President Trump delivered a new “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” last week, and it elicited a mountain of comment. I thought I’d wait a week to let the dust settle, and then add my own.
The criticisms of the NSS came from predictable quarters, and in many cases seemed to me merely to reflect the writer’s attitude toward the President rather than a fair assessment of the document. More interesting were the comments of independent scholars who are not Trump haters. Mike Green, my former colleague at the George W. Bush NSC and a China expert, noted the new emphasis on great power competition with China. Green criticized “the utter lack of a coherent trade policy,” the way human rights is used as a club against enemies but forgotten with respect to allies (noting that as Ronald Reagan realized, “eventually the authoritarians in your camp will become sources of weakness and risk”), and the need to match means with the goals described in the NSS. Walter Russell Mead approved of the document’s realism, writing that “history isn’t over, and American foreign policy needs to come back to earth….In steering American foreign policy away from the inflated expectations and unrealistic objectives produced by the end of history mirage, the Trump administration is performing a much-needed service.” Still, Mead adds that “it is not enough to demolish the old. Ultimately Mr. Trump will be judged on his ability—or failure—to build something better.”
My take: the NSS is a first-rate effort filled with ideas that need to be taken seriously. To take one example, the document discards the line—one we have heard from all too many U.S. officials in this administration and its predecessors—that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the center of the Middle East’s (if not the world’s) troubles. Here is what the NSS says:
For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region. 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. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.
The NSS also discards the badly flawed “arc of history” arguments that suggest history has a “side” we must be on or an inevitable destination. The document states that “America’s achievements and standing in the world were neither inevitable nor accidental” and in fact were the product of sound thinking and much sacrifice.
A third example: the NSS offers a tough and realistic view of Russia and China as competitors against the United States. The Trump administration’s decision to sell lethal weaponry to Ukraine is the kind of step to which such a judgment about Russia should lead—and it has.
One final example, with words that apply to the Ukraine conflict, but also to many others:
many actors have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict—challenging the United States, our allies, and our partners with hostile actions cloaked in deniability. Our task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and in combination with other elements of national power, is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security.
The NSS clearly calls for American leadership—not for isolationism. The very first line of the document is this: “An America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence, and will to lead abroad.” And two pages later comes this: “We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the dis- advantage of the United States.”
The world described by the NSS is Hobbesian: sovereign states competing for advantage. The document states that competition with Russia and China, and challenges from North Korea, Iran, and jihadis require rethinking some previous conclusions:
These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.
My greatest concern about the document relates to human rights and the promotion of democracy. The NSS is leery. There are many mentions of democracy, rule of law, and freedom, but the promotion of them is described conditionally and without much enthusiasm. There is some very good language:
America’s core principles, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, are secured by the Bill of Rights, which proclaims our respect for fundamental individual liberties beginning with the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and assembly. Liberty, free enterprise, equal justice under the law, and the dignity of every human life are central to who we are as a people. These principles form the foundation of our most enduring alliances, and the United States will continue to champion them. Governments that respect the rights of their citizens remain the best vehicle for prosperity, human happiness, and peace. In contrast, governments that routinely abuse the rights of their citizens do not play constructive roles in the world.
But sometimes the document is unclear: it states that “the United States will always stand with those who seek freedom” but the very next sentence is “We will remain a beacon of liberty and opportunity around the world.” A beacon offers light, but it is a stationary object. A later paragraph is better:
We support, with our words and actions, those who live under oppressive regimes and who seek freedom, individual dignity, and the rule of law. We are under no obligation to offer the benefits of our free and prosperous community to repressive regimes and human rights abusers. We may use diplomacy, sanctions, and other tools to isolate states and leaders who threaten our interests and whose actions run contrary to our values. We will not remain silent in the face of evil.
What is missing, in my view, is the plain assertion that in the competition the NSS argues we now face, our support for freedom and the expansion of democracy is in fact a great asset and indeed a powerful weapon. The document comes close to saying this but shies away, as if such language would suggest a return to the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush. Mike Green, in the article noted above, gets it right; I would argue that Ronald Reagan did not promote democracy and help push dictators like Ferdinand Marcos, Chun Doo-Hwan, and Augusto Pinochet out despite his anti-communism but because of his anti-communism. He understood that in the struggle with the Soviets, freedom was as powerful and indispensable as ICBMs. Today, competing with tyrannies like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, there is a powerful realpolitik argument for freedom. When it comes to defeating jihadis and other forms of Islamist extremism, we should remember that Islamists—even Islamist extremists—have ideas and arguments that must be defeated by better ideas and arguments, and cannot be defeated solely by police truncheons.
The National Security Strategy, produced far earlier in the life of this administration than are most, is an impressive achievement. The Trump administration will produce other National Security Strategies, because as it confronts that Hobbesian world there will be new tests and challenges, successes and inevitably failures as well, and new evaluations of older approaches. Let us hope that future NSS efforts match the intellectual seriousness of this one.