Devising a great power’s national-security strategy is serious business. When external challenges are properly evaluated, tasks prioritized, and resources allocated, the results can be impressive. The Roman Empire from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 96-180) provides one example; Britain from Napoleon to the Great War another. The rise of Prussia and unification of Germany during Otto von Bismarck’s tenure (1862-90) was based on his masterly assessment of the international environment and successful interlacing of political, economic, and military capabilities—the essence of strategy.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act—which mandated that the White House produce an annual report to Congress on the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS)—was based on sound thinking. The report was supposed to assess America’s “worldwide interests, goals, and objectives”; to outline “proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power”; and to assess the resources and capabilities required to implement that strategy.
Over the years, however, the NSS has degenerated into an ad hoc wish list laced with lofty rhetoric and mostly devoid of the key elements of strategic reasoning. President Donald Trump’s first NSS, which he presented on December 18, is no exception to this rule. It opens with the boast that “[t]he whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership,” which is simply incorrect. In general the 68-page document fails to relate its four ambitious “pillars” (“protecting the American people and preserving our way of life, promoting our prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence in the world”) to actual ways and means. In addition, it fails to prioritize goals and grade threats by magnitude.
In a host of particulars, Trump’s NSS reflects the neoconservative-hegemonistic view of the world, including the warning that, “when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States.” It makes the blanket assertion that “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” The pairing of these two giants as revisionist and hostile powers is conceptually unsound and strategically ill-advised. In fact, the claims that China (which is mentioned 23 times in the document) expanded her power at the expense of others, and that Russia interferes in the domestic politics of other countries, aptly describe America’s global posture for decades.
The NSS repeatedly pairs “the rogue regime in North Korea” and “the dictatorship in Iran,” creating an altogether false impression that those two countries present similar threats and that they should be contained by similar means. Alarmingly, it asserts that North Korea is seeking the “capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons,” which implies the necessity of preventive military action against Pyongyang. Far from allowing the possibility of a negotiated solution on this and other issues, the document actually rejects the notion that “engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the NSS represents the bureaucratic consensus of the agencies taking part in its drafting, and that Trump will not treat it as binding. For instance, it contains the assertion that Russia uses “information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,” and that the American public should “recognize this” as a threat, which is at odds with Trump’s professed skepticism on this issue. In his introductory remarks the President did say that Russia and China were seeking “to challenge” America’s values and wealth, but he stayed notably quiet about Russia’s alleged interference. More in tune with the spirit of his recent meetings with Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was Trump’s pledge to build “a great partnership with those and other countries.”
The most important novelty in Trump’s NSS is its extraordinary attention to the Indo-Pacific region, which was placed before Europe and the Middle East. Obviously alluding to China, the document states that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” This is a significant development in Washington’s geopolitical mapping of the world. Its implied objective is to broaden the Asia-Pacific region—in which China is clearly dominant—into a more balanced pan-region that would include India. The weakness of this vision is that a comprehensive American-Indian strategic partnership is unlikely, let alone a formal alliance. In the absence of a coherent grand strategy, President Trump would be well advised to refrain from a new set of commitments and associated risks on the opposite side of the globe.
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