December 18, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: The Old-is-New U.S. National Security Strategy

The new National Security Strategy to be unveiled today by President Donald Trump embodies essentially the same four core national interests proclaimed by previous administrations, though with vital differences as to how these interests are meant to be achieved.

• On December 18, President Trump will unveil the new U.S. National Security Strategy, which serves as a quasi-mission statement for coming years.

• In a preview on December 12, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said the new strategy would rely on ‘peace through strength’ with ‘a big emphasis on competitive engagement across … arenas of competition.’

• McMaster also referred to China and Russia as ‘revisionist powers’ seeking to upend the world order established in large part by Washington after the Second World War, even as the Trump administration is moving away from that architectural world order.

• As with other aspects of the current administration, there is a worrisome disconnect between much of the career staff in the national security and foreign affairs communities and the White House.


The new National Security Strategy to be unveiled today by President Donald Trump embodies essentially the same four core national interests proclaimed by previous administrations, though with vital differences as to how these interests are meant to be achieved. As previewed by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster on December 12, the core interests are: the protection of the American people; the advancement of American prosperity; the advancement of American influence; and peace through strength. While prior U.S. administrations have offered variations on these themes, the Trump administration has made a sharp break from 70 years of multilateral diplomacy, embarking on a more transactional foreign policy, in which alliances and pacts are viewed as ‘deals’ with winners and losers. Adding to the uncertainty of how the administration’s strategy will be pursued is the unprecedented politicization of foreign affairs and national security by the White House, which routinely contradicts and even belittles Cabinet-level officials and policies.

The new strategy lists Russia and China as ‘revisionist powers’ that are working to upend the world order established at the end of World War Two. As its prime creator and leader, the U.S. has greatly benefitted from that order, which provided a policy framework for Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Regardless of those precedents, the Trump administration believes long-standing agreements and policies enacted in that framework disfavored the U.S. by favoring other nation’s economic interests. The White House has not provided evidence of that claim, which runs counter to sound analysis that accounts for the benefits decades of global security and stability brought to billions, particularly in the U.S., Europe and much of Asia.

The new strategy also targets Russia’s ‘new generation warfare,’ in reference to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia waged a systemic, focused campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. elections. That is at direct odds with President Trump’s repeated public dismissals of all evidence of Russian interference as ‘fake news’ and investigations that show the scope of the interference and suggest possible countermeasures to prevent it as ‘witch hunts.’ It is unclear, given the President’s reluctance to implement existing sanctions against Russia—passed with overwhelming bipartisan support—if the new National Security Strategy will result in any change in current policy. The strategy also speaks of Chinese ‘economic aggression’, a stance which fits then-candidate Trump’s comments during the 2016 election but not his statements regarding Beijing since taking office.

McMaster’s influence on the strategy is clear as it relates to Russia and China. The national security advisor has consistently viewed both countries as offering serious challenges to U.S. security that must be met with diplomatic tools on a par with military deterrence, including alliances, technology, education and economic power. However, when it comes to the administration’s views of Turkey and Qatar, the influence of what can be termed the Kushner bloc—alluding to the President’s influential advisor, son-in-law Jared Kushner—is evident. McMaster has tagged both nations as key sources of funding for the spread of extremist Islamic ideology. It’s a view that runs counter to both the State Department and the Pentagon, but is in line in line with the Kushner influence that has aligned the White House closely with Saudi Arabia at a time—not by coincidence—of unprecedented instability and tension in the Gulf region. That realignment can also be seen is the administration’s deepening involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen, with the White House now saying it will support Saudi plans to ‘escalate in order to de-escalate.’

Along with the ‘revisionist powers,’ the strategy rightfully focuses on ‘rogue states’ such as North Korea and Iran. The Trump administration has made countering North Korea’s nuclear program a top priority, though it has ruled out deterrence as an option, regardless of the fact that North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons. To date, there still is no permanent U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, a sign of how little faith the administration puts in diplomacy as a tool for managing this very serious challenge. Regarding Iran, which the Trump administration sees as perhaps its greatest regional threat, the White House seeks to undo the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that froze Tehran’s nuclear program, while beating back what it and others perceive as a growing arc of Iranian interference in the Middle East.

U.S. ability to use diplomacy to influence and persuade other nations is at its modern-day nadir, with many important ambassadorships and diplomatic postings deliberately left unfilled. The Trump Administration has been open in its disdain for the day-to-day diplomacy required to address serious multilateral crises. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. can achieve progress on these policy goals. By insisting that allies that share common goals and values should pay for U.S. support, while withdrawing from global challenges that require cooperative diplomacy, the White House seeks not to move boldly into the future but to cling to a past that no longer exists.

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