The National Security Strategy



National Security Strategy (NSS) documents come and go. They can crystallize thinking and messaging for an administration, but they are frequently overtaken by events. Yet they do outline a broad worldview and this one is getting more attention than usual (read the NSS; view President Trump's speech).

Three ideas motivate the NSS. From least to most idiosyncratic they are: a return to a more realist worldview (“principled realism”); the particularly threatening—even dystopian—characterization of the international environment; and the “America first” focus, with its roots in a prickly Republican conception of sovereignty. The social Darwinist characterization of international society is motivated by three fundamental challenges: from peer competitors in the form of Russia and China; from rogue regimes, but particularly Iran and North Korea; and from transnational threat groups including both terrorist and criminal organizations. These motivate a four-pronged approach, with the order itself reflecting the administration’s priorities:

  • defending the homeland, including the long-standing theme of border security;
  • promoting prosperity through the president’s new economic nationalism;
  • “peace through strength,” outlining the administration’s ambitions for the military and;
  • advancing American influence, probably the least coherent part of the document given the simultaneous focus on the priority of American interests, the skepticism about multilateral institutions, and the half-hearted endorsement of alliances.

The most significant feature of the strategy for Asia policy is the stark, zero-sum terms in which Chinese and Russian objectives are cast: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” In Asia, “China seeks 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.” The NSS provides a pretty good catalogue of the challenges, which are by no means limited to military ones but extend to economic inducements and sanctions, China’s infrastructure and trade policies, investment strategies, and the use of cyber and information tools. A typical statement of the problem gives a feel of the tenor of the document:

“In addition, adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law. Repressive, closed states and organizations, although brittle in many ways, are often more agile and faster at integrating economic, military, and especially informational means to achieve their goals. They are unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict. They employ sophisticated political, economic, and military campaigns that combine discrete actions. They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond. Such actions are calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the United States. And as these incremental gains are realized, over time, a new status quo emerges.”

There can be little question that China has become a more challenging interlocutor under Xi Jinping, and that a president of either party would have to craft a response that combines cooperation and standing firm. Leading in the way the NSS does, however, has generated near-mirror responses from Beijing and Moscow, visible in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman’s extended comments and Russia’s full-throated cry of betrayal. “China firmly safeguards its own sovereignty, security and development interests,” the spokeswoman noted the day of the NSS release, “and no one should have the illusion that China would swallow the bitter fruit of jeopardizing its own interests.”

Moreover, the strong emphasis on adversaries results in a document that glosses over many of the key relationships required to balance such challenges, including but not limited to the alliances. To be sure, the NSS and the president’s speech was littered with references to actions that require cooperation with allies and partners: “We will work with our allies and partners to do this; we will work with our allies and partners to do that.” But for every reference to the benefits of the alliances is appended a grousing caveat about burden-sharing, reciprocity and fairness. There is little on offer to appeal to the “aspiring partners” that the NSS claims to target. The document also touts leadership of multilateral institutions, but with an agenda geared to American rather than common interests. With this conception of leadership, who is going to follow? 

The Indo-Pacific strategy is outlined briefly in a concluding chapter, and is a bundle of tensions if not outright contradictions, analyzed in an earlier post. While bemoaning growing Chinese influence in the region, the administration’s commitment to an alternative architecture rests on proposals that are lacking in substance (“we will strengthen cooperation with allies on high-quality infrastructure”) or have proven fundamentally unappealing to regional partners, such as bilateral trade agreements. The NSS recommits to the core Asian alliances, and somewhat more controversial steps like repositioning our relations with Thailand. But those components of American grand strategy are hardly new, and the NSS does little to assure that Asia will receive the administration’s undivided attention. Think of this as Obama’s already light (or lite) pivot getting lighter still.

A document of this sort does not always descend into the details of particular policy problems. But this one offers nothing new with respect to North Korea beyond a restatement of the dire nature of the threat.

In the end, the document is riven with a fundamental tension between its authors’ commitment to a forward-leaning realism that is within the broad mainstream and the America-first proclivities and even personal sensitivities of the president (for similar assessments, see Elliot Cohen at the Atlantic and Kori Schake at Foreign Policy). In a document that returns repeatedly to the challenges posed by Putin’s Russia, for example, there is not a single direct mention of the most disturbing intelligence finding of the last several decades: that a foreign power actively sought to polarize, demoralize, and even destabilize the American political system.

There is now ample empirical evidence that the America First message is dominating the centrist realism abroad, and with a significant cost in how the rest of the world views both the United States and the president. Pew has data for 38 countries that include a 2017 observation on whether respondents have a favorable view of the United States. Of these 38 countries, 7 have an equal or more positive view of the United states compared to the Obama era: Greece, Hungary, Israel, Jordon, Nigeria, Russia, and Vietnam. All of the others saw a falloff and in many cases quite dramatic (for example, Germany from 57 to 35 percent; Japan from 72 to 57 percent). A second question asks about how much confidence respondents have in the US President, with polling for 35 countries with observations for 2017. In not one was confidence higher in 2017 than it had been under the previous administration. A more recent study finds that in 21 of 30 countries, an increasing share of respondents actually see the United States as a threat and one roughly on a par with the two peer competitors—China and Russia—that the NSS seeks to balance. Being president of the United States is not a global beauty pageant or popularity contest. But thinking that the United States can achieve the objectives outlined in the NSS without significant foreign buy-in and use of existing multilateral institutions seems like an impossibly tall order.

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