The law requires that every administration produce a “national security strategy” that will serve as a blueprint for how to respond to challenges to U.S. global leadership. The Trump administration published its version last week. As such, it is an interesting document because it marks the first time this administration has formally articulated its perceptions and priorities.
The actual document (68 pages) was largely written by senior members of the National Security Council staff working for the national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster. The author faced a daunting challenge — how to produce a lucid, thoughtful statement of U.S. strategy that would withstand critical scrutiny from experts — while taking into account the incoherencies of President Trump’s “America First” bombast. The report solves the problem of what to do about some of the most glaring irrationalities of the Trump agenda — withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — by ignoring them altogether.
The actual rollout of the report was done by the President, himself. Not surprisingly, this got things off to a bizarre start. Mr. Trump’s speech barely referenced the actual document and instead careened off into another campaign broadside. The strong suspicion is that the President has not read his own strategy and has only the foggiest idea what it says. This generates an obvious question: should anyone take this report seriously? The answer is almost certainly, yes. Even if the President doesn’t know what is in it, the leaders of his national security team (Gen. McMaster, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson and the heads of the Intelligence agencies) do know its contents and have endorsed them. The same is true of the heads of key economic entities including the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative.
The single most prominent theme of the report is the return to an international era of great power competition more akin to the Cold War than to the last 25 years. The report labels China and Russia as “revisionist powers” determined to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests … China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” Clear enough; but where Russia is concerned Trump immediately muddied the waters in his remarks when, instead of echoing the report’s bleak assessment of Russia, he lavished praise on Putin for his response to U.S. counterterrorist intelligence provided to Moscow. For any observer it is clear that what the report says about Russia and what the President believes are in almost total contradiction. What this will mean for U.S. foreign policy regarding Russia is anyone’s guess. As long as we have a President who acts for all the world like a paid agent of the Kremlin, nothing is certain.
The picture is a good deal clearer when it comes to China. The report notes, correctly, that U.S. security strategy in recent decades has been based on a hopeful premise that China would become more open, peaceful and democratic as it developed and became integrated into the global economy. But instead China has taken the opposite path — more authoritarian at home and more aggressive in the South China Sea and in its predatory economic behavior. The United States can “no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression.” The report does go on to portray China as undermining U.S. security by stealing U.S. technology and “investing in key industries, sensitive technologies and infrastructure” in the United States, Europe and beyond. The report even suggests that students from “designated countries” should be prevented from studying science, technology, engineering and math at American universities.
The report comes out at a time when China’s efforts to expand its influence and political reach outside China have reached a new and troubling level. Australia has been roiled by a series of news stories detailing a campaign of bribes and intimidation intended to shape public perceptions of China. Chinese students in Australia have been pressured to act as propagandists for the Chinese Communist Party. A legislator had to resign when it became known he was on Beijing’s payroll. China’s attempts to buy up major sectors of the Australian economy, including companies working with advanced technologies, has generated a government effort to police and block such acquisitions.
In this country, we have already had one senator, Steve Daines (R-Montana), appear to some to be inordinately responsive to Chinese interests. Recently, several prestigious academic institutions, including my alma mater, the School of Advanced International Studies (Johns Hopkins), have receive unwanted publicity for accepting Chinese money (traceable back to the Communist Party) to fund professorships and research programs regarding — China.
As it stands the new national security strategy is more a statement of attitudes and perceptions than a real strategy. The actual strategy will come, if it does, from the agency bureaucracies that actually produce and implement policy. But all of these officials will labor under a huge handicap imposed by the willful, mindless unilateralism of this White House. In an era when American influence has been built on a vast network of friends, partners and allies around the world, the White House has systematically irritated and offended those same countries. The latest example occurred in the last few days when the UN General Assembly convened to vote on whether the United States should rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The US ambassador to the UN announced that we would “take names” of countries that dared to support the resolution. Guess what happened. Out of 172 countries, nine voted with the United States (including the United States and Israel and some South Pacific micro-states) with 35 abstentions. That’s a lot of names to take.