The term “America First” leaves a rancid taste in the mouths of many American and European elites. To them, the bumper sticker slogan President Donald Trump frequently employed during his campaign connotes a policy of ditching multilateral accords, poking allies in the eye when they don’t spend enough, and taking unilateral diplomatic and military action regardless of international opinion. For global leaders like Antonio Gutteres, the United Nations secretary general, “America First” is a way of sending the world a message: the United States will do what it wants, when it wants, however it serves its national interests—everyone else be damned.
Up until this week, defining an America First national security policy beyond that caricature had been relatively difficult. Although cabinet officials such as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis have delivered a fair number of speeches during the Trump administration’s first year in office. the White House has not explained the concept in much depth. The recently released National Security Strategy (NSS) mandated by Congress is meant to put some meat on the bones. Like the NSSs of previous presidencies, the 68-page report is a mixed bag, with good and bad elements to it.
The overall tenor of the document is almost Hobbesian. The NSS paints a picture of a world in black-and-white, a sometimes harsh and unforgiving place where nations compete with one another for a bigger piece of the global pie. China and Russia are branded as “revisionist powers” bent on the destruction of the international order that the U.S. and its European allies constructed from scratch after the bloodshed and mayhem of World War II. “China,” the report states, “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”
In the administration’s assessment, the rise of Beijing and Moscow as spoilers of the international system occurred in large measure because of Washington’s “complacency.” The U.S., the report alleges, grew too comfortable with the assumption that America’s competitors would subscribe to the rules that were written for them. This is no doubt a critique of the popular post-Cold War belief in foreign policy circles that democratic governance would catch on like wildfire and that the U.S. would remain the unchallenged superpower that determined how the international community would operate. Alas, authoritarian states proved far more competent, wily, and durable than American idealists gave them credit for—and Trump’s strategy is right to point it out.
Given the White House’s attempt to cut the State Department’s budget this year by approximately $10 billion, one would think that diplomacy would be at the bottom of the administration’s list of priorities. Leveraging America’s diplomatic power, however, is actually cited in the NSS as valuable to a strong and effective foreign policy. The report stresses that “Diplomacy is indispensable to identify and implement solutions to conflicts in unstable regions of the world short of military involvement.” This, of course, is one of the most obvious statements one can make. But it’s nevertheless important that the National Security Council put it into print, particularly during our present international crises (North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, for instance) that cannot be resolved through military might.
America’s allies and the international institutions in which it participates are also gently put on notice in the NSS. The foreign policy establishment will likely criticize these subtle warnings as tone-deaf, but encouraging partner nations to enhance their own involvement, embrace more responsibility for shared outcomes, and increase their own defense spending are lines that have been parroted by both Republican and Democratic administrations since the Cold War. There is nothing at all wrong with pressing the burden-sharing concept, especially where NATO is concerned. The transatlantic military alliance still heavily depends on the U.S. for its foundation (of the $915 billion NATO member states spent on national defense this year, the U.S. spent $616 billion—67 percent of NATO’s entire expenditure).
On the specific national security issues that dominate the Trump administration’s docket, the NSS is lacking in detail. Many of the policy proposals offered in the report are conventional ideas that any president would likely support. The North Korea nuclear issue is described as a global threat and a contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the nonproliferation regime. If the strategy is any guide, the White House intends to combat or manage this problem by reinforcing U.S. defense and intelligence relationships with South Korea and Japan, improving missile defenses in Northeast Asia, and retaining the military option should it be necessary. None of this is new.
The NSS doesn’t have much to say on Russia except a few complaints about its external behavior in Ukraine and its attempts to use intelligence subversion to interfere with democratic elections in Europe. On terrorism, President Trump picks up where George W. Bush and Barack Obama left off by treating it as a disease that can be cured rather than at best be managed. And if you were searching for a comprehensive policy on Iran, you will be sorely disappointed: the administration mostly just lists all the horrible things the ayatollahs have been doing. After all, it’s much easier to restate grievances than spell out ways to address them.
Overall, it’s highly unlikely that Trump’s first National Security Strategy will govern his administration’s behavior. The world has a nasty habit of turning problems into crises and crises into catastrophes on a moment’s notice. If and when Trump is woken up by a 3 a.m. phone call, he’s not going to run back to the Oval Office, rummage through his desk drawer for the NSS, and frantically see what it has to say.
Even so, the publication of the Trump White House’s first national security policy is the most detailed explanation we’ve yet seen as to what constitutes an America First foreign policy. Expect it to remain relevant up to and until an actual crisis strikes.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.