BY Salman Ahmed and Jake Sullivan
The Washington Post
The Trump administration’s recently released national security strategy contains more consistency with predecessors than both its critics and its champions might have expected. It also departs significantly, however, in ways that raise serious questions about the future of U.S. global leadership.
Like the 16 national security strategies that preceded it, this strategy rests on the belief that the United States must defend its homeland first but also contribute to the security of allies and partners; that it must promote American prosperity first but also broader prosperity in an integrated, open economy; and that it must defend America’s way of life but universal values, too. In other words, yes, “America First,” but others’ interests, too.
In reality, every U.S. president has put America’s interests first. But they chose not to lead with that as their rhetorical slogan or conceptual framework for engagement abroad, because the rest of the world does not follow the United States’ lead to advance American interests; they do so to advance their own. That’s why U.S. presidents have taken pains to stress how the United States can work with allies and partners to uphold an international system that advances mutual interests, prevents another Great Depression, and averts a World War III. President Ronald Reagan’s quote on the cover of his first national security strategy captured this well: “Freedom, peace and prosperity. . .that’s what America is all about. . .for ourselves, our friends, and those people across the globe struggling for democracy.”
The drafters of Donald Trump’s national security strategy had the unenviable task of keeping faith with that sentiment while employing America First as the organizing principle for this document. They seem to have reconciled the dilemma by putting into their own words much of what others before them were saying and labeling it America First.
That said, this document departs in substance from those preceding it in at least three important ways.
First, it calls out Russia and China as revisionist powers seeking to challenge U.S. primacy. President Barack Obama’s last strategy addressed the challenge posed to U.S. leadership by Russia and China, but it studiously differentiated between them and, especially with respect to China, addressed more subtly how to balance, cooperate, and compete simultaneously. Trump’s strategy lumps Russia and China together, largely dispenses with the subtleties, and elevates geostrategic rivalry with both these countries as a defining feature of U.S. strategy going forward.
The United States, under any president, was going to have to make some strategic adjustments commensurate with the increased competitive challenges it now faces from both countries.
However, the rhetoric Trump’s strategy employs gives the impression of a much more pronounced shift from the previous administration than actually may be the case. It risks pushing Russia and China closer together, which prior Democratic and Republican administrations sought consciously to avoid. This could end up unnecessarily complicating efforts to cooperate with China, in particular, when it’s in U.S. interests to do so. And it does not address how the United States will pay for what could end up becoming a very costly, long-term rivalry while also rebuilding at home, passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut, and managing long-term fiscal challenges.
The strategy places economic competition at the heart of this global strategic rivalry with China. As expected, it signals an intention to respond more forcefully to China’s unfair trading practices, which prior U.S. presidents also decried but arguably did not do enough to push back against. However, in contrast to the Obama administration, which saw the conclusion of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an important tool to manage China’s rise and assert American leadership in Asia, Trump’s document offers no regional economic strategy and relies almost exclusively on a bilateral approach that abandons the additional leverage that comes from setting the rules of a club that everyone wants to join.