The Contested Global Landscape in Trump’s New Security Strategy

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By Jamie Fly

There is much in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy worthy of praise. Yet, the strategy has some significant problems. The administration has been plagued by disconnects between the White House and cabinet members, among cabinet members, and most frequently, between the president and everyone else. This document will not address that fundamental problem and may raise more questions about how the actual policies of this administration relate to its rhetoric. 

Is the Trump administration a defender of the post-1945 order that the United States helped create or is it a disruptor of an order that the document at times implies has gone horribly astray? Is China a strategic competitor or an essential partner aiding the United States on North Korea, as the president has claimed? Is Russia a revisionist power as the document states, or a prospective partner in resolving global challenges, as President Trump highlighted in his remarks unveiling the strategy?

Unlike its immediate predecessor, this administration is unrestrained when describing the global landscape. China and Russia are correctly described as challengers to “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” North Korea and Iran are noted not as negotiating partners, but as “dictatorships” that “are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.” The strategy highlights the importance of renewing our military strength after the damage imposed by sequestration.

This moral clarity about the challenges that the United States faces is welcome and long overdue after eight years of an administration that so often blurred the line between prospective partner and enemy and failed to consistently advocate for increased spending on defense. 

On alliances, the strategy is mixed. It notes the importance of allies but also emphasizes the need for greater burden-sharing. While highlighting the progress of many NATO Allies toward the agreed defense spending target of 2 percent, the rhetoric in this strategy and the president’s recent insinuations that U.S. defense commitments are tied to budget toplines is likely to make it more difficult for some allied governments to increase spending and could play into Russian propaganda about a fading U.S. commitment to the defense of the allies.

More importantly though, the greatest challenge for allies under this “America First” vision is what they are being asked to sign up to. The strategy describes a contested global landscape, but given its emphasis on “American values” instead of universal values, beyond bandwagoning to advance their direct security interests, what is the cause the Trump administration expects will inspire America’s allies in the coming decades? On this key question, the strategy is silent. Its “principled realism,” which echoes themes advocated at times by the Obama administration, runs the risk of alienating allies at a time when they are more than ready for America to emerge from almost a decade of “nation-building at home.”

The strategy may lead some U.S. allies to conclude that President Trump represents continuity rather than disruption, a conclusion that will no doubt be welcomed in Moscow and Beijing as they seek to exploit growing doubt about American leadership across an increasingly complicated global landscape.

(The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.)