A National Security Strategy is less a plan of action than an attempt to prioritize. Who, in the president’s judgment, most threatens America? What means do we have and what capabilities must we develop to defend the homeland and protect our freedoms?
President Obama issued his last National Security Strategy (NSS) in 2015. It struck me then as an odd document and, in retrospect, it seems odder still. Regarding the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, it offered such boilerplate as: “Our commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is rooted in the profound risks posed by North Korean weapons development and proliferation.”
In the end, of course, Mr. Obama did nothing as the threat metastasized. North Korea may now have as many as 60 nuclear weapons.
The 2015 NSS also asserted: “We have made clear Iran must meet its international obligations and demonstrate its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei no doubt found that amusing.
Though well into his second term, Mr. Obama couldn’t resist the temptation to criticize his predecessor: “We must always resist the overreach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear. Moreover, we must recognize that a smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power.” There also were such platitudes as: “A strong consensus endures across our political spectrum that the question is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead into the future.”
Last week, President Trump delivered his National Security Strategy, an attempt 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.”
It begins to address “an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats that have intensified in recent years.” The phrase used to capsulize the new approach is “principled realism,” which is to be guided “by outcomes, not ideology.”
In my judgment, it’s a coherent, clear-eyed, and comprehensive document, one that falls well within the conservative tradition, recognizing the importance of maintaining an American-led liberal capitalist world order.
Yes, America’s national interest comes first but that does not preclude a global perspective as some feared based on the use of “America First,” a phrase harkening back to the isolationists of the late 1930s. The Trump NSS declares: “A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations.”
America’s sovereignty is not to be surrendered — not to the U.N. or other transnational organizations dominated by despotic regimes. “America’s values” — not “universal values,” because, truthfully, there’s no such thing — should be regarded as forces that “make the world more free, secure, and prosperous.”
Comforting as it might be to think we live in a global village, in reality we are surrounded by an encroaching global jungle where only the fittest survive. Our goal, therefore, must be to strengthen America, economically and militarily; to “overmatch” any adversary or combination of adversaries, “to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.”
Military power and diplomacy are not in conflict but rather mutually reinforcing: “Overmatch strengthens our diplomacy and permits us to shape the international environment to protect our interests.”
Adversaries are not friends whose legitimate grievances we’ve failed to address. They need to be persuaded that “they cannot accomplish objectives through the use of force or other forms of aggression.” That requires substantial financial investments which, in turn, requires increased “economic prosperity” which should be seen “as a pillar of national security.”
A dynamic economy also provides us with more effective economic weapons. That, too, gives diplomats a better hand to play and, sometimes, may allow us to prevail without resorting to kinetic means.
President Trump’s NSS identifies North Korean and Iran as “rogue regimes.” The former “seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons.” The latter “supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction.”
Russia and China are “revisionist powers” that intend “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” And then there is the “long war” we have to fight against transnational jihadi groups and the criminal syndicates with whom they’ve been making common cause.
A National Security Strategy, no matter how well thought-out, is only a blueprint. Policies and “priority actions” need to be implemented to be useful. “Peace through strength” doesn’t come cheap.
Almost a year into Mr. Trump’s first term, the military remains underresourced and too many key national security positions remain unfilled. Others are occupied by bureaucrats who have no intention of furthering this White House’s agenda. Perhaps most astonishingly, there remain many holdovers from the previous administration who are undermining policies they disfavor.
All that and more should be dealt with early in the New Year. For now, it’s sufficient to get the new administration’s priorities and broad policy principles down on paper, to better understand the world according to Mr. Trump and his national security advisers — a seasoned, pragmatic team led this year by H.R. McMaster, Nadia Schadlow and Dina Powell.
Unlike Mr. Obama, who believed the arc of history bends toward justice, the current occupant of the White House believes history’s arc will be bent toward tyranny by America’s enemies — unless we grab it firmly and bend it ourselves.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.