President Trump’s National Security Strategy marks a dramatic departure from the plans of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, painting a dark, almost dystopian portrait of an “extraordinarily dangerous” world characterized by hostile states and lurking threats. There is scant mention of America’s unrivaled political, military, technological and economic strength, or the opportunities to expand prosperity, freedom and security through principled leadership — the foundation of American foreign policy since World War II.
In Mr. Trump’s estimation, we live in a world where America wins only at others’ expense. There is no common good, no international community, no universal values, only American values. America is no longer “a global force for good,” as in President Obama’s last strategy, or a “shining city on a hill,” as in President Reagan’s vision. The new strategy enshrines a zero-sum mentality: “Protecting American interests requires that we compete continuously within and across these contests, which are being played out in regions around the world.” This is the hallmark of Mr. Trump’s nationalistic, black-and-white “America First” strategy.
But the world is actually gray, and Mr. Trump’s strategy struggles to draw nuanced distinctions. Throughout, China and Russia are conflated and equated as parallel adversaries. In fact, China is a competitor, not an avowed opponent, and has not illegally occupied its neighbors. Russia, as the strategy allows, aggressively opposes NATO, the European Union, Western values and American global leadership. It brazenly seized Georgian and Ukrainian territory and killed thousands of innocents to save a dictator in Syria. Russia is our adversary, yet Mr. Trump’s strategy stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its most hostile act: directly interfering in the 2016 presidential election to advantage Mr. Trump himself.
On China and Russia, I suspect the White House realists, to escape the embarrassment of a strategy that ignored Russia’s hostile behavior, agreed to lump China with Russia and almost always mention China first, to placate their nationalist colleagues who hate China but admire Russia. The result is a flawed analysis that may actually drive Russia and China closer together.
In several respects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, intelligence, cyberthreats, space policy, unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property, the strategy falls within the bipartisan mainstream of United States national security policy, differing little from that of a more traditional Republican president. In other areas, it helpfully corrects this administration’s wavering course, as in its unequivocal embrace of United States allies and partners and reaffirmation of our Article V commitment to defend NATO. The strategy recognizes the threat from pandemics and biohazards and the importance of strengthening global health security. And it maintains at least a nominal commitment to women’s empowerment and providing generous humanitarian assistance.
But the nationalists around him succeeded in enshrining Mr. Trump’s harsh anti-immigration policies, from the border wall to ending family preferences and limiting refugee admissions. They reprised their paean to bilateral over multi-nation trade agreements and trumpeted the abrogation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would help check China’s economic and strategic expansionism in Asia. The result is an insular, ideological treatment of our complex world, substantially unimpaired by facts and dismissive of United States interests.
The plan also glaringly omits many traditional American priorities. It fails to mention the words “human rights” or “extreme poverty”; there is no talk of higher education, combating H.I.V.-AIDS or seeking a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Absent, too, is any discussion of people under 30 (who make up over 50 percent of the world’s population), of civil society or of the value of promoting democracy and universal rights. Gone is “climate change” and its threat to American national security. Neither is there any expression of concern for the rights of the oppressed, especially L.G.B.T. people. These omissions undercut global perceptions of American leadership; worse, they hinder our ability to rally the world to our cause when we blithely dismiss the aspirations of others.
The plan also contains some true howlers. It heralds diplomacy, yet Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have starved the State Department of resources, talent and relevance. The strategy lauds the “free press,” yet Mr. Trump routinely trashes our most respected news outlets as “fake news,” threatening their personnel and operations. And it claims the United States “rejects bigotry and oppression and seeks a future built on our values as one American people”; yet the president has denigrated women, used race-baiting language and been hesitant to criticize anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi extremists. One wonders how seriously to take a document that so starkly diverges from the president’s own words and deeds.
These contradictions matter, as does the administration’s enthusiastic embrace of a self-serving, confrontational vision of the world. National security strategies do not always leave an enduring legacy, but they are important articulations of an administration’s priorities — signposts to a world that cares deeply about America’s ambitions and interests.
The United States’s strength has long rested not only on our unmatched military and economy, but also on the power of our ideals. Relinquishing the nation’s moral authority in these difficult times will only embolden rivals and weaken ourselves. It will make a mockery of the very idea of America first.
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