No Permanent Friends, Only Permanent Enemies: National Security in the Trump Era
April 13, 2018 | On Monday, December 18th, the Trump Administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS) highlighting the strategic goals of the administration for the next three to potentially seven years. While there were many comments immediately following its release, I felt it prudent to wait and let the dust settle before throwing my perspective into the ring. To begin with, the new NSS is by no means short; at 68 pages it is almost double what the previous administration released in 2015. As a side note, the administration deserves some credit for getting it published within its first year. While technically required, previous administrations have fairly consistently missed publishing it on time. Regardless, rather than give a comprehensive overview of everything included, I will cover the most important takeaways and provide some comparisons along the way to the previous NSS documents published.
The First Takeaway: Same Old, Same Old
While some of the details, which are of great importance, are different and do highlight some key shifts, it may interest many that the general framework and high-level themes remain as they did in previous NSS documents. For example, this document comes off as a laundry list of lofty goals with little clear substance of how to achieve them. While it lists U.S. interests all around the world, it offers no deadlines, budget numbers, or specific actions. For example, when discussing Africa, the document states, “(w)e will encourage reform, working with promising nations to promote effective governance, improve the rule of law, and develop institutions accountable and responsive to citizens” (Pg. 52).
The obvious question to this goal is: how does the U.S. government plan to implement this in any tangible way? Additionally, such blanket statements make the incorrect assumption that a single approach can be used to address all of Africa’s issues, therefore ignoring the nuances of the continent, its states, and its populace, which are as diverse as any other continent. Just as it would not make sense to take a singular approach for all of Asia, the same applies to Africa. This somehow seems to be forgotten. To be clear, this is a problem that most of the recent NSS documents have had. What it means is that we will have to wait to see how this administration actually decides to act to determine just how much of a priority encouraging reform is and exactly how that will be achieved. In the meantime, the best takeaways are less in the specific outlines of how the U.S. goals will be achieved, but the subtle inferences we can make from how issues are discussed.
Additionally, the new NSS is similar to previous ones in that many of the same key points are included. The Trump Administration highlights the need to remain a source of global strength to ensure peace, to combat terrorism, to ensure U.S. economic prosperity, and to compete with revisionist powers, namely China and Russia. These values were all touched on in the previous administrations’ NSS documents. This should provide some sense of relief for many individuals as it seems to hint that the U.S. is not turning away from acting as a leader. However, as I will discuss later, I am not so convinced.
The Second Takeaway: Competition is Key
While broadly speaking key themes are similar to past NSS documents, there are some differences. The first is that while the NSS makes it clear that the U.S. supports engagement in the international community, it also strikes a darker tone of what that engagement looks like and paints it as competition with rivals and partners alike. It should be noted that the idea of competition is no drastic change from previous NSS documents, but the amount of times it is referred to—around 70—is certainly a difference.
This focus on competition comes up even when referring to strategic partners. In the NSS document, partners with common goals are referred to almost as often as rivals and strategic competitors. Overall, there is a clear Trumpian idea that comes through: while acknowledging partnerships and their benefits, there is simultaneously a critique of them for not pulling their weight. This consistent view of competition might explain why climate change was removed from the NSS, which many—myself included—considered a terrible mistake. President Donald Trump has made many comments disparaging the idea of environmental protections as impeding economic development and therefore economic competition. Even so, while I and likely many others disagree with this assumption and the decision to take it out of the NSS, I believe the discussion about the role environmental protection holds in today's security considerations deserves its own article.
The concept of competition also comes up when referring to China and Russia. This is to be expected, as previous administrations have rightly recognized that the competition for influence between the U.S., Russia, and China holds much importance. However, the lack of nuance for discussing either China or Russia is unfortunate. This new document in multiple occurrences refers to both Russia and China as revisionist powers that aim to supplant U.S. leadership, and importantly have similar, if not identical goals. Accordingly, the strategy prescriptions are lumped together when referring to both Russia and China. The previous administrations’ NSS documents, of course, addressed the challenge to U.S. leadership posed by both countries, but far more subtly when discussing how to balance, cooperate, and compete with these countries. Placing both China and Russia in the same box of strategic rivalry risks pushing them closer together, which has been something that previous administrations have actively avoided.
The Third Takeaway: Rhetoric vs. Reality
Readers of President Trump’s National Security Strategy may understandably be left feeling a bit confused. Often the document feels like it is competing between different viewpoints; one that advocates action based on either theoretical underpinnings or President Trump himself. This ends up causing problems when trying to create coherent strategy, therefore leading to many contradicting aspects either in the text themselves or in what the document outlines and the administration has done.
A poignant example of this is the notion of U.S. leadership. This has been a consistent theme over previous administrations and not without reason. In the document, the concept of competition with China for influence within the Asia-Pacific region is clearly of great importance. When describing the response to this problem, it states, “The United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values. A competition for influence exists in these institutions. As we participate in them, we must protect American sovereign and advance American interests and values” (pg 40). It is absolutely true that there is a competition for influence in these institutions and that participation helps ensure the U.S. remains relevant.
However, this goes against the administration's consistent reiterance both elsewhere in this document and by the President that other members of many institutions, NATO and the U.N., for example, are not paying enough. That claim fails to recognize the inherent benefit of added influence that comes with providing more support for the institutions. Another example begins on pages 46 and reads, “We will redouble our commitment to established alliances and partnerships while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners. ...The United States will encourage regional cooperation. ...We will work with partners to build a network of states dedicated to free markets and protected from forces that would subvert their sovereign.” Where has this been in the president's foreign policy so far, though? Scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—which would have played a crucial role in ensuring the US trading power—clearly goes against this. Now Trump is considering re-entering the TPP, which begs the question of what is it that he wants to achieve?
This concept can be taken outside of Southeast Asia as well. The Paris Climate Agreement, NAFTA, the Iran Nuclear agreement, and a myriad of global institutions are all important venues for the U.S. They allow the U.S. to lead the international community and ensure its interests are protected by acting as an example. Yet each has either been criticized, threatened, or even withdrawn from. As I mentioned earlier, multiple times this document cites the value that has been created from international cooperation, all while simultaneously criticising allies or the institutions that foster such cooperation.
Bringing it all together:
Unfortunately, what all of this means is that words on paper likely will not provide any solid guidance to the direction this young administration goes in the future. This document reads like a mix of those that have been in and around U.S. foreign affairs and those of the Trump administration, who have little to no understanding of the nuanced issues at play. Even so, this document provides some hope that there are a few in the administration who understand the value of things like international institutions. However this means that the true direction President Trump will take his administration and how they handle the responsibility of being the leading super power on the world stage will likely come down to who he keeps around him. This document in many ways is a reflection of the perpetual infighting between the career foreign policy experts and those who came with the new administration who are, in many cases, very green on the job. If those with experience and expertise remain they can act as a moderating force, tempering the President’s penchant to act emotionally and ensure that the values of the global order are upheld. However, given the recent shuffles in staffing at key levels of the administration and the now looming threat of trade wars developing, this is beginning to look less likely.
Benjamin Beecroft is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College's international affairs program and currently works at Fisher Investments.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.