Bush administration, three strategy documents were submitted. The Clinton administration submitted seven strategy reports, whereas George W. Bush and Barack Obama each complied in only two of their eight-year terms in office. By producing a National Security Strategy in his first year in office, President Trump has indicated that he views the NSS as an important security roadmap to keep Congress and the American people informed of his administration’s national security intentions.

Historically, National Security Strategies aren’t strategies in the sense that they aren’t specific plans to achieve stated goals. Instead, they usually are an inventory of areas in which the sitting administration desires to focus its military and foreign policy initiatives and its domestic energies. They present a ra­tionale for why the United States must exert itself in these categories and in most cases, what the desired outcome should be. The challenge is to present domestic and international conditions that motivate the strategy as they really are and not through the fog of political or foreign policy idealism. The NSS cannot simply be a “wish list” of strategically important national security interests.

Like it or not, America resides in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States must adopt a national security strategy that sees the world realistically, as it is not as we wished it were. Though the threats we face as a nation sometimes present themselves more subtly now than in times past, they are no less inimical to our aspirations as a nation and hostile to our immediate security.

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is clearly written with the president’s broader national theme: the necessity for considering America’s interests first across all major policy arenas, especially economic, defense, and foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, the NSS is revealed through a busi­ness policy lens. President Trump intends to invest in defense and domestic infrastructure and expects to see the returns on investment in increased national security. Additionally, there is no fuzz on how the Administration views the world and America’s place in that world.

The Trump Administration global perspective is in stark contrast to the Obama Administration’s world­view as explained in its May 2010 NSS cover letter. President Obama described America in “moments of transition” living in a time where success exists in “open markets, and social progress” that was, ac­cording to the Obama Administration, in recent decades “accelerated globalization on an unprecedented scale.” The implication was that America was no better or worse than any other nation and as dependent on our allies and trading partners as they are on us. In contrast, the Trump NSS champions an entirely different worldview. Instead, as Mr. Trump and his administration believe, “We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation. America is leading again on the world stage.” The thinking here appears to be that if America is getting its own house in order, it is a step in the right leadership direction.

The Trump NSS describes the global dynamic as one of competitive forces that requires the United States, “to rethink the policies of the past two-decades based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in the 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.” Under­pinning Trump’s narrative is an admission that the United States has heretofore assumed that the global condition was understood and as recent history has taught us, it is not.

The first steps in the strategy are, necessarily, to describe and understand the circumstances in which the United States must approach international relationships and competition. The Trump National Security Strategy benefits from its genesis in a realism not as obvious in prior years’ national strategies. There are some very key concepts that are not based on seeing-the-world-the-way-we-wished-it-were approaches to the U.S. position vis-à-vis allies and adversaries alike.

BBC News online characterized the Trump views as “pragmatic.” President Trump, in his speech an­nouncing his NSS, called the basis for his administration’s approach “principled realism” which boils down to a vastly better understanding that the United States is in competition economically with allies and adversaries and militarily with adversaries. It says, “The competitions and rivalries facing the United States are not passing trends or momentary problems. They are intertwined, long-term challenges that demand our sustained national attention and commitment.”

As you would expect, the first and foremost concern of a national strategy would be to protect the “American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life.” Border security, defense against weapons of mass destruction are at the forefront, with specific mention of defense against bioweapons and adversary’s introduction of pandemics as priorities. The Obama administration was persistently criticized for being unwilling to identify the terrorist threats as “jihadist terrorism.” Its May 2010 NSS lent itself to that criticism because it made no mention of “jihadist” or “Islamic” terrorism. Unlike the Obama NSS, the Trump NSS—within its first fifteen pages—identifies and describes actions to be taken to defeat “Jihadist Terrorists” that are transnational and will be pursued to their source and defeated.

The Trump NSS is clearly based on the realization that it will be necessary to track, even in America’s communities, those who would plan and carry out terrorist acts against the homeland, while rejecting the bigotry and oppression and supporting those who seek “a future built on our values as one American people.” It is clear that this administration decided collectively to deny those violent ideologies a foot­hold in America. The federal government will be empowered to support local law enforcement and frontline defenders of our values and laws as well as combating radicalization and recruitment in our communities. This is a stronger statement than previous strategy documents, where the support to local law enforcement would be “emphasized.”

The new NSS is based on a clear understanding that the rejuvenation of the American economy must be the bulwark to achieving an actionable strategy. It takes pains to explain the importance of a vibrant economy in maintaining the national security and does so far better than decades of NSS documents that preceded it. Mr. Trump’s priorities continue to be reducing regulation, promoting tax reform and improving U.S. infrastructure. It calls for the further strengthening of our science and technology base with incentives to attract and retain inventors and innovators while leveraging our existing “private capital and expertise to build and innovate.” Among the key initiatives promoted is energy dominance in the “global energy system as a leading producer, consumer, and innovator.” The goal is to ensure that energy markets remain free and accessible and that “infrastructure is resilient and secure.” The strategy makes no mention of “climate change” as a national security concern.

Very important for this NSS to be actionable and effective, is having a comprehensive and realistic grasp of exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of the United States are. With this strategy, the admin­istration makes the attempt to describe what we are up against.

It says, our adversaries “will not fight us on our terms” and that their strategies will try to deny us our strengths against their weakness. Rather, the United States can expect to have what were our competitive advantages made less relevant. To answer that sort of asymmetric strategy, the NSS says that the United States must be able and prepared to conduct operations across a complete “spectrum” of conflict, in multiple domains simultaneously. Additionally, the NSS relies on diplomatic, intelligence, economic, and military agencies, but concedes that these aspects of the United States total engagement capability have not kept pace with “the changes in the character of conflict.”

Here the strategy is subject to criticism. Rebecca Friedman Lissner, in her Foreign Affairs article “The National Security Strategy is Not a Strategy,” complains that the Trump NSS is not a strategy because it does not align objectives with resources. However, a quick look at the FY2018 President’s Budget Request for Defense, finds that the Trump administration has indeed increased its FY 2017 defense budget re­quest substantially over the previous administration’s Future Year Defense Plan. Lissner goes on to cite Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who determined to “revitalize U.S. leadership [sound familiar?] at a sustainable cost.” She cities the “Nixon Doctrine” that realized constraints on resources “emphasizing the devolution of responsibility for regional security to U.S. partners overseas.” But, isn’t that exactly what the Trump Administration has been saying since it took office last January? NATO and our Pacific allies must assume a greater share of the mutual security burden.

Precedent-setting, at least since December 25, 1991 when the Soviet Union closed up shop, is the fact that the NSS calls out both China and Russia as wanting to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” in the following ways:

  • China’s goal is to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.
  • Russia, for its part, “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

In President Trump’s speech announcing the NSS he said, “We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partner­ship with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.” Clear­ly, the Trump administration is willing to cooperate with both countries. However, it is equally clear that the United States will not suborn its national security interests in deference to Russia and China. The United States will enter into cooperation talks, but from a position of strength, with military strength as the cornerstone.

The Trump NSS varies with those of the past in that it is more comprehensive in its explanation of its thinking that established the strategy. The new NSS lays out its rationale in more concrete and unam­biguous terms than we have become accustomed to. Not only are jihadists, Russia and China called out specifically, but cybersecurity is addressed as a significant threat that will require diligent, strong and broad efforts to thwart those who would attack our domestic infrastructure, command and control and financial institutions.

Meeting economic challenges and worldwide competition is integral to the way ahead described by the Trump administration and the objectives are clearly manifest. Yet the Trump NSS presents those chal­lenges in way that is understandable and tied to the persistent theme of reestablishing the U.S. presence and leadership in the world. In that regard, President Trump’s message parallels closely the first Reagan NSS and the Nixon Doctrine. So, as National Security Strategies go, President Trump has offered a view of the world that is probably more realistic with intentions to address that view in a way that are more pragmatic than several of his predecessors.

Published on January 9, 2018 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow