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Trump’s National Security Strategy Reverses Obama’s Policy Of Leading From Behind


The Trump administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS) yesterday to a media and foreign policy establishment that waited with bated breath. Everyone has something to say about it, and criticisms abound. Yet there’s no doubt the NSS got one thing right: China and Russia are indeed America’s major national security threats.

Congress requires the White House to release a National Security Strategy every two years. This document outlines the administration’s top national security priorities and usually forecasts the direction its foreign policy is headed. While this is usually done two years into an administration, thus only requiring an administration to produce one such document, the Trump administration sped to get its NSS out the door in less than one year. That means we can expect another one before the end of Trump’s first term.

That fact alone, regardless of the content of the document, means to signal the administration’s desire to set itself apart from the Obama administration and convey that it’s taking national security more seriously. Despite fighting two wars over its eight years, the Obama administration made clear from the outset that it was far more interested in domestic politics than in international affairs.

Obama campaigned on getting the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to a hasty and premature withdrawal from Iraq and the ensuing rise of the Islamic State. He trumpeted his plan for America to lead internationally “from behind”—an absurd tag-line that poorly concealed his desire for America to stop putting its nose where Obama thought it didn’t belong.

Trump gave a similar impression on the campaign trail. He talked mostly about jobs and dying industries at home, while scorning U.S. involvement in foreign conflagrations and what he considered alliance entanglements, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although he did talk a lot about “winning” in general and beating ISIS in particular. In his inaugural speech, Trump spoke about infrastructure and reversing “American carnage.”

But since taking office, Trump has arguably come to understand the pressures and responsibilities of America being an international powerhouse. After all, as Ross Douthat at The New York Times noted over the weekend, Trump won the war against ISIS, although no one’s really paying it any mind.

What the National Security Strategy Actually Says

Now that Trump’s National Security Strategy has been released, the American public, as well as the rest of the world, can get a closer look at what the Trump administration does, and does not, consider important on the foreign policy front. There’s no doubt what the main takeaway is from that document: Russia and China are not America’s friends, and we should treat them accordingly.

The NSS is a significant document in that it recognizes the reality that the post-Cold War era of peace — the age in which prominent intellectuals seriously proposed that all the great wars had been fought and all the great conflicts had come to an end — is over. It states plainly that we face a world where revisionist powers, primarily China and Russia, aim to tear down the very things that America aims to build up: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

The document recognizes that rival nations or misbehaving governments cannot all be coaxed into playing nice. This has been the status quo for some time now. It’s what led the Obama administration to, for example, give Iran just about everything it wanted in the Iran nuclear deal in return for very little, in the hopes that it would become a Western partner.

By contrast, the NSS states: “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.”

Peace Through Strength

To dissuade our rivals, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy highlights the need to “preserve peace through strength,” echoing President Reagan and hearkening to the failure of France and Britain in the years leading up to World War II to push back against Hitler and keep peace on the continent: “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict—although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests. An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict. Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.”

Detractors might argue that that phrase is vague and could be used by any administration to mean just about anything. However, it seems clear the Trump administration means to contrast with Obama’s policy of leading from behind. This is a major change in direction. It’s a significant corrective to the facile liberal internationalist belief that using strength leads to war but diplomacy leads to peace. As I argued last week, diplomacy must be armed if it’s ever to produce the desired results.

Despite the strength of this aspect of the NSS, the pages of American media outlets thronged with criticisms — some legitimate, others less so, but none of which took away from the importance of the document’s recognition of the dangerous world that we live in today.

As for Excluding Russia and Climate Change

The first complaint is that the administration’s NSS says nothing about climate change. It may surprise some to learn that many in the foreign policy establishment consider climate change a crucial national security concern. Excluding it aims at righting what Trump and his team see as an Obama-era error. The Obama administration’s 2015 NSS highlighted climate change as “an urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

Regardless of one’s views on climate change, there’s a rational argument for excluding it from a discussion on national security. That’s most notably because it waters down what we mean when we call something a national security threat.

Another criticism of the document is that it doesn’t refer specifically to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. To be sure, the document should have mentioned it. But the fact that it didn’t certainly doesn’t prove that Trump is in bed with the Russians or that he wants to go easy on them. After all, the document calls Russia a revisionist power and does refer to Russia’s attempt to interfere in the domestic politics of foreign countries, even if it didn’t name America specifically.

The most important — and most legitimate — criticism of the NSS is not so much a criticism of the document itself as of the disparity between its content and the opinions of President Trump so well-aired on Twitter. Spencer Ackerman at the Daily Beast called the NSS a piece of “fan fiction” from Trump’s aides that is totally out of line with his own personal views on national security.

Maybe Ackerman goes a little far calling it fan fiction, but he’s right that we really don’t know what Trump truly thinks, or what he’ll do with it. Maybe he agrees with everything in the NSS and will proceed accordingly. Maybe he agrees with it now but tomorrow he’ll tweet the opposite. Nevertheless, the president’s inconsistency doesn’t diminish the importance of acknowledging the dangers that Russia and China pose to the international order and the reality that peace, such that it is, can only be preserved through strength.