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Trump’s National Security ‘Strategy’ and the Great Powers

The Trump administration is unveiling [1] its National Security Strategy (NSS) today:

President Trump’s first national security strategy envisions a world in which the United States confronts two “revisionist” powers — China and Russia — that are seeking to change the global status quo, often to the detriment of America’s interests.

The administration has recently provided previews of the “strategy,” and we know enough that we can say that it offers no more of a strategy than Trump’s Iran speech did. If the Iran “strategy” was little more than a list of grievances against Tehran, the NSS itself seems to be a list of aspirations with no discussion of matching means and ends or setting priorities. The document may be somewhat useful as a reflection of the administration’s assumptions, but it is still unclear how much of it Trump actually accepts and how much influence it will have on what administration does in the future.

The NYT report suggests that Trump is very pleased with the document, and that is why he will be speaking about it later today:

The president, his aides said, enthusiastically approved the strategy and wanted to present it himself, something that his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, did not do when their congressionally mandated strategies were published.

Trump’s decision to present the “strategy” himself will presumably draw more attention to it and cause other governments to give the statement more weight than would have otherwise been the case. It will be more difficult for other governments to discount what the document says when Trump has identified himself so closely with it.

Framing relations with Russia and China in terms of zero-sum competition will make it more difficult to obtain their cooperation on a range of issues. Casting them as “revisionist powers” treats the other major powers mainly as adversaries to be thwarted, and that suggests that the administration is moving towards a needlessly antagonistic policy with both states. The wording from the document would seem to confirm that:

“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,” the document continues. “For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

If the administration is rethinking the wisdom of engagement with Russia and China and inclusion of them in international institutions and commerce, that seems to imply a desire to reverse course. If that’s right, this implies that the administration wants to emphasize confrontation and exclusion in its dealings with the other major powers, and it is hard to see how that leads to anything except a stronger partnership between Moscow and Beijing opposed to the U.S. The danger of this “strategy” is twofold: it likely increases tensions with both major powers in Eurasia at the same time, and it gives them added incentive for them to work together against the U.S.

Trump will probably refer to this “strategy” as the product of “principled realism,” but that won’t make it so. An administration conducting a realist foreign policy would not gratuitously call out the other major powers in the world when the U.S. needs their assistance on a number of international issues, and it would not pit them both against the U.S. at the same time. We didn’t really need more proof that Trump isn’t a realist, but this statement of the administration’s “strategy” gives us exactly that.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Trump’s National Security ‘Strategy’ and the Great Powers"

#1 Comment By Christian Chuba On December 18, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

How pitiful, what happened to the Trump that said ‘countries have a right to pursue their own interests’?

Now he is giving into the Neocon demand that all the nations of the earth are dogs that have to beg for crumbs at the table of the Almighty U.S.

BTW I always thought the phrase was ‘revanchist’ as in Russia is a ‘revanchist power’. I don’t know what a ‘revisionist’ is. Is this a McMaster term, he is the one with the book collection. Maybe they do mean ‘revisionist’. I’m not up on all of the Neocon lingo but I thought it was revanchist.

#2 Comment By Someone in the crowd On December 18, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

Christian Chuba: the word ‘revisionist’ here is not borrowed from the neocon lexicon, it is a standard term from IR (international relations) theory. There are status quo powers — those that act to preserve the existing order — and there are revisionist powers: those that seek to change it, or even up-end it.

Among other problems with the new Trump ‘strategy’ (Larison is right to put that in scare quotes), is the circumstance that it isn’t true. Russia and China are not the only revisionist powers acting in the world today, and it is questionable whether Russia belongs to that list at all.

Be that as it may, the foremost among global revisionist powers is obviously the United States itself, which has made no secret of its desire to remodel the world in its own liberal image. It is a desire the US frequently acts upon, including through use of its armed forces, including without UN or other legal authorization to do so.

Recently, even the usually staid and cautious voices of US academia have begun to openly acknowledge this obvious fact. (See, e.g., the March/April 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power:
Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China.”)

#3 Comment By Kent On December 18, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

“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,”

Did it turn the United States into a “benign actor and trustworthy partner”? Of course not.

However, China is far and away the world’s leading manufacturer and Russia has far and way the world’s most natural resources. We’re well past the point that we need them more than they need us. Let’s build policy around that.

#4 Comment By Jay C On December 18, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

As usual, it seems mainly that President Trump’s latest Big Foreign Policy Deal is designed for domestic consumption: a lot of Big Talk crafted to make Trump look “tough” for the Fox News audience, but woefully ill-crafted in terms of what goals might actually be accomplished by said BFPD. If his goal is to try to make the international trade and economic order more favorable to American “interests” – i.e. those based here who haven’t already exploited globalization – he’s certainly kept his plans well-hidden.

Oh, and as Christian noted above: what does he mean by “revisionist powers”?

#5 Comment By Strategery for Dummies On December 18, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

It’s a waste of time dignifying anything this jackass says with the word “strategy”.

The only “strategy” Trump has is to payoff and accommodate the Israeli and Saudi agents around him. Any mention of China or Russia is BS, because in reality neither he nor anyone around knows what they’re doing in that regard.

I’d really like to fast forward to the next election.

#6 Comment By Cynthia McLean On December 18, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

Expect a further build-up of the military industrial complex to bolster the US’s “Destiny” to rule the world.

#7 Comment By Seen It On December 18, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

His “national security strategy” apparently calls for letting Americans die in train wrecks because he prefers to build some stupid embassy in Jerusalem instead of properly funding Amtrak infrastructure.

China? Russia? Don’t make me laugh. All he cares about is keeping Sheldon Adelson happy.

This administration is a grim joke.

#8 Comment By Christian Chuba On December 18, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

Thank you Someone. I will now use the term ‘revisionist’ as if I learned it in Middle School.
Since we think we run the world, any attempt at self-determination is revisionist.

China is the ultimate conservative power. They have wracked up more abstentions at the UN security council than anyone. They are a bit tired of our navy dominate their trade route and oil supply, so I suppose that is revisionist. We do regular naval exercises at the Strait of Malacca where most of their oil flows.

In any case, this will definitely cement the bond that Russia and China have been forming. If there was ever any doubt about their common interest before it has been erased now.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 18, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

” . . . 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,” the document continues. “For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

I would be interested in knowing who made these premises. I am unfamiliar with them as polity.

#10 Comment By Someone in the crowd On December 18, 2017 @ 5:27 pm

You’re welcome, Christian. Your third sentence indicates that you get the picture exactly. It’s a great racket if you can get into it.

#11 Comment By Hexexis On December 18, 2017 @ 6:13 pm

“the foremost among global revisionist powers is obviously the United States itself, which has made no secret of its desire to remodel the world in its own liberal image.”

Safe to say US of A has had no national security strategy since 1991; unless of course being adversarial, bellicose & acting on impulse is strategy. NATO expansion, abrogation of disarmament treaties, & pursuit of the fantasy missile defense mark our nation merely as a global thorn in the side.

That any so-called Trump policy or strategy differs from that of his, ah-hem!, predecessors is only a miracle of media propaganda.

#12 Comment By Crocodile Chuck On December 18, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

What happened to The Wall?

#13 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 18, 2017 @ 7:44 pm

“Framing relations with Russia and China in terms of zero-sum competition will make it more difficult to obtain their cooperation on a range of issues.”

But Trump, Faux talking heads, and much of his base see all of life in these simplistic terms. Basic arithmetic tells them it is true, and any calculations beyond 10th grade are just progressive condescension and sneering at real ‘Muruicans.

MAGA!

#14 Comment By Jampacked On December 18, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

@Crocodile Chuck : “What happened to The Wall?”

Trump and the GOP Congress decided we couldn’t afford The Wall. They had already committed to giving Israel 40 billion and didn’t have 15 billion left for The Wall. America Second again, in other words.

#15 Comment By Dan Green On December 19, 2017 @ 8:34 am

I am a confirmed Realist and study geopolitical Realism. Reality is both Russia and China have no interest in our running the world as we see it. Notice our term Democracy has never caught on with either adversary.

#16 Comment By b. On December 19, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

Trump: countries have a right to pursue their own interests.

Bush: but only if they do so ineffectually.

I have to give credit to the Democratic Party: whereas the GOP settled on blowjobs and birth certificates in the mistaken assumption that they were dealing with “transformative presidencies”, the ‘crats read the “bipartisan elite establishment consensus” right and co-opted both the deep statists and the “rank” part of the GOP rank-and-file in a successful move to prevent Trump from any kind of substantial change – for the better, anyway – in US-Russia relations.

I am beginning to think that the only real concern the US elites had with Trump was the possibility that he could consider his very own version of “Nixon Goes To China”.

It certainly would be a realistic appraisal of any “great power” boardgame – while Russia is in many ways a natural ally for Europe and even the West at large, Russia’s relationship with China will be challenging at some points throughout the next century even if everybody involved acted in good faith at all times. It is certainly indicative of US arrogance and folly to believe that the USA could outlast both of these nations, as well as the world that would result from their collapse.

But then, Trump is no Nixon, and today’s plumbers are more likely to break into his offices to deep-throat the Post once more.