Back off: New Trump Security Strategy Warns Frenemies & Foes

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

President Donald Trump’s new national security strategy foreshadows a more muscular projection of U.S. interests abroad and defense of its people, businesses and borders at home, through a strengthened U.S. military and more aggressive trade negotiations, diplomatic outreach and military maneuvering. Its hawkish approach signals a switch to “gray zone” war footing, where the U.S. detects and reacts to aggressive acts short of physical violence—like Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election through third-party hackers. There’s no guarantee, though, that the president will follow his national security team’s blueprint.

  • The national security strategy is a document required by Congress that will be followed by more detailed strategies on subjects ranging from missile defense to bio threats. Senior administration officials said they were not aware of any previous administration delivering the strategy in its first year. The Obama administration produced one in 2010, and its second in 2015.
  • The strategy stresses four organizing principles: protecting the American homeland, protecting American prosperity, preserving peace through strength and advancing U.S. influence.
  • The document stresses America’s interests as paramount and views U.S. allies as tools to bolster U.S. power and expand its influence. It argues that what’s good for America will benefit the whole world. “As a force for good throughout its history, America will use its influence to advance our interests and benefit humanity,” a summary of the document states.
  • The document’s emphasis on fighting terrorism and protecting U.S. borders tracks with current administration policy and will please Trump’s base.
  • Break with the past: The document portrays the Trump administration using a muscular military and foreign policy to restore U.S. influence in the world. That’s a clear reference to Trump’s charge that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was “apologist” in its attempts to strengthen international alliances, as it preferred to work through coalitions. The trend was cemented—and then parodied—in the phrase “leading from behind” that was applied to 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya. The new strategy also drops the Obama administration’s mention of climate change as a national security threat, speaking instead of “environmental stewardship.”

John McLaughlin, former Acting Director, CIA

“These documents are usually aspirational and platitudinous, and this one is no different on that score.…To the extent there is something new, it’s the emphasis on a newly competitive world among great powers. This is really a nuance of difference with predecessors who would surely agree that it’s a competitive world, but they would put more emphasis on the need for cooperation, coalitions and alliances because of the complexity and transnational character of today’s problems.”

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Guy Swan III, former Commander, U.S. Army North

“I like the four pillars. I think those are worthy points of interest for a national security strategy. The challenge is can you match the words with the deeds. Sometimes that’s a little confusing with this administration. I see the hand of John Kelly and HR McMaster. I can see HR’s influence on this thing…They criticize HR for being a globalist in an administration that’s America First, but I think there’s a good balance here.”

Ambassador Richard Boucher, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

“The strategy itself, particularly in its big picture, identifies several new threats but essentially continues longstanding policy: secure the homeland, maintain global presence and compete against rivals. The difficulty with this strategy lies in the stark contradictions between what the administration says and what they do. They proclaim a strategy that wants to use all tools of national power to project American leadership. However, in the real world, they are cutting diplomatic and development capabilities, proposing to build walls, and withdrawing the United States from leadership in writing the rules of the future for trade and environment. The world will be left with a militarized United States that asserts that only our interests matter and believes that every other development constitutes a threat. Not a formula for American leadership.”

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China

“I think it’s realistic. One world-ism is out the door. The whole idea that we can sit down with the big powers and sort things out. …He’s dealing with the world as it is. He does have a very realistic vision of the world, which you don’t see in most diplomatic communiques. He’s saying the United states is back. The National Security Strategy is realistic and it’s optimistic…making clear the U.S. can challenge China.”

Christine Wormuth, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

“He sees the world as a Hobbesian competition among nations. I was also struck by the considerable amount of blame he puts on his predecessors, not even just his immediate predecessor for some of the challenges that the United States faces….It’s a departure from previous documents.”

Russia and China are referred to as “revisionist powers” that are trying to reshape a world “antithetical” to U.S. interests and values via “technology, propaganda and coercion.” The Trump administration is signaling to Russia and China that it recognizes the “gray zone” battlefield—measures short of war meant to undercut the U.S. without triggering an armed response—and that such acts will be responded to if they take liberties in cyberspace or in the marketplace.

  • The document lumps the two nations together as aggressors: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
  • It recognizes that China, Russia and others take advantage of the fact that “the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war,’ when it is actually an arena of continuous competition.” This signals a break from the Obama administration, which Trump officials say allowed Russia to dictate terms in Syria and failed to check China’s allegedly predatory trade policies.
  • The document calls out Russian interference in “domestic political affairs of countries around the world,” adding that “Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.” The strong language on Russia is a departure from Trump’s own comments on Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a “smart guy” and stating that he believes Putin’s denial that Russia was trying to influence the 2016 presidential election.
  • The document says while the U.S. is trying to cooperate with China, Beijing is using “economic inducements and penalties, influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” including efforts to “militarize outposts in the South China Sea.”

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, former Director, National Counterproliferation Center

“The NSS on Northeast Asia is is a good analytic summation of regional issues that should concern the U.S. China is pursuing an ambitious strategy to be a regional — and global — economic leader, supported by a formidable military. This, they believe, is their rightful role. The 100 years of Western and Japanese humiliation, from 1839 to 1949, followed by thirty years of internal upheaval, with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are reminders that China’s leadership role is possible only if China is economically and militarily strong. Thus, we should not be surprised with China’s “one belt and one road” initiative and its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and its very ambitious military modernization program. This, in China’s view, is not revisionism, it’s China’s rightful place in the world.”

Steve Hall, former CIA Station Schief in Europe

“Trump’s stated approach of ‘Would it be so bad to have a good relationship with Russia’ is hard to continue to hold in the face of some of the assertions here….I agree with most of what this document states about Russia. The portions about Russia wanting to regain great power status, extend its influence and build spheres of influence on Russia’s borders are all spot on. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m surprised to hear this coming from this administration. The only thing that sounds like Trump to me in this doc is where past administrations are blamed for standing back and letting Russia run… not entirely fair. In the end, Putin will shrug, and probably send out [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov to offer some mild criticism. Standard stuff is what I expect back from the Russians, not a huge reaction.”

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China

I think the Chinese are going to be enraged and they’re going to be frightened because they are going to realize if he uses all the elements of American power, he could really damage the Chinese economy. So I think they are probably really upset and really concerned…One way to look at it is the Chinese have gotten much too comfortable in the U.S. relationship. It’s probably better to keep them a little bit off balance, keep them guessing, not letting them take us for granted. When Trump thought the Chinese were helping on North Korea, he was lenient on them. Now, this is really going to rock them.

Todd Rosenblum, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs

“It is meant to message the world of U.S intent. Foreign nations, to include China and Russia, will benchmark the strategy against government action, and may adjust how they talk about some activities, based on the verbiage of the document.”

John McLaughlin, former Acting Director, CIA

“This will largely be a non-event for China and Russia. They know these strategy documents are largely aspirational and that their fate and fortunes will be more affected by the day-to-day dealing with the U.S. The America First part is Trump’s rejection of multilateral trade agreements and his skepticism of the benefits of alliances. This is full of ironies. While he defines China as a strategic competitor, he needlessly sacrificed his leverage by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); he offers no specifics on why it was such a bad deal. In fact, it would have forced Asian partners to adopt many labor standards and other policies that would have leveled the playing field with the U.S. And he ignores the fact that Canada and Mexico are part of it, which will limit Trump’s plans for revising the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).”

While Trump highlighted the success that the U.S. and its partners achieved in ousting ISIS from nearly 100 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq, he also acknowledged that the fight against terrorism both at home and abroad is far from over. The NSS released by the Trump administration emphasizs a continual need to defend against jihadist organizations, categorizing them as “the most dangerous terrorist threat to the nation.” Furthermore, the focus on combatting extremist organizations appears to have played a critical role in shaping the Trump administration’s overall approach to the Middle East, as it prioritizes forming partnerships that will help ensure the region is no longer “a safe haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.”

  • Although the NSS states that both ISIS and al-Qaida have been “territorially defeated” in Syria and Iraq, groups associated with al-Qaida, including its former offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), continue to operate in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and boast one of the most formidable rebel forces battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
  • The NSS lists Israel as a key ally in confronting the jihadist threat and singles out the Iranian regime for sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing the Middle East.

To address foreign cyber offensives that target critical U.S. infrastructure—national security, energy and power, banking and finance, health and safety, communications and transportation, for example—the Trump administration states its intention to bolster cyber deterrence by enhancing defensive capabilities. It also signals a greater willingness to respond to cyber incursions with countermeasures. Additionally, the NSS highlights the role of the cyber domain as an information-rich platform, proposing a need for increased diplomatic efforts towards “information statecraft” in response to disinformation and propaganda disseminated online by foreign adversaries.

  • Addressing risk to critical infrastructure would require bolstering the country’s defense through risk assessment, federal information technology modernization, and improved information-sharing among industry, government and foreign allies.
  • Citing the rise of artificial intelligence and data analytics for highly targeted messaging, the NSS proposes to expose adversary propaganda and disinformation sowed by “radical Islamist groups and competitor nations,” and counter it with U.S. messaging requiring the country to “reexamine legacy delivery platforms for communicating U.S. messages overseas.”

The NSS vows to rebuild the U.S. military and combine force, statecraft and cooperation with allies to restore and maintain U.S. primacy. While it embraces NATO and cooperation with Europe, it paints those allies as tools to help expand that influence and calls on them to pick up more responsibility in shared burdens.

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Guy Swan III, former Commander, U.S. Army North

“Advance American influence? I think there’s mixed messaging on that last pillar. Part of it is pulling back from some of the international agreements. You remember early on this year and unwillingness to commit to Article 5, which he reversed later. Those kind of things give people pause. This is one where we have to see deeds match the words.”

  • NATO is not mentioned as often as it is in the Obama and Bush NSS’s, but its inclusion as an important part of U.S. national security contrasts with Trump’s previous critical statements of NATO and European partners, and his months-long delay in affirming publicly his commitment to NATO’s Article V on shared defense. “The United States is safer when Europe is prosperous and stable, and can help defend our shared interests and ideals,” it says, adding that “the NATO alliance of free and sovereign states is one of our great advantages over our competitors, and the United States remains committed to Article V of the Washington Treaty.”

John McLaughlin, former Actiing Director, CIA

“They will regard Trump even less as an alliance leader. He tried to square the circle by saying he wants to work with allies but at the same time complaining they don’t pull their weight and expressing skepticism about past U.S alliance policies that he claims disadvantaged the U.S.  Pew organization surveys show declining trust in Trump overseas—with particular objection to his withdrawal from international agreements—and his presentation today will do little to reverse the trend.”

Ned Price, former Spokesperson and Senior Director for Communications, National Security Council

“It speaks to the importance of leveraging partners and allies, when President Trump has left America more isolated on the world stage—with close partners, including the U.K. and Germany—openly questioning whether America can be counted upon as a partner. And, of course, the discussion of Russia as strategic competitor in no way resembles the administration’s routine kowtowing to Moscow’s wishes.”

Todd Rosenblum, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs

“It is not `America First’ in the historical sense of the term’s meaning of withdrawal, appeasement and isolation. It does meet the Trump version of `America First,’ in that it paints the international order as one driven exclusively by individual nations, operating alone, either winning or losing. It is more Metternich than Lindberg. It is consistent in the Trump world view that we are out to get ours and assume others are doing the same. This comes out in its emphasis on all nations but us being rule breakers, [versus] that plus opportunity for win-win initiatives.”

The NSS reflects Trump’s stated desire to reshape the U.S. economic relationship with much of the world, redressing what he sees as “chronic trade abuses,” in order to “pursue free, fair and reciprocal economic relationships.” The policy tracks with Trump’s withdrawal from multilateral trade pacts and the Paris climate agreement, which he has portrayed as unfair to the U.S.

  • The NSS portrays past administrations as failing to protect U.S. business: “For decades, the United States has allowed unfair trading practices to grow. Other countries have used dumping, discriminatory non-tariff barriers, forced technology transfers, non-economic capacity, industrial subsidies and other support from governments and state-owned enterprises to gain economic advantages….The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating, or economic aggression.”
  • Unusually for an NSS, the document includes domestic U.S. tax reform, infrastructure repair and debt reduction as key to national security. It vows to “work with the Congress to create a simpler, fairer and pro-growth tax code that encourages the creation of higher-wage jobs and gives middle-income families tax relief. Reduced business tax rates and a territorial system for foreign subsidiary earnings will improve the competitiveness of American companies and encourage their return to the United States.”

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Guy Swan III, former Commander, U.S. Army North

“Having worked in Homeland, I think the points are right on the mark. This is one area where I think his words match the words in the document. Less so on the economic piece because sometimes you see the president decrying the multinational and international agreements rather than moving in that direction to bring prosperity to the country. He’s taken the bilateral approach.”

The document represents a victory for centrist Republicans who feared now-departed White House advisors like Steve Bannon would influence the president toward a more anti-coalition, anti-Europe, anti-NATO strategy, and produces a yardstick against which Trump’s future national security decisions will be judged.

Christine Wormuth, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

“The document reflects a lot of what I would call more mainstream traditional foreign policy thinking about the whole variety of challenges, whether its homeland security, or economic prosperity or peace through strength….But the degree to which the document going forward shapes the positions the administration takes, not to mention the positions the president himself takes, remains to be seen.”

Todd Rosenblum, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs

“President Trump’s NSS maintains a fair amount of continuity with past strategies, albeit in darker, more hostile tones. It is similar to past strategies in that it expresses concern about—and focus on—Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, terrorism, homeland security and the need for strong defense and smart diplomacy. It is different in that it redefines our relationship with China as one of confrontation, not potential partnership. It, regrettably, de-emphasizes the importance of international alliances like NATO and trade agreements to strengthen American leadership. Its walking back from defining global climate change as a threat to international order is equally regrettable.”

Ned Price, former Spokesperson and Senior Director for Communications, National Security Council

“National Security Strategies have tended to serve as a blueprint for an administration’s foreign policy. The Bush administration’s 2002 document is most famous for its discussion of pre-emptive war, which we ultimately saw come to fruition in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Obama administration’s 2015 document speaks to the indispensable role of American leadership, including our unique ability to galvanize collective action to confront the most challenging threats we face. And that was the driving rationale in taking on threats—whether it was ISIL or Ebola. With this strategy, however, there is a wide divergence between the words on paper and what we’ve seen to date of the Trump administration’s national security and broader foreign policy. For example, it speaks aspirationally of growing American influence around the world, despite the fact that this administration has gutted and sidelined the State Department, while ceding influence to our rivals by, for instance, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement.”

Bennett Seftel and Levi Maxey contributed to this analysis.


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