Trump’s National Security Strategy: Economic Strength, Border Security, Ideological Warfare

President Donald Trump lays out a national security strategy that envisions nations in per
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Senior administration officials describe President Trump’s National Security Strategy, formally unveiled by the president in a speech on Monday afternoon, as a statement of “principled realism” that takes “a clear-eyed view of the threats that we face and the fact that we live in an ever-competitive world” in which “the global balance of power has shifted in unfavorable manners to American interests.”

In a background briefing on the new NSS provided on Sunday evening, the officials stressed that President Trump’s strategy would take advantage of numerous opportunities presented to the United States in the new global security environment, particularly in the Middle East, where old animosity toward Israel is slowly giving way to an understanding that Iran is the great menace faced by many nations in the region.

“For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region,” the NSS document states. “Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems.”

One of the officials who spoke on background suggested President Trump has prepared his National Security Strategy much sooner than previous presidents. This contention would seem to be supported by the National Security Strategy archives, which logged President Reagan’s first submission in 1987, George H.W. Bush’s in 1990, Bill Clinton’s in 1994, George W. Bush’s in 2002, and Barack Obama’s in 2010. The law mandating preparation of the National Security Strategy document was passed in 1986.

There were two interesting references to previous National Security Strategies during the background call: President Reagan’s doctrine of “peace through strength” was repeated and endorsed, which should make Reagan admirers very happy, and President George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive military action was, well, “repudiated” would be too strong of a word, but the Trump officials said the new NSS discusses “our rights to defend ourselves as a country” without using the term “preemption.”

Given President Trump’s frequent discussion of possible action against North Korea and the shower of cruise missiles he lobbed at Syria after it perpetrated a chemical-weapons attack, it seems like the message his administration wants to send is “there will be no more Iraq Wars.”

The officials emphasized that Trump’s strategy differs from not just Barack Obama’s, but from all of his predecessors, in its heavy emphasis on border security and its view of economic and trade issues as a cornerstone of national security policy. One of the background briefers quoted Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ assertion that our Gross Domestic Product is “ultimately the United States’ greatest weapon.”

The four organizing principles of President Trump’s NSS were outlined by one of the officials as “protecting the American people, and America’s way of life; promoting American prosperity; preserving peace through strength; and advancing American influence.”

“This strategy reflects the President’s vision of a world that is free, with sovereign nations that have diverse cultures, different aspirations, that respect the interests of their own people and the rights of those sovereign nations to do so, while finding ways to promote America’s values, as well as an example of principles that we believe has distinguished the United States,” said the administration official.

Pitted against the United States in Trump’s assessment are three distinct groups of “challengers,” including “revisionist powers,” rogue regimes, and international terrorist organizations. The “revisionist powers” classification includes ideological adversaries seeking to “shape a world antithetical to our interests and values,” a category that clearly includes China and Russia, who are named as examples in the very first paragraph of the National Security Strategy.  The Trump NSS is surprisingly tough on those two powers, given the president’s diplomatic overtures to them and friendly disposition toward their leaders, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

The Trump NSS takes pains to distinguish between the president’s “America First” philosophy and the “America Alone” isolationist caricature painted by his critics. The core distinction is that while Trump values American allies and partners who share our interests, he does not believe America’s interests should be subordinated in multilateral agreements. He remains very big on ensuring the United States does not shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden for international organizations such as NATO.

Border security and missile defense are prominently mentioned in the National Security Strategy, but so is developing America’s economy as a strategic asset. There is a strong focus on preserving America’s technological advances and protecting our “national security innovation base,” a new term coined by the Trump administration that seems to primarily refer to Chinese theft of American intellectual property. The officials softened that blow a bit by referring to China as a full-spectrum political, economic, military, and ideological “strategic competitor” but not an outright global adversary, and stressing areas like the North Korean nuclear missile crisis where the U.S. and China can still work together.

One interesting change in the new National Security Strategy is that “democracy” is now envisioned as less of an American strategic goal around the world than nourishing the conditions that make democracy possible, including “tolerance, liberty, and freedom of religion.” There appears to be a definite shift away from evangelizing for “democracy” as the magic-bullet solution for the world’s political ills. Instead, as one administration official put it, “we make the point that those principles tend to work for countries that want to follow them and to adopt them, but ultimately, it’s their choice.”

This could be taken as a sober acknowledgment that horror shows like the Arab Spring destroyed the illusion that allowing citizens to vote for their leadership ensures democratic values will be protected. Voting does not magically conjure respect for “tolerance, liberty, and freedom of religion” in a society, as decades of American foreign policy assumed. It is far more realistic to promote classical liberal ideals and trust that societies that embrace them will eventually demand representative government, as well.

President Trump’s emphasis on getting the United States out of “bad deals” is strongly echoed by the new National Security Strategy. One particular bad deal that came up during the background discussion was the Paris climate accord.

“Climate change is not identified as a national security threat, but climate and the importance of the environment, and environmental stewardship are discussed,” one official said, marking a significant change from Obama doctrine, which often treated “climate change” as a worse threat than terrorism, Russian adventurism, or China’s bid for global hegemony.

The phrase “climate change” is not used in the NSS, but it does talk about safeguarding the environment and also notes how “excessive environmental and infrastructure regulations impeded American energy trade and the development of new infrastructure projects.”

Trump’s National Security Strategy will evidently include an intriguing focus on ideological combat – the clash of American values against the ideologies promoted by those “revisionist powers,” Russia and China.

Islamist ideology is also prominently mentioned in the document. “Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy,” the NSS warns. “They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners. In addition, jihadist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to spread a barbaric ideology that calls for the violent destruction of governments and innocents they consider to be apostates. These jihadist terrorists attempt to force those under their influence to submit to Sharia law.”

One official said the strategy “reflects the President’s vision of a world that is free, with sovereign nations that have diverse cultures, different aspirations, that respect the interests of their own people and the rights of those sovereign nations to do so, while finding ways to promote America’s values, as well as an example of principles that we believe has distinguished the United States.” The notion of imposing American values in nation-building exercises was specifically rejected.

This seems like a clear acknowledgment that Russia, and especially China, are working to export ideologies hostile to the West, and part of their sales pitch involves contrasting themselves with arrogant, imperialistic America. The best way to promote American values is to live them, an imperative made more urgent by the rapid spread of authoritarian values through the Internet.

Revisionist powers will argue that American levels of material prosperity can be obtained (and, in a pinch, stolen by hackers) without embracing the classical liberal values of tolerance and liberty. If we are to batten down the hatches for decades of ideological warfare to come, we must be prepared to refute that argument and resist efforts to infuse the American system with authoritarian values, most visibly at present in the war against free speech. Likewise, we will not have much success convincing the world that free-market capitalism is superior to Chinese command economics if our system increasingly embraces command economics, and our society loses faith in capitalism.

Ideological warfare is a long, slow, perilous, and often disheartening process. The Western world won two great ideological wars in the Twentieth Century against fascism and Marxist communism. The greatest war of ideas in human history has just begun.


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