by Victor Davis Hanson
December 26, 2017
Presidential administrations by law must publish strategic manifestoes.
Indeed, the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of October 4, 1986 required every subsequent government to issue periodic and formal national strategic strategy blueprints.
Most of these documents dating from the Reagan Administration are blah-blah boilerplate announcements of the obvious.
They offer platitudinous promises of a sober internationalist United States leading the world in promoting global institutions while using its preeminent strength to partner with allies to counter perceived rising threats, such as rogue nations or terrorism. And so on.
But to be frank, it is unlike most all prior manifestoes. The contrast with the 2015 Obama doctrine (his last, there was none in 2016) is stunning—the disconnect emblematic in its unabashed preamble that “This National Security Strategy puts America first.”
The Obama Administration doctrine’s emphases on global institutions and liberal values also marked a clear departure from past norms.
It tended to redefine existential dangers not so much as hostile military powers, but rather as global natural threats (e.g., global warming, AIDS, and Ebola) and innate human prejudices (demeaning the Other, and biases against minority and LGBT communities).
In Obama’s 2015 document, the words “jihad” or “jihadism” never appear (it pops up nearly 30 times in the twice-as-long Trump outline), but “violent extremism” showed up often in the widest sense of “root causes” and “home-grown” varieties.
The theme of the Trump document is American restoration. In Reaganesque fashion, the administration sees itself as similarly overturning an era of strategic stagnation, analogous to the self-doubt, self-imposed sense of decline, and thematic malaise of the Carter era.
Instead, the “strategic confidence” and “principled realism” of the Trump Administration will purportedly snap America back out its Obama recessional in the same manner that Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.
If the United States is not strong, then the world order will weaken:
“America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world. A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations.”
The document gives short shrift to the idea of a utopian global community of fellow nations seeking to follow similar progressive agendas. The United Nations is mentioned briefly in passing just twice.
Instead, there is a Manichean subtext that the beleaguered Western-inspired world is, and will always be, under assault by its antitheses.
The proverbial free world cannot survive such an existential struggle if a United States—plagued by self-doubt and hollowed out economically and spiritually—proves wanting.
Yet the Trump national security strategy—likely the work mostly of H. R. McMaster and his deputies Nadia Schadlow and Dina Powell—is just as antithetical to the 2002 George W. Bush vision that called for preemptive measures to stop regimes that posed threats on the horizon to the U.S. world order.
And the Trump doctrine says little or nothing about nation-building or seeking to remake the world in the image of a consensual, free-market democracy like the United States, which then would spend blood and treasure in liberating the unfree and poor, and thereby lessening world tensions.
Strategic Confidence, Principled Realism, and Hard-Power
Neither soft-power globalists nor nation-building interventionists will like this hybrid manifesto of hard-power restrained only by careful calibration of what is perceived to be in America’s national interest.
Trumpism here is pitched in realistic but not cynical terms. The United States cannot partner with, or lead, anyone if it is not preeminently strong—strength being defined as economic robustness, military wherewithal, strategic confidence, and spiritual renewal.
There is neither a notion here of strategic patience and lead-from-behind hesitance nor of taking out a strongman in a Libyan-style optional attack.
American “don’t-tread on-me” strength that alone deters bad actors can only originate at home. But it is hardly preordained that America will always remain the preeminent power on the planet. Rather, exceptional strength rests first on protecting the homeland.
Here the Trump administration is not shy about doubling down on its efforts to secure borders and to recalibrate a sane immigration policy to preclude terrorists from failed states of the Middle East entering the United States.
Legal and measured immigration is obviously also seen as helpful to U.S. economic recovery and the rule of law.
Much of the doctrine, also unlike most previous documents, focuses on economic robustness, defined as a restoration of American industrial growth emanating from not just free, but fair trade, rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, creating jobs, and barreling ahead with fossil fuel production.
The latter gains prominence not just as a source of wealth, but also as a guarantee of American independence from energy producers in unfriendly regions of the globe.
Trade deals, military sales, and two-way-street strategic alliances are factored into rebuilding American strength in a manner, again, never quite so explicitly delineated before in national security blueprints.
China is the obvious beneficiary when the United States has boxed itself into agreements that retard economic growth and thus require military retrenchment.
There is none of the frequent American shyness in understating our enormous influence in the world. Yet the Jacksonianism of the Trump doctrine is not bluster, rather it is confidence couched in fear of losing what we are—with eleventh-hour warnings to snap out of our lethargy and re-enter the great game of global competition.
The doctrine unapologetically promises to restore both the quality and quantity of American weaponry, conventional and nuclear, and to increase the numbers of U.S. military personnel.
How such huge new military outlays will be possible in an age of tax cuts, infrastructure investments, and an existing $20 trillion in debt is not spelled out in detail, but apparently assumed in supply-side visions of radically increased economic growth. Good luck with that calculus.
From those three foundations—securing the homeland, renewing economic vitality, and beefing-up the armed forces—supposedly Trump’s America can once again exercise real global leadership, implicitly defined by helping our similarly minded allies and deterring or indeed hurting our enemies.
Another way of appreciating the radical departure from the foreign policy of 2009-16 is to appreciate what is not in the Trump Doctrine.
The 2015 Obama document focused on climate change (e.g., “and the ground-breaking commitment we made with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”).
In contrast, the Trump Doctrine makes not a single mention of “climate change.” Instead, the document pledges U.S. leadership to counter “an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests.”
“Given future global energy demand, much of the developing world will require fossil fuels, as well as other forms of energy, to power their economies and lift their people out of poverty. The United States will continue to advance an approach that balances energy security, economic development, and environmental protection. The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while expanding its economy.”
Translated, that means fracking, the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, and new drilling on federal lands will enrich the U.S., weaken energy exporting rivals like Iran and Russia, and free up American strategic options from dependence on foreign energy sources. It assumes without comment that American energy producers are the most environmentally sensitive in the world.
The Obama document was a progressive American manifesto that reflected an assumed globalist consensus. In such a worldview, the real threats were again protectionism rather than asymmetrical partnerships like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), insensitivities toward the LGBT community, a warming planet, and race/class/gender oppression.
The Trump document does not assume a shared global agenda worth emulating.
And while it is not an illiberal document, the 2017 national security strategy assumes that Thucydidean fear, honor, and perceived self-interest will always drive rival powers to dethrone the postwar order of consensual government, consumer capitalism, and individual liberty that are protected not by the United Nations, but only by the United States and its loyal allies of like mind:
“We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States. When America does lead, however, from a position of strength and confidence and in accordance with our interests and values, all benefit.”
Assuaging Americans’ Fears
In sum, the Trump NSS takes a tragic rather than therapeutic view of human nature, and assumes that all nations gravitate to powerful states with principles, and retract from weaker and bullying powers.
The ultimate purpose of all strategy is to advance a nation’s self-interest in the broadest military, social, and economic sense, which ultimately translates into first keeping it safe.
If you were to ask average Americans what scares them the most in today’s frightening world, they might likely answer that open borders allow almost anyone to enter the United States without audit.
An unhinged North Korea could soon send a nuclear bomb into an American city. Cyber-attacks might wipe out everyone’s computer data. A rising China seems poised to displace the United States as the world’s economic leader. And relentless terrorists could pull off another 9/11-like attack.
The Trump Administration seeks to reassure Americans by offering answers to those fears.
It will secure the borders of the United States.
It will treat cyber warfare like age-old conflict and thus seek to deter and to punish with like attacks any would be cyber enemies.
It will build a reliable missile defense system and recalibrate our strategic nuclear arsenal.
It will redefine trade and economic policy to maintain American financial and industrial preeminence.
And it will take the gloves off in retaliating against jihadists abroad.
What will Trump’s army of critics, here and abroad, make of the document? No doubt, they will see it as a relic of big power rivalries, ignorant of real threats such as unsustainable Western consumerism and industrialism, and without allegiance to global values of diversity and tolerance. Trump, in their view, does not get it that the insidious dangers to the world are Westernized lifestyles that heat the planet while seeing problems through exclusively Western lenses.
How might the Trump national security architects reply to that criticism?
That before one can spread such values to the world and encourage ecumenical ecology and morality, one first must stop savages like ISIS from incinerating the innocent, keep Portland safe from an incoming North Korean missile, ensure that Iran does not get a bomb, and prevent oil from being a weapon of our enemies, China from bullying its neighbors into a Pan-Asian alliance aimed at the United States, and the next generation of Mohamed Attas from entering the United States.
The 2017 NSS first sees the world as it is rather than as it should be someday—a realism without which there can be no idealism.