War Stories

Strategic Confusion

Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy will baffle allies and delight foes.

Trump Military
Flanked by members of the military, U.S. President Donald Trump signs the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 in the White House on Tuesday.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At least once in a president’s term, the White House releases a document called the National Security Strategy. Mandated by Congress since the mid-1980s, the NSS is usually sheer boilerplate, a collage of clichés about America’s role in the world. Few read it, but those who do come away with harrumphs of reassurance that the current people in power know what they’re doing and, by and large, are following the hallowed principles of their predecessors.

On the other hand, President Trump’s NSS, released on Monday afternoon, is bound to incite more confusion among our allies and adversaries about what America stands for and what this administration might do, or not do, in the world’s crises and hot spots.

It’s not the document itself that’s so unusual. In fact, remove Trump’s name and a few of his pet phrases, which the authors litter throughout the text, and it might be taken as a statement by any number of administrations. What sparks the confusion is the fact that so much of the text is so different from Trump’s own words and actions. And this confusion is intensified by the fact that, unlike any of his predecessors, Trump chose to give a nationally televised speech about the strategy. As a result, the document can’t be dismissed as a bureaucratic product—the president is associating himself with it explicitly. Because of that, the contradictions are all the more glaring—and the mixed messages are more maddening.

The document is clearly the work of Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Before he joined the administration, McMaster gave a few speeches outlining his view of the world as a field of competitions—sometimes boiling over into conflict—among sovereign nations and power blocs.

Likewise, the NSS describes Russia and China as “revisionist powers,” which are “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” Russia is further criticized for “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,” adding that the American public must “recognize this” as a danger.

This is, to say the least, contrary to Trump’s avid courtship of the Russian and Chinese presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Nor does it accord well with Trump’s persistent refusal to “recognize” that Russia used “information tools” (such as cyberattacks) to undermine the 2016 election, despite the unanimous conclusions of his own advisers and intelligence agencies.

At one point during his speech on Monday, Trump did recite the line about Russia and China seeking “to challenge” our values and wealth—but said nothing about Russia’s attempt “to undermine” our democracy. In fact, he followed his one-line concession with a pledge “to build a great partnership with those and other countries.” (The document states, far less grandly, “The United States stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries.”)

In other words, if people—allies, adversaries, policymakers, bureaucrats, citizens, or whoever—perused the National Security Strategy (the document and Trump’s summary speech) hoping for clarity on America’s position toward Russia or China, they wouldn’t find it; their view would be foggier than before.

The document also goes on at great length about the need for expanded diplomacy. “Across the competitive landscape,” it reads, “America’s diplomats are our forward-deployed political capability, advancing and defending America’s interests abroad … Diplomacy is indispensable … We must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities.”

And yet, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have gutted the diplomatic corps, offered buyouts to seasoned negotiators, left vacant nearly every second- and third-tier policy position in the State Department, and failed even to appoint new ambassadors in the most troubled regions (after firing all the existing ambassadors in the first week on the job).

The document also hails “allies and partners” as “a great strength of the United States,” which, therefore, “must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values.” The NATO alliance, in particular, “is one of our great advantages over our competitors,” and the U.S. “remains committed to Article 5” of the NATO charter, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on them all.

By contrast, Trump’s speech—like many of his other speeches—focuses almost entirely on “America First” and the need to treat other nations as sovereign entities in transactional arrangements. He has abandoned the TPP and the Paris climate agreement. Just this month, he repeated his long-standing disparagement of the NATO allies, suggesting that he would not come to their defense if they hadn’t paid what he regards as their fair share of expenses. During his speech on Monday, he displayed an odd misunderstanding of NATO’s very nature. “We have made clear,” he said, “that countries that are immensely wealthy should reimburse the United States for the cost of defending them.” He seems to think (and it’s worth noting that he was reading a teleprompter, not extemporaneously) that the NATO allies pay us for their defense—as if the alliance is a protection racket and Trump is the don—when, in fact, each member-state builds its own military force and arranges to coordinate its logistics with the other members.

Both the document and the speech are weak on many subjects. They warn of the need to deter and defend against cyberattacks without summoning a single idea of how to do that. They call their new strategy “principled realism,” which the NSS document elaborates as “realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics” and “principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity—yet the authors seem unaware that American diplomats have struggled since the beginning of the republic with the tensions between principles and realism (or, to put it in other terms, between ideals and interests). Trying to reconcile them by simply putting the two words together, as a single phrase, is an evasion.

Probably few will take the NSS seriously because, like everything that comes out of this White House, it is, first and last, an exercise in self-congratulation—the trumpeting of Trump and the dissing of those who came before him.

The document’s introduction boasts of new jobs, new confidence, and new purpose. “The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership,” it boasts, contrary to polls showing a steep decline in favor toward the United States in every foreign country except Russia.

Trump began his speech boasting, once again, about his victory in the election and the latest stock market peak. He blames earlier job losses on poor trade deals, blames domestic terrorism on poor vetting of immigrants, blames the decline of America’s global influence on the waywardness of past leaders—none of which is true, but if it were, he has no solutions. He hasn’t negotiated any replacements for the TPP or NAFTA; all of our latest terrorists have been homegrown; more and more allied leaders are looking among themselves, away from Washington, for trade and security.

“We declare,” Trump said at the end of his speech, “that our will is renewed, our future is regained, and our dreams are restored.” Allies or adversaries who read this document and hear this speech, yet have also been watching Trump’s actions on the world stage, can only shake their heads or chuckle. Trump can declare whatever he wants, but if he believes what he says, he’s dreaming.