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The 2017 national security strategy: A scorecard

Donald Trump laying out a national strategy, Dec. 18, 2017. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The U.S. Congress mandates that each presidential administration produce a “national security strategy,” although it does not specify when or how often. The periodic reports usually arrive with little public fanfare – beyond the intense scrutiny of a coterie of policymakers, military officials, commentators and academics (like the two of us) who together comprise the national security establishment.

They – and we – study the latest national security strategy with great care, looking for an expression of the president’s central values and chief priorities when it comes to foreign policy and strategy.

Nearly a year into his new administration, President Trump issued his version of this document by breaking with the tradition of his predecessors and introducing it personally in a wide-ranging speech.

So, what does the new national security strategy reveal about the values, priorities and prevailing problems of this administration?

Anticipation and apprehension

The new strategy was prepared under the leadership of the national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster. It has been much anticipated by Washington and U.S. allies as well as adversaries. After all, as experts have repeatedly pointed out, past national security strategies have often foreshadowed subsequent actions. “America watchers” abroad therefore are looking for signs of order in what has often been depicted as an inconsistent and incoherent U.S. foreign policy since President Trump’s election.

Yet with this national security strategy, as with so many other issues in the Trump presidency, we are in unknown territory.

Certainly, in his introductory speech, Trump reemphasized things we already knew from his campaign trail. Principal among these was an “America first” approach that stresses a very narrow conception of the nation’s interests and rejects subsidizing allies or entering into the “bad deals” in trade, climate or national security.

Conversely, in language reminiscent of Cold War politics, Trump emphasized a renewed onus on a great power competition in which the U.S. must lead it friends and allies.

What is therefore required is a renewed collective effort to reestablish the country’s prominence. All the instruments of power, the national security strategy emphasizes, now have to be employed.

But, beyond these generalities, the new strategy and the president’s speech taken together revealed two major, ongoing problems.

Mind the gaps

First, the Trump administration has systematically weakened the institutional foundations required to achieve the strategy’s goal of preparing the nation for great power competition.

Even the casual observer of U.S. foreign policy cannot fail to be aware of the fact that Secretary Tillerson’s State Department is severely understaffed and suffers from low morale.

In a bipartisan display of concern, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Jeanne Sheehan (D-New Hampshire) wrote to the secretary that “questionable management practices at the Department of State; the attitudes of some in the administration on the value of diplomacy; declining morale, recruitment and retention; the lack of experienced leadership to further the strength and longevity of our nation’s diplomatic corps; and reports of American diplomacy becoming less effective paint a disturbing picture.”

They concluded that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.”

In short, the president’s own secretary of state is therefore systematically depriving his administration of the institutional capacity needed to achieve the report’s objectives.

The second problem the report reveals is the gap between a professed support for multilateralism and global legitimacy, and the administration’s unilateral behavior and policy decisions that have rowed against the tide of international opinion.

Over the course of the past year, the president has abandoned, or threatened to abandon, key multilateral agreements – from the Trans Pacific Partnership to the Paris accords on climate change and NATO. In contrast, he has thrown the nation’s lot in with Saudi Arabia and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Officials have also expressed barely concealed hostility to the Iran nuclear deal agreed upon with the European Union and the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany.

These decisions and rhetorical attacks have led to widespread international condemnation. Clearly, key administration initiatives rest uneasily alongside the views – as expressed in the national security strategy – of its own staffers.

The problems the 2017 strategy reveals are amplified by the fact that the president’s speech and the report leave three other major issues completely unaddressed. Taken together, they suggest that the emblematic confusion over foreign policy to date may continue, despite the president’s forthright comments.

What wasn’t said

First, in an era where America’s defense resources are stretched thin by growing demands on the military and by tax reforms that threaten to depress revenues, the national security strategy report fails to prioritize American interests and efforts.

Of course the report uses the expression “priority actions” repeatedly – but largely with reference to relatively minor or technical policy choices such the deployment of layered cyberdefenses or the enhanced vetting of immigrants. It is far less forthcoming about the administration’s broad intentions.

What it doesn’t say, for example, is whether it is more important to use resources on “pivoting to Asia” as President Obama promised to do or on ongoing wars in the Middle East.

Second, if the world is a more dangerous place – as the president claims – then logically the national security strategy should argue that a larger proportion of the nation’s resources should be devoted to national security. Yes, the report does observe that “[t]he breakdown of the Nation’s annual Federal budgeting process…further contributed to the erosion of America’s military dominance during a time of increasing threats.” But in his speech Trump did not even try to use his bully pulpit to overcome the reservations of budget hawks.

Indeed, few independent analysts believe that the DOD will receive the budget increases it claims are necessary to meet the goals set by the Trump administration.

Finally, like most strategy documents, the national security strategy avoids a frank discussion of risk. Concretely, what is at stake for American interests abroad, and indeed homeland security, if not all of the report’s prescriptions are followed? Which risks are existential, which are less important, and which are manageable with prudent policies?

Unlike recent prior national security strategy reports, it does name other great powers as competitors – specifically China and Russia. But pointedly, in an administration where it is allegedly frowned upon to mention those powers in intelligence briefings, the question remains: How great is the risk of confrontation?

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