President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy, or NSS, is a dangerous document. If followed by the administration over the next three years, it will almost surely continue America’s arrogant ways of the past 30 years, destabilize major regions of the world, create hostilities where none need exist, and increase the chances of unnecessary U.S. wars, particularly against Iran.
The most striking characteristic of the document is the extent to which it merely nibbles around the edges of the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. So much for Trump’s grandiose rhetoric heralding a new era in American foreign policy. In fact, there are echoes in the language that go back to one of the most unfortunate doctrines of the past quarter century: the idea that America must prevent any other nation from becoming a dominant power in any region, thus bolstering our goal of global hegemony. That impulse helped generate the Iraq war, the unraveling of the U.S.-Russian relationship, and the tensions with Iran under Bush II.
This concept goes back to a 1992 Defense Planning Guidance report crafted during the H. W. Bush administration by men who later became the architects of America’s Iraq invasion during the George W. Bush years (we may call them the “Unwise Men”). That document posited that America “should maintain the mechanisms [euphemism for military power] for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” This consigned America to a mindset of eternal vigilance everywhere in the world on behalf of a global dominance that turned out to be costly and messy.
Now consider this language from Trump’s NSS: “We will compete with all tools of national power [no euphemism there] to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” Except, of course, American power. This comes straight from the thinking of the Unwise Men. In other words, on this highly important doctrinal matter, Trump differs not at all from the thinking that began the post-9/11 American global project.
Consider also the NSS’s attitude toward Russia, a continuation of the anti-Russian mood that has captured the American establishment in recent years. “Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.” Yikes! In other words, it is behaving like every other nation in the history of the world, including the United States, which sought to establish spheres of influence near its own borders with the Monroe Doctrine, yanked strategic territory from Mexico through force of arms, kicked Spain out of the Caribbean through similar means, and hazarded a nuclear war with the Soviet Union rather than let the USSR install nuclear missiles in Cuba.
States the NSS: “Russia views…NATO and European Union (EU) as threats.” Well, yeah. NATO has pushed right up to the Russian border, has interfered in the internal affairs of nations on the Russian periphery that traditionally have been part of its sphere of influence, has sought to sever Russia from one of its most strategic naval harbors, and has threatened to upend the balance of power in the region through provocative placement of antimissile technology.
Trump, of course, campaigned—and presumably won the presidency in part—on the idea that this provocative Western push eastward had contributed to U.S.-Russian tensions and should be reversed in the interest of a more productive relationship. It appears now that the Mueller investigation has given him a sharp pull on his choke chain, which has generated a certain docility on his leash.
No such change of heart characterizes Trump’s stated views on Iran, which the document identifies as part of “the scourge of the world…a small group of rogue regimes that violate all principles of free and civilized states.” This is the kind of language that precludes any rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the New York Times recently noted in a piece of extensive reporting that Trump had generated in Iran a tight unity of patriotic fervor born of the president’s bellicose rhetoric.
That rhetoric toward Iran—in another passage he calls it a “malign influence”—betrays a marked resemblance to the rhetoric of George W. Bush in advance of his “preventive” invasion of Iraq (recall his ill-advised “axis of evil” pronouncement).
An intriguing passage in the document, which may shed light on Trump’s underlying thinking on the Middle East, notes that “[s]ome of our partners are working together to reject radical ideologies, and key leaders are calling for a rejection of Islamist extremism and violence.” He seems to be referring to the budding alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of which have agitated for a U.S. effort to undercut the influence of Iran over the region. Today, says the president, the twin threats of jihadism and Iran “are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems.” Indeed, he notes that states in the region “have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.”
Rather cryptic, to be sure, but the implication is clear. The United States stands with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which stand together in their hostility toward Iran. This is a marked departure from the policy of Obama, who developed a wariness toward both Israel and Saudi Arabia as he pursued the landmark Iran nuclear deal. Trump has essentially pulled America out of that deal as he’s heightened his anti-Iran rhetoric. This is a dangerous game.
On China, Trump says the rising Middle Kingdom “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.” This is true, and the United States will eventually have to decide whether it will allow itself to be displaced in the Pacific, which it has dominated since World War II. This is a profound question of geopolitical consequence, perhaps the most ominous matter unsettling the world today. When rising powers challenge traditional powers in crucial strategic regions, as Sparta did Athens or Germany did Britain, one of three things happens: the rising power backs off, the traditional power acquiesces, or there is war.
This is a question America is going to face relatively soon, and Trump is correct to identify it in all its stark implications. But that’s all the more reason for the United States to come to terms with Russia, a traditional adversary of China’s, strategically located on China’s border, and positioned to be a significant U.S. ally in any future hostilities with China. Alas, Trump’s document evinces no appreciation for this fundamental geopolitical reality. Indeed, it maintains the foolhardy resolve of the past two administrations to stare down all regional powers of consequence everywhere in the world. If America finds itself in a hostile standoff with China in East Asia, as seems likely if not inevitable, it won’t be able to afford that faulty and debilitating concept.
On Europe, Trump has backed away from his campaign pronouncement that NATO had become “obsolete.” That implied a fundamentally new policy for the Atlantic Alliance. Now he simply wants members to spend more on defense, and he touts NATO’s traditional role of countering the perceived threat from Russia. So much for any significant change in outlook to reflect the new post-Cold War realities.
Another concept that seems to underlie Trump’s geopolitical outlook is the familiar canard about preventing Middle Eastern countries from becoming “safe havens” for jihadists. This is what keeps the United States in Afghanistan, with the new addition of Trump’s additional 4,000 troops (after he campaigned on getting America out of that ongoing conflict).
The document also contains hints of the hoary notion that remaking other nations in our image will advance global stability and U.S. security. Trump vows to “advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.” This is babble. The world isn’t going to support American interests because the world is made up of nation states with their own interests. And the world isn’t going to reflect U.S. values because those nation states are all products of other civilizations with their own hallowed values. This is the kind of soft-headedness that contributed to the foreign policy disasters of the George W. Bush administration.
The NSS document contains wisdom in only two areas: immigration and trade. “Strengthening control over our borders and immigration system is central to national security, economic prosperity, and the rule of law,” says Trump, adding that he remains resolved to “reform” the current “randomized entry and extended-family chain migration.” An estimable goal. And there is merit in his determination to adopt a new trade regimen based on bilateral relations and investment agreements “with countries that commit to fair and reciprocal trade.” The old system of multilateral agreements has become a spawning ground for unfair practices on the part of many U.S. trading partners—particularly China—that slammed American workers.
But generally this National Security Strategy does little to pull America away from the impulses and concepts that have guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The global hegemonic ambition, the interference with Russia in its own neighborhood, the NATO push eastward, the bellicosity toward Iran and ambition to remake the Middle East, the ongoing U.S. military footprint in that region, the ongoing Afghan adventure, the embrace of Israeli and Saudi regional ambitions, the commitment to the obsolete NATO mission—all emerge as pillars of the Trump foreign policy, just as they have been pillars of U.S. policy since 9/11. Trump has been coopted—if indeed he ever possessed any serious intention of changing America’s direction in the world.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist, author, and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in November.