Trump's National Security Strategy

Trump's National Security Strategy

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President Donald J. Trump unveils his administration’s National Security Strategy on Monday, December 18. CFR President Richard Haass analyze the major takeaways of the document, which will outline national security concerns and how the administration plans to deal with them.


Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order


Gideon Rose

Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs

ROSE: Hi, everybody. Gideon Rose here, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and we are in for a great discussion with Richard Haass of the Trump administration’s newly released National Security Strategy.


Richard, as you all know, is not just the president of CFR, but a distinguished career in four different administrations. Worked at State, the White House, and the Defense Department, a very good position to discuss all aspects of this. And is the author of several books, including The World in Disarray paperback, which will come out in January with an afterword about the Trump administration.


Without further ado, let’s get right to it. Richard, National Security Strategies tend to have the same kind of rough standing as party platforms among professionals, sort of aspirational wish lists rather than really strategic guides to action. But they are discussed, and they are of some significance. How do you see this one? And do you think it will be or less significant than usual, given the unusual foreign policies that it describes compared to, let’s say, the past generation or two?


HAASS: Well, thank you, Gideon. And thank you all.


And, yes, as you say, National Security Strategies can be revealing. They obviously reflect how an administration wants to be perceived, the messages they want to send out. And as I will turn to in a minute, it’s not necessarily, though, an accurate reflection of what it is they are doing. So why don’t I just take a couple of minutes to react to this National Security Strategy, and then we’ll save 90 percent of the time for questions.


All things being equal, this National Security Strategy is a serious attempt to make the case for a foreign policy that it describes as, quote/unquote, “principled realism.” And it tries, though, to do it in a way that’s consistent with “America first” and what you might call the central tenets of Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policy, and that includes such things as being relatively closed to immigration and refugees, opposition to free trade, and a tight embrace of American sovereignty.


And consistent with all of the above, there was to me a notable and noticeable emphasis on protecting the homeland. That’s the first of four priorities. Second came economic prosperity. Third came military strength, and I thought it had an interesting phrase there warning of, quote/unquote, “strategic complacency.” And last, and fourth—and I also thought that was worth noting—was the idea of advancing U.S. influence around the world. Talked about three sets of threats: China and Russia, North Korea and Iran, and transnational terrorism.


I thought there was an effort throughout the document to distinguish the Trump administration from its immediate predecessors. For example, there’s no interest in transforming the Middle East or anywhere else. No interest in turning the Middle East or anywhere else into a bastion of democracy. There is also no interest in promoting climate change, which it tended to see as anti-growth. But instead, the document spoke of energy dominance. Also some distinction from its predecessors on both China and Russia.


Let me just read one quote that I found the most interesting paragraph in the document. It talked about China and Russia challenge, American power, influence and interests, and attempting to erode American security and prosperity. And then it goes on to say, “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.”


And, you know, I just point that out, because that’s real challenge to much of what has been a central premise of American foreign policy, that it was in our interest and possible—so, both desirable and feasible—to rope or wrap—rope in or wrap China into various institutions, to essentially get them to—colloquially one might say play the game, or more formally to act in the world according to our—according to rules that we had—we had deemed as stabilizing and desirable. And it essentially has said that this attempt has failed. And I just say that that, to me, is quite an intellectual statement.


And the alternative view of the world is essentially one that is realistic or even hyperrealist. And there’s a lot of references to international relations being a contest for power. It is quite harsh about what it describes as a revisionist Russia and China. It says both of them want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. And there’s a quote where, about China—not mentioning it, but obviously talking about it—quote, “a geopolitical”—and talks about “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”


Flowing from that is a very positive view of India and U.S.-India ties. And obviously this administration sees India as having a large role in what it calls the Indo-Pacific region—implicitly anti-Chinese. It talks quite a bit, as you would expect, about the North Korean threat. The one noteworthy thing is it suggests the possibility of preemption. Also, talks a lot about the Iranian threat, but doesn’t really have much to say about how it might be countered. And as you might expect, it is quite critical in how it portrays trade. It focuses on, again, bilateral imbalances, or deficits, without explaining why they matter. It ignores the positive economic and strategic side of trade. And it ignores the ability of trade agreements, like TPP or the WTO, to deal with shortcomings in trading relationships.


All that said, I think the biggest problem with the National Security Strategy is not the document itself, but rather the frequent disconnect between the document—between the National Security Strategy and the actual foreign policy of the Trump administration. Let me just give about a half a dozen examples and then I’ll stop. As I said, the NSS, National Security Strategy, is quite tough on China. But the administration withdrew from the TPP, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was arguably the best instrument the United States had at its disposal to compete with China in the Asia Pacific. And there’s obviously also some tension between this criticism of China on the trade front and the desire for itself, vis-à-vis North Korea, and American dependence on Chinese holdings of American debt.


Secondly, there’s all sorts of references to the administration’s commitment to diplomacy and multilateralism, and talks about this country competing and leading in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected. But this is the same administration that pulled out of the Paris climate pact and boycotted the talks recently in Mexico City on a global migration compact. It’s also an administration that has not put forward a proposal—a diplomatic proposal dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, other than calling for them to denuclearize. This is also an administration that is calling for massive cuts in State Department funding and personnel.


Thirdly, it calked about debt being, quote/unquote, “a grave threat” to the prosperity and national security of the United States, but the tax cut that this administration favors will make the problem of the debt significantly worse.


It talks a lot about promoting and projecting American values in the world, but this is an administration that has been extraordinarily supportive of countries which can only be called authoritarian or worse, and that includes such countries as Turkey, Russia, or the Philippines.


There’s multiple references to American democracy and values, but this is an administration that has been extraordinarily critical of the American media and American courts.


There’s multiple references to our allies and how important they are, but this is an administration that has introduced considerable uncertainty and conditionality into our allied relationships, especially in Europe. And it’s an administration that, for example, for questioned the value of KORUS, the U.S.-South Korean Trade Agreement.


Last but not least, about Russia, the document talks quite bluntly about Russia, about a Russia that seeks to weaken U.S. influence and divide the United States from our allies and partners, about a Russia that interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world, about a Russia that’s using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Europe, and criticizes Russia for its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and says it has demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in Europe.


But this is also an administration that in its actual policy towards Russia has held off being critical for the most part. It is Congress that has taken the lead. And this is a president that obviously continues to reject charges that Russia interfered meaningfully in the U.S. election in November 2016. It’s an administration that supports only limited help for Ukraine, and it’s an administration that’s had difficulties in associating itself closely with NATO allies.


So, again, I end sort of where I began, this is—this is—I think it’s a serious document, but it’s one in which there are multiple and significant inconsistencies between the document on one hand and the foreign and national security policy of the Trump administration on the other.


ROSE: OK. So, Richard, let me—let me press you on that. If you’re, let’s say, a foreign ministry or a foreign intelligence service or a foreign leader, friendly or unfriendly, and you’re trying to get guidance into what the U.S. is thinking, what it’s doing and so forth, and you see the National Security Strategy released, but it has all these not just internal contradictions occasionally, but the gap between what they’re actually doing and what it says, how do you then regard it? Do you see it as part of propaganda? Do you see it as part of the aspirational thing that they’ll do eventually once they turn their mind to it? Or is it just sort of something that you dismiss as rhetoric for domestic local consumption and then respond to the actual events that the U.S. is doing, its actual behavior?


HAASS: It’s a good question. In my experience, other foreign ministries, other chancelleries and the rest will read it carefully. All of the embassies in Washington will cable back their analysis and will talk about what is new, what is different, what is surprising. They’ll talk about some of the inconsistencies that they’ll obviously look at. They’ll obviously look at it through the prism or lens of their—of their own country’s relationship with the United States.


But as time passes, in my experience, these documents don’t have an awful—don’t have much weight. What matters is what the United States does in the world. What will matter is what the president says or tweets or what this or that representative says. So this will simply become one statement among many that this administration makes. And indeed, the risk for the administration is that it will tend to be dismissed if the inconsistencies between it and what the administration is actually doing become pronounced.


But, you know, I don’t—I don’t remember in my experience that these documents held an awful lot of weight over time, but usually it’s one or two things that get singled out. For example, in 43’s administration, George W. Bush, where people obviously fastened on was the language—it was one or two paragraphs in the strategy that seemed to provide an intellectual or policy rationale for attacking Iraq. And, you know, I expect there may be one or two things here either about a tougher approach to China, or something like that, that people will fasten on. But my sense is that with the passage of time, these documents don’t have that much of a day-to-day impact.


ROSE: We have a lot of people out there who have a lot of questions. Let’s turn it to our audience and members.


OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.)


Our first question will be from James Reynolds with Middle East—


Q: Hi there. Can you hear me?


HAASS: Yes, sir.


Q: Great. Thanks so much for the sage words, as usual.


My question is about the Middle East. The document—the strategy document talks about the relegation of the Palestinian question, greater cooperation between Gulf states and Israel as a way towards countering the Iran threat. But of course, what you said in your opening remarks is true. There isn’t a great deal about how the Iranian threat might be countered. I’m just wondering, in your opinion, you know, what we have at the moment in terms of what direction the U.S. is headed in on this and, you know, what, at the end of the day, Iran is going to be allowed to do, or not allowed to do, and what happens if it crosses one of those lines.


HAASS: Well, as you say, the document really sheds virtually no light on how to deal with Iran’s reach for regional influence. Most of the language is about the nuclear agreement, and the president reinforced that in his public remarks earlier this afternoon. But, no, it wasn’t clear to me what the administration plans to do in whether it’s Yemen, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s Lebanon, whether it’s Syria, or anywhere else vis-à-vis Iran. So this document doesn’t provide anything in the way of policy guidance.


And the administration obviously is in something of a quandary, where it wants to push back against Iran in the region—and I would say for good reason—but it’s not clear what the tools are. If it wants to remain limited in American involvement militarily, that would normally mean you would turn to your allies and partners. But it’s not clear exactly what the capabilities or willingness of the various parties or partners of the United States are. So I would think that at the moment the—a lot of the discussion about containing Iran or pushing back against Iran in the region is more aspiration than policy, and I don’t think this document has shed an awful lot of light on what the policy might turn out to be.


ROSE: Richard, turning to things with Iran—this is Gideon—turning with Iran for 200, does the administration yet have a position on the JCPOA, the Iran deal?


HAASS: Yes, the administration—I mean, the president obviously is not going to certify Iran and has basically turned to Congress to—if it wants to introduce new sanctions. I don’t see Congress necessarily doing that. But I think what the administration wanted to do was essentially position itself politically as being unhappy with the agreement. And the president again today made clear his lack of enthusiasm for the nuclear agreement. But it’s not obvious to me it’s prepared to take steps that would potentially break the agreement, because I think the reality is it would potentially isolate the United States more than Iran, and it would introduce a crisis at a time the inbox is already full. So there, it might be a case where the rhetoric—the anti-Iranian rhetoric on the nuclear side is tougher than the anti-Iranian policy on the nuclear side. And you can decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it’s simply reality for the time being.


ROSE: Let’s go back to the queue.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Margaret Warner with PBS News.


Q: Hello, Richard. Thank you for doing this.


As you noted, you spoke of it as kind of a hyper-realist approach to the world or philosophy of what the world looks like, a competitive one. Where does that practically take you? I mean, if that is—if that is the administration’s view of the world community, which is quite different than our last two or three presidents at least, where does that take you, logically?


HAASS: It’s a good question, and the document itself doesn’t give a clear answer to it. My own sense is where it takes you is probably to larger—greater military spending; more talk about balancing the various threats as you see them—and that would be, you know, China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, transnational terrorists; greater uses of military force on selective occasions, because the administration is clearly rejecting the notion that it can embed several of these actors and arrangements where they will—they will choose to restrain their own behavior. So this is more of a balance-of-power/containment strategy, or in some cases conceivably even rollback in terms of certain capabilities, and much less of a strategy based on a premise of integration or getting countries to enter into a, you know, quote/unquote, “a rules-based international system.” So it’s a much more confrontational approach to the world.


What’s somewhat odd about it, Margaret, is this is an administration that has talked about limiting to some extent what the United States does in the world so it could focus on protecting the homeland, building up the American economy, and so forth. And it’s hard for me to see, at least, how you could have it both ways—a more combative, confrontational world, at the same time the United States is able to devote a greater percentage of its time and energy and resources on the—on the home front.


Q: Thanks.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Andreas Roth with Frankfurter Allgemeine.


Q: Yeah, that’s the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Thanks, Richard, for taking my question.


I was wondering about the disconnect between what the president said about Russia. He seemed in his speech very uncomfortable with all the criticism levied against Russia, and rather professed his desire again to have a, quote/unquote, “great relationship” with Russia. Can you read the tea leaves for me and explain a little bit toward that point? Is that an ongoing debate within his security team? I mean, put plainly, why do you put this in the National Security Strategy if you don’t want to own it?


HAASS: (Laughs.) If I had the answer to questions such as that one, I could—I could dine out on it.


Look, you’re—it’s an interesting—let me finish—let me take a step back. I was surprised by how tough the language was towards Russia because while it reflects, I think, where a lot of the foreign policy establishment is, it clearly doesn’t reflect where this president is or has been, because there’s been a consistently—what’s the word—benign or sanguine view of Russia, and tremendous optimism whenever he talks about it about the potential for improved U.S.-Russia relations, given his personal relationship with his Russian counterpart. And in the last, what, 24 or 48 hours, you had this—all this public talk about this phone call where reportedly the United States transferred some or shared some intelligence which proved of use to the Russians.


So I can’t explain it because there is—again, there’s something between here—you can call it an inconsistency. You can call it a contradiction. And I think the danger for the president here is that, given his own views that he’s likely to continue voicing, he doesn’t want to create—what’s the word—light or distance between this document and himself.


This document comes back to Gideon’s question, whatever impact this document might have, that it gets diluted or disappears very quickly if the world judges that this is a document that reflects the interagency process rather than the president. Now, the president normally would have put that fear or concern to bed by publicly doing what he did this afternoon, by introducing or rolling out the document by himself. That, to me, which was not something always done by his predecessors, that was something of a statement, that he was—he was talking ownership of the document.


But that brings us back to your fair question, which is there’s things in this document that—unless he’s had a major change in his own thinking, there’s things in this document that represent points of view that he had rejected for the last several years. So expect that’s going to be a recurring issue, where people are going to drill down and try to get a sense of just what kind of standing does this document have. And it does it really represent what the administration and the president believe in? Or does it represent what they want people to think they believe in?


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Mike Eckel with Radio Free Europe.


Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks for taking the question. Thanks for doing this call.


The question concerns one of the quotations that you cited from the document, quote, “These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades,” et cetera, et cetera. “For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” And I’m wondering if it would be correct to perhaps read into that some echoes of kind of Cold War great power competition. In other words, are we seeing a Cold War thinking redux in how the administration is going to approach Moscow and Beijing? Thank you.


HAASS: Well, again, it’s—you know, it’s a fair question. And it’s hard to know where this administration is going to go, particularly in its policy towards Russia. But the document does talk, I think correctly, about a revival in great power rivalry. I think that’s simply a fact. You see that most pointedly in U.S.-Russia relations. To a lesser extent, but to some extent, in U.S.-China relations. Once again, to me, and somewhat noteworthy about the sentence you highlighted and that I highlighted earlier, is it seems to reject moving towards a world where great power relations would be significantly better. It seems to reject the idea that we could embed China or Russia in an international system based on rules more or less to our liking. So it seems to suggest that the future is one of balance of power, friction, and so forth. And in that sense, a return to what some have called Cold War, what former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul calls hot peace. But something like that in U.S.-Russia relations.


What’s interesting, by the way, is that’s where Putin is. I think if one were to diagnose Mr. Putin’s foreign policy, he’s essentially rejected the notion that so many had after the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago that it was realistic to think about integrating Russia into the European security system, or more broadly into the global system. And Putin has essentially decided that that can’t happen on terms that are acceptable to him, that he thinks the real purpose of American foreign policy is to remove him from power, and to foment some kind of a, quote/unquote “colored revolution” in Russia, as he charges us with doing in other places, like Ukraine.


So where you—so he clearly has given up on the idea of a Russia that’s firmly integrated into Western institutions and supports Western policy in places like Europe and the Middle East. And what you seem to be seeing is, at least rhetorically here, is this administration agreeing. We’re going back to the future, if you will, toward an approach to great power relations which is much more the historical norm, which are, you know, great power relations defined by rivalry—you know, not necessarily conflict, but certainly by rivalry and where the balance between competition and cooperation is heavily skewed towards the former, towards competition. And that’s where—and that, I think, comes through this document.


And again, what’s odd about it is this is a president who has talked repeatedly about his optimism about both U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations and has talked about his good personal relationships with the leaders of both countries. So, again, it’s one of the areas of real disconnect. And we’ll just have—you know, I suppose the only thing one can say is we’ll have to see what turns out to be closer to reality. Is it the president’s rhetorical optimism? Or is it the strategic pessimism that is in this—that is in this document?


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Patricia Kim with the Council on Foreign Relations.


Q: Hi, Richard, thanks for your analysis.




Q: So as you noted, there’s some stark language used to describe China in this document, and China is now labeled as a strategic competitor. Well, this is a label that’s been used by the Bush administration in the past, and it’s one that tends to come up, you know, every other, between Republican and Democratic administrations. So they tend to switch between strategic competitor or strategic partner. So do you think that this time there’s something qualitatively different about labeling China as a strategic competitor and revisionist power? Do you think this is a sentiment that perhaps goes beyond this administration and reflects a shift in how Washington in general thinks about China? And do you think this will be a shift in how we deal with China?


HAASS: I think most of the China watchers would say there’s always elements of both, of strategic competitor on one hand and strategic partner on the other. And obviously, the two coexist, it’s not a one-dimensional or single-personality relationship.


I think, though, that what we’re seeing is a slight dialing or reorienting of the relationship more towards the direction of China as something of a problem or a competitor, particularly in the economic realm. I think there’s been a strategic disillusionment, not just in this administration, but somewhat beyond with China when one looks at how it—how it behaves in the economic space, real concern about forced transfers of technology, concerns about the lack of reciprocity in market, access concern about the significant continued state subsidies of the state-owned enterprises, the SOEs.


So hopes that China through the WTO was somehow going to become a more open economy, I think a lot of people have seen—logically, they’ve given up on those or certainly moderated those hopes. So I think you’re seeing, to some extent, something presaging, a tougher stance towards China economically. Probably also there’s concerns about what China’s been doing in the South China Sea.


Now, I think pushing back against all that is, again, the fact or the reality that China is at the core of this administration’s policy for North Korea. It’s, you know, clearly looking to China to heavily influence or even deliver North Korea; that may or may not be realistic, but that’s simply at the core of this administration’s approach.


And you’ve got the reality that China is, depending upon the day, the largest or second-largest holder of U.S. debt. China’s also a destination for significant amounts of U.S. exports, and a lot of U.S. jobs depend on them.


So what you have is a relationship that’s incredibly complicated. My guess is you’ll continue to have dimensions of cooperation and competition, but I do think, all things being equal, we’re probably entering a phase in which, particularly on the trade front, the United States’ approach to China will become somewhat tougher and somewhat more confrontational.


ROSE: OK, let’s go to another question.


A reminder, if you have questions for Richard, add them to the queue.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)


Our next question will be from Michael Klare with The Nation magazine.


Q: Yes. Thank you so much, an excellent analysis.


Richard, my question is about North Korea. I was struck in this speech, as you were in your comments earlier, that he seemed to envision the possibility of preemption. He said twice we will take care of it or it will be—North Korea will be taken care of. And then he moved on. What did you make of that?


HAASS: There was one reference in—about North Korea where he talks about—the document talks about enhanced missile defense, and it says the U.S. is deploying a layered missile defense system focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland. And then it says this system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch.


So, you know, I just simply take that as one of the options the United States is going to hope to develop, is the ability to get to attack a North Korean missile either before it’s launched, which in a sense we can already do, but more realistically what I think this is talking about potentially is that we would attack the missile right after it were launched—right after it were launched. So that would be one of the steps the—or one of the capabilities or tools the United States could add to its toolkit.


That’s the only place where the document says anything specific or new about North Korea. It doesn’t talk about preventive action. It doesn’t talk about diplomacy. So it’s—this is not a document that sheds light in particular on the North Korean situation. So, in that case, this strategy—this strategy paper is not analogous to the one issued by the second Bush administration, by W., in the runup to the 2003 Iraq War, where the language was quite pointed. Here it’s much more opaque. So I didn’t find this particularly illuminating in giving me a sense of where the administration is going vis-à-vis North Korea, what it might be prepared to tolerate, what it might be prepared to risk or do. It’s not a—in that sense, it’s not a very educational document.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Lukas Haynes with David Rockefeller Fund.


Q: Hi, Richard. Thank you.


Given Secretary of Defense Mattis’ clear public statements, and bureaucratic commitment actually, to assessing climate change as a homeland and national security issue, should we draw too hard a conclusion about the omission of the topic in this document?


HAASS: Well, it comes back to the question, Lukas, of how much to make of this document overall. You know, on climate it seems to me the document’s pretty consistent with an administration that’s left the Paris process, that is favoring deregulation in many areas, is at least rhetorically in other ways sympathetic to coal and fossil fuels. So I see it as pretty consistent. I thought it was interesting that there was much more emphasis on, quote/unquote, “energy dominance” than there was on climate issues.


I just take—so I take it pretty much at face value. That’s where this president and this administration are. And I would think that, to the extent the United States has a climate change policy for the next three years, it’s more likely to come out of states, municipalities, out of corporations—car manufacturers who produce cars according to certain CAFE standards, say, that allows them to sell in particular markets, or certain other corporations that want to be able to meet shareholder demands.


So I—so I think—but I think this administration continues to see climate change as—and the regulation that’s implicit in it as anti-growth and anti-sovereignty, and I think it’s wrong on both fronts. I think that there’s tremendous economic growth opportunities in various green technologies and alternatives, and there’s nothing about the Paris Agreement that threatens American sovereignty one iota since Paris lets each—allows each country to set its own standards and goals, and to reform them as needs be. So I take the opposition to climate in part economic, but if anything actually much more symbolic; that it’s one of those areas that plays well to a certain constituency.


But I think it’s pretty representative, you know, this document, of where this administration is. It’s not a priority. And it’s portrayed in a way, again, that’s somehow at odds with American economic growth and with American sovereignty.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Paul Miller with Lutheran World Relief.


Q: Hi, this is actually Daniel Speckhard, the president of Lutheran World Relief, here with Paul Miller and a fellow at the Atlantic Council.


Richard, the quick question for you is, it kinds of follows on to the environmental question but from a different angle. If this—whether this is Trump or whether it’s the interagency’s kind of view of the national security strategy as we play this out, certainly the interagency group will use this as their guiding document. And I guess I’d be interested in what you think about given the lack of focus on the changing nature of the threats in the world—be they cyber, be they the environmental challenges we’re facing across countries and in regions, or be they pandemics—all the new kinds of threats to our security that are not traditional, if the interagency and the bureaucracy and the government is focusing about allocating resources, energy, and time towards that traditional nation-to-nation competitive military security view of the world, what’s your take on what that means for the security of the United States going forward over the next few years?


HAASS: I would say three things. I’ve worked in four administrations. At least three of them were—two or three of them were after this document became a regular occurrence. And I don’t remember too many meetings where people sat around the interagency table in the Situation Room of the White House and said we have to do X or we can’t do Y because of the national security strategy. So I don’t know if you find that reassuring or alarming. But I wouldn’t exaggerate the policy weight of documents like this. Again, it’s a reflection often of where an administration is at a certain point. But more than anything else, it’s a reflection of what the administration wants to communicate and how it wants to be perceived at a certain point. So I wouldn’t necessarily assume that it provides tremendous insight into what an administration will do six months or a year down the road. And indeed, I can’t remember a time where someone said we have to do this or we can’t do that because of what we said a year ago in the national security strategy document.


You know, what I think it shows more broadly is that this administration, despite the language in the document about its support for diplomacy and multilateral institutions, is extraordinarily skeptical of those, and it sees such thing as tying our hands. And this is an administration that wants to preserve for itself tremendous flexibility.


I also think in some areas it simply doesn’t know what it is we want. For example, in cyber, there’s a lot of language about the cyber domain. But this is an area where the technology and the threats are evolving faster than the policy. And I think this would be a difficult issue for any administration.


The only other thing I’d say, which I found one of the more curious sentences in the entire document, where it talked about that, you know, we would be willing to contribute financially to various institutions but that we wanted to make sure or we want—but only if our influence from those institutions was commensurate with our financial contributions. And that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that said so blatantly or nakedly. It’s almost a mercantilist approach to multilateralism, that we’ll only essentially open up our checkbook if we’re confident that the institution will, to one extent or another, do our bidding. And that’s—that’s something very different than the United States has historically been over the last 70 years, where we’ve contributed to institutions in a fairly generous, long-term way, in the belief that over time these institutions would serve U.S. interests even if on specific occasions they did not.


ROSE: Can I just take one more question from the field?


OPERATOR: Yes. (Gives queuing instructions.)


And our next question’s going to be from Adrienne Medawar with Town Hall Los Angeles.


Q: Thank you, Richard. Really appreciate this today, especially coming from the West Coast here.


You mentioned is this—I’m not sure if you mentioned it or—it’s been deliberated very often—is this Trump speaking, or is this the entire administration with Trump? And I think the reason I’ve heard this before is that this president many times appears to be winging it. He appears to give past untruths, to be polite. So, all in all, where is there any credibility, either in Trump or in Trump with his administration?


HAASS: Adrienne, here’s what I know. I know this document went through a lot of high-level interagency deliberation. The principals—and by that, I mean Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, the national security advisor, the chief of staff—were all involved in it at one point. I’m told the president was briefed on it and signed off on it. And, as you saw today, he personally associated himself with it to a degree that is not always the case. But as I’ve also said, there’s obvious multiple clear inconsistencies between the content of this document and the content of Trump administration foreign policy up to now. Now, it’s possible that foreign policy henceforth will change and conform to this document. I somehow doubt it, in many areas.


So, yeah. And again, as I said, I never found these documents to be the Bible. They’re one insight into an administration at a particular moment of time. I wouldn’t make more of these documents than they—than they are. So, I think they’re—you know, they’re of some use in interpreting an administration. Sometimes they reveal within an administration where there’s consensus, sometimes where there’s not. They obviously reveal how an administration wants to be judged or perceived or heard. But I’d be careful in reading too much into this, that it’s somehow a blueprint or a perfect guide to understanding the administration. There’s much less predicting where it’s—where it’s going to come out on a particular issue.


So my guess is, you know, the president agrees with the overall tone of it, but he may very well disagree with any number of specifics. And either he’s—you know, he could be prepared simply to live with it, or he may think it’s useful to have that—certain impressions out there. He’ll have to speak for himself. But again, my guess is that in coming days, weeks, months, and years you’ll see a lot of things the administration will say and do that will not be consistent with this document. And that would simply, I expect, reflect the administration’s DNA, or its reaction to developments, or changing cast of characters. You know, any number of past and present. I mean, this is a—this is a snapshot amidst a moving picture. And I think one just has to see it and read it with that in mind.


ROSE: I think that’s a good place to wrap it up for today. Adrienne, you might also want to take a look at an article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, the Jan/Feb 2018 issue, called “After Credibility: American Foreign Policy in the Trump Era,” where we have Professor Keren Yarhi-Milo address this question of what happens when the foreign policy is one thing and the tweets are another and how credibility in American guarantees, and promises, and threats will play out going forward. And the short answer is, none of us actually know.


Richard Haass, thank you very much for your insight into this. Thank all of you for listening and participating. And we will be back with future calls on future crises and subjects in the news. Thank you very much.


HAASS: Thank you, Gideon. Thank you, everybody.



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