Considering how destabilizing Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy has been over the past year, the National Security Strategy (NSS) the White House released on Monday is surprisingly moderate. Written under the direction of clear-eyed National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, it frames “America First” as compatible with U.S. global leadership, promotion of human rights, support for fair trade, and engagement with international institutions. After its nationalist preamble (which may be as far as the President got), much of the document reads like its several post–Cold War predecessors. Far more telling was the president’s own speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington describing the new strategy. It encapsulates a sovereigntist worldview at odds with the very international order America helped to create.
Three well-worn ideas dominated his address, echoing his campaign themes and the actions he has taken ten months into his still-young presidency. First, previous administrations, supported by Congress, had presided over decades of unmitigated failure. They signed one-sided trade deals that disadvantaged U.S. workers and companies, allowed wealthy allies to freeload on U.S. taxpayers, built nations abroad rather than restoring America itself, “left our borders wide open” to illegal and improperly vetted migrants, and “surrendered our sovereignty to foreign bureaucrats in faraway and distant capitals.” Above all, U.S. leaders “lost their belief in American greatness.” And the American people lost confidence in them.
Second, “all that began to change” last year, thanks to the election of President Trump. The candidate had vowed to return the nation “to the wisdom of our founders,” including this fundamental truth: “In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.” And in November 2016, Americans responded: “You rediscovered your voice and reclaimed ownership of this nation and its destiny.”
Trump has since kept faith with his voters, if he does say so himself. “Upon my inauguration, I announced that the United States would return to a simple principle: The first duty of our government is to serve its citizens,” he declared Monday. “With every decision and every action, we are now putting America first.” These steps have included pulling out of the “job-killing” Trans-Pacific Partnership and the “very expensive and unfair Paris Climate Accord,” compelling “delinquent” NATO allies to “reimburse” the United States “while we guarantee their safety and… fight wars for them,” getting tough on Iran and North Korea, standing up to geopolitical “competitors” like Russia and China, and clamping down on illegal immigration (on the grounds that “a nation without borders is not a nation”).
Third, this new sovereigntist outlook has put the United States back on the road to “greatness,” able to “compete and win again” against economic and geopolitical rivals, and to serve as a “shining example to the world.” In releasing this strategy, Trump added, “we are calling for a great reawakening of America, a resurgence of confidence, and a rebirth of patriotism, prosperity, and pride.” And it is the last of these that may be most important. For as the President helpfully explains, “As long as we are proud—and very proud—of who we are, how we got here, and what we are fighting to preserve, we will not fail.”
This is a pretty story for Americans to tell themselves, even if pride goeth before the fall. Beyond that venerable adage, we might consider a few shortcomings of Trump’s actual national security policy, so often divergent from the parchment strategy released Monday.
To begin with, while the NSS repeatedly trumpets American “leadership,” Trump’s erratic, transactional, and narrow-minded approach to diplomacy has shrunk the list of potential “followers.” As Angela Merkel ruefully noted this summer, the time has come for U.S. allies to recognize that they can no longer depend on the United States as they once did. Similarly, the Trump administration should not be surprised if its calls for international solidarity—over North Korea, for instance—fall on deaf ears, when it is so prepared to abdicate its own responsibilities—with the Paris climate deal being a case in point.
Likewise, the NSS offers an attractive, Reaganesque vision of America as a “shining city on a hill” that promotes “human dignity” worldwide by “championing American values.” Such sentiments clang against the transparent cynicism of a president who cozies up to strongmen like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and whose secretary of state has dismissed “values” as a burden in the pursuit of U.S. “policies.” “There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize their people,” the NSS adds, on behalf of a president who has done just that in dismissing criticisms against Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
One’s incredulity increases when both the president and the NSS pledge that the United States will bolster “all levels” and “all instruments of its national power” in promoting and pursuing its security. This from an administration which asked Congress to cut the budget for the State Department and USAID by nearly 30 percent to offset an even greater militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and whose secretary of state is presiding over the piecemeal dismantlement of his own department and its crown jewel, the Foreign Service. The NSS likewise declares the administration’s intention to “reduce the debt through fiscal responsibility,” even as the White House shepherds through a tax bill that will saddle younger generations with financial obligations for decades to come.
By their very nature, U.S. National Security Strategies tend toward generalities and provide an imperfect guide to actual government policy. Their purpose is primarily to communicate a worldview, as well as a set of priorities to explain broad lines of effort. What sets the 2017 version aside is its obvious disconnect with what the president actually believes—and the policies he is already pursuing.