The closing sentence of the prefatory statement of President Donald J. Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) — which was unveiled on December 18th, 2017 — makes clear the ultimate goal of the President’s first NSS:

“This National Security Strategy puts America First.”

Put aside for a moment that all national security strategies are a priori formulated with a country’s national security interests as the only determinative factor — it is like a football coach stating that “this game plan is designed to help us win” — and what is the actual concrete strategy that will underpin the Trump administration’s foreign and security policies?

The NSS document is — in general terms — a statement of an administration’s long-term plan to promote, achieve, and serve the national interests, as the current administration perceives them. It is the interpretation of those national interests, and the intended best strategy to achieve them, that differs from administration to administration.

So, put aside the statement of the obvious — America first! — and what exactly is the Trump administration putting before us as their strategy to achieve our national security interests? I am glad you asked. I will attempt to break it down for you here.

The Trump NSS is broken down into four “pillars:”

I. Protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life;
II. Promote American prosperity;
III. Preserve peace through strength;
IV. Advance American influence.

The NSS then places these four pillars into a regional context, describing how they play out across the globe.

At the outset, an underlying tension is evident within the Introduction of the NSS. This hint of ideological bipolarism is best illustrated in this sentence: “[This strategy] is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.”

President Trump has been crystal clear that he sees the international order as one of great power rivalries, with each country nakedly advancing its own interests, where one country’s “win” is another’s “loss.” Couple that with his open disdain for NATO and some of America’s other traditional alliances, and one is not surprised to see the focus on “strong, sovereign nations” in the NSS.

However, the sentence also ends with a call to cooperate to advance peace abroad.  Further into the Introduction, furthermore, we find the following homage to collective security and the global order so often disdained by Trump and his acolytes (particularly former advisor Steve Bannon):

“American political, business, and military leaders worked together with their counterparts in Europe and Asia to shape the post-war order through the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other institutions designed to advance our shared interests of security, freedom, and peace. We recognize the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.”

This statement is almost enough to give the so-called “globalists” amongst those in the national security world a bit of cold comfort. They probably envision some of the professional National Security Council (NSC) staff, or H.R. McMaster himself, having slipped that sentence in at the last-minute, hoping no one would notice it.

The internal tension comes from having to choose between two distinct global systems. One is the established, American-created international order focused on cooperation, global institutions, and international organizations focused on maintaining peace and prosperity. The other is a multi-polar balance-of-power style system of rival powers all vying for a share of a defined and limited pie, where one nation’s gain is another’s loss and naked self-interest rules all. The Trump NSS clearly leans toward the latter view, and is thus shaped with this outlook in mind.

In my experience, members of the dreaded “Deep State” — that is, career national security professionals — usually fall into a gray area as far as this tension is concerned. We seldom ever give other countries the benefit of the doubt and focused with laser-like attention on the interests of America in our day-to-day operations. We left it to the diplomats and politicians to be the nice guys, and work within the cooperative international order.  It seems that with this NSS, the entire American government is now being tasked to operate with Deep State-style cold calculation and cynicism.


The Four Pillars

Protecting the American people and homeland is Pillar I of the Trump NSS.  It focuses on border control and infrastructure defense, countering WMD threats, defense against cyber warfare, missile defense, and defeating international criminal and jihadist groups. These are all laudable measures and with the exception of immigration and border control, rather noncontroversial. Most agree that America’s physical security is job number one of the national government.

Pillar II — promoting American prosperity — is where the Trump NSS often runs up against conservative orthodoxies of free trade and open markets. President Trump is as protectionist a president as we have had in the United States for a long time, and his strategy when it comes to international trade breaks with America’s past promotion of free trade and unfettered markets. The Trump NSS calls for and favors bilateral trade deals, and a re-examination of existing deals to insure that America’s economic gains are put first.

Pulling out the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, as well as the ongoing re-examination of NAFTA, are examples of this strategy in action. Many undoubtedly agree with this approach, but it is indisputable that such an outlook will lead to a more mercantilistic world. Free and open trade is under assault and it remains to be seen if this will play out in America’s favor over the long-term.  Higher consumer prices and increased trade barriers are a real possibility.

Pillar III of the Trump NSS is preserving peace through strength. This is a call for modernizing and investing more in the American military, evaluating and upgrading America’s defense industrial base, and modernizing America’s nuclear, space, intelligence, and cyber capabilities. Again, these are all beneficial goals, assuming one feels it necessary to invest more money in defense at the expense of other priorities. There are arguments to be made against increased defense spending, though those are not new and that debate will forever rage.

Surprisingly, given the short shrift paid to date by the Trump administration to U.S. diplomatic assets, the NSS also calls for preserving a forward diplomatic presence and using it to actively promote U.S. interests abroad. Let us hope that the administration pays more than lip service to this goal, and actually begins to see the American diplomatic corps for what it is: a critical national asset that must be leveraged to advance American interests as it has successfully for decades. The president must empower the State Department to continue this work, not hamstring it through underfunding and understaffing.

Pillar IV of the NSS is advancing American influence. So far, the Trump administration has failed miserably in this goal. America’s global influence has waned and the image of the United States across the world has taken an undeniable hit since Trump took office. While it calls for championing American values, and playing a more effective role in multilateral bodies, these NSS goals are difficult to accomplish when the rest of the world does not respect you or views you as acting solely and always in your own self-interest. This pillar of the Trump NSS simply does not yet ring true, and needs to be taken to heart by the administration.

Finally, the NSS calls for a tailored approach to putting the strategy into action across the globe. This is an intelligent way to move forward and it is wise to recognize and operate in accordance with the regional peculiarities of the international political environment. As has been noted in press coverage of the Trump NSS, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are named as notable rivals and adversaries of the United States.  Again, most would not quibble seriously with this view (even though it is belied in some respects by President Trump’s behavior at times towards Russia and China).


Moving Forward

Returning to the prefatory statement that opens the Trump NSS, we are provided a succinct statement of the goals of the overall Trump strategy:

“My Administration’s National Security Strategy lays out a strategic vision for protecting the American people and preserving our way of life, promoting our prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence in the world.”

While seemingly predicated in part upon a view of the world that harkens back to early 20th century great power rivalries, and offering some goals that in principle are sound, but that to-date lack any apparent seriousness in the administration’s execution, the Trump NSS does not radically break from national strategy documents of the past. Now it remains to be seen how the Trump NSS is put into action as the administration moves forward into its second year.