President Trump spoke about dealing with Russia and China during a speech Dec. 18 in D.C., saying “We will stand up … like we have never stood up before.”

December 18, 2017

President Trump placed himself at the center of a new national security strategy Monday, casting his election as a pivot from failed policies pushed by his predecessors and presenting his “America First” doctrine as the organizing principle for U.S. engagement around the world.

In a year-end, campaign-style speech, the president emphasized his view that the United States has been cheated and taken advantage of abroad while its citizens were ill-served at home — a situation he said his security plan would seek to reverse.

“For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another; too many of our leaders — so many — who forgot whose voices they were to respect, and whose interest they were supposed to defend,” Trump said at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, before an audience that included Cabinet secretaries, government workers and uniformed members of the military.

The National Security Strategy, a congressionally mandated mission statement, is supposed to guide an administration’s priorities for global engagement, economic bargaining and demonstrations of military strength.

While it is viewed as an important policy document, its release is usually a low-key affair and Trump is believed to be the only U.S. president to present the plan with a speech, an aide said. At times Monday, Trump seemed as intent on revisiting his electoral victory as he was on defining a new national security strategy for the country.

“You spoke loud and you spoke clear,” Trump said of his upset election last year. “On November 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again. You embraced new leadership and very new strategies and also a glorious new hope.”

President Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a break at a leader’s meeting at the 25th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11. (S/Kreml/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/S/Kreml/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

Trump, as he did during the campaign, declared the United States must push for better trade deals to remain strong when it comes to national security. “Economic security is national security,” he said. “Economic vitality, growth and prosperity at home is absolutely necessary for American power and influence abroad.”

Yet many of the trade tactics he has advocated could end up hurting the U.S. economy.

He boasted of killing the Trans­-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between a dozen countries, but supporters of the accord say it would have helped keep Chinese economic influence at bay.

The linkage Trump drew between economic and political power is valid, but Trump’s confrontational trade policies work against his own goals, said Nicholas Burns, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and former senior State Department official.

“He is right about the philosophical point, but all his practical policies undercut it,” Burns said.

C. Fred Bergsten, veteran trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, agreed.

“There’s a germ of truth in what he says,” Bergsten conceded. U.S. policy has failed to choke off intellectual property theft, especially in China. But, Bergsten added, “his overarching point that these are terrible [trade] deals, that they adversely affect U.S. economic interests, he’s never offered a shred of proof of that.”

Trump has dismissed this type of criticism and used the speech to emphasize one of his campaign themes — that past administrations got the short-end of trade agreements because they didn’t now how to cut deals.

“Our leaders in Washington negotiated disastrous trade deals that brought massive profits to many foreign nations but sent thousands of American factories and millions of American jobs to those other countries,” he said.

Trump also boasted of his decision to withdraw from the “very expensive and unfair Paris climate accord” that President Barack Obama agreed to two years ago. But supporters of the accord say it is a small step toward slowing global warming that could prove catastrophic economically as well as from a climate view. And Obama repeatedly argued that denial of climate science would undercut renewable energy technologies that the U.S. economy needs to remain competitive in the future.

Trump’s campaign theme of “America First” formed the foundation of his remarks.

“A nation that does not protect prosperity at home cannot protect its interests abroad,” Trump said. “A nation that is not prepared to win a war is a nation not capable of preventing a war. A nation that is not proud of its history cannot be confident in its future. And a nation that is not certain of its values cannot summon the will to defend them.”

Burns argued that “what’s missing from this document is any emphasis that the U.S. has to promote democracy and human freedom, which most American presidents — John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan — have felt was important. He’s weakening us on these essential foundations of American power.”

Trump highlighted claimed accomplishments — including on issues not directly related to national security — a list the administration contends has not received the attention it deserves.

Alongside withdrawal from what he called unfair trade and climate deals and a sharper focus on terrorism and border security, Trump listed a soaring stock market, deregulation and the likelihood of forthcoming tax cuts.

The national security strategy documents are broad outlines of U.S. policy that guide other, more specific planning such as nuclear and ballistic missile force posture.

Trump’s version has four main organizing principles: protecting the American homeland, protecting American prosperity, preserving peace through strength and advancing U.S. influence.

He presented China and Russia as competitors that want to realign global power in their interests, potentially threatening the United States. At the same time, he added, those nations can be partners in pursuit of shared interests.

That is a familiar theme from past administrations, but the Trump document frames the contest as one that previous U.S. leaders failed to adequately recognize or counter.

“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” the document says. “They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

The president said intellectual property theft would be targeted, a clear warning to China which American companies have complained about for years. “We will no longer tolerate trading abuse,” he warned.

As a candidate, Trump accused China of “raping” the United States economically and stealing jobs. As president, he has developed and trumpeted a warm relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he credits with helping to apply pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

Trump also pointed to his energy policies as a source of strength at home and abroad, suggesting that the United States could use its “energy dominance” to enhance its influence.

The Trump administration has indeed sought to open up more federal lands to coal, oil, and natural gas exploration and production, but most of the domestic energy boom took place under the Obama administration. Oil output under Obama grew by more than 4 million barrels a day and natural gas output in states like Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma rose rapidly.

Trump has publicly complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him “very smart,” and has sought a better relationship with Russia after years of worsening ties under Obama. He has been openly skeptical of U.S. intelligence findings that Russia mounted a systematic effort to undermine the 2016 presidential election. But Trump has not reversed congressional sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, as Putin hoped he would.

The strategy document released Monday skirts the issue of Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.

“Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world,” the document says.

National Security Strategy (United States)

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The National Security Strategy (NSS) is a document prepared periodically by the executive branch of the government of the United States for Congress which outlines the major national security concerns of the United States and how the administration plans to deal with them. The legal foundation for the document is spelled out in the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The document is purposely general in content (contrast with the National Military Strategy, NMS) and its implementation relies on elaborating guidance provided in supporting documents (including the NMS).


Purposes of the NSS Report

The stated intent of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation is broadly accepted as valid for effective political discourse on issues affecting the nation’s security–the Congress and the Executive need a common understanding of the strategic environment and the administration’s intent as a starting point for future dialogue. That said, however, it is understood that in the adversarial environment that prevails, this report can only provide a beginning point for the dialogue necessary to reach such a “common” understanding.[1]

The requirement of producing this report along with the budget request leads to an iterative, interagency process involving high level meetings that helps to resolve internal differences in foreign policy agendas. However, “this report was not to be a neutral planning document, as many academics and even some in uniform think it to be. Rather it was … intended to serve five primary purposes.” [1]

  1. Communicate the Executive’s strategic vision to Congress, and thus legitimize its requests for resources.
  2. Communicate the Executive’s strategic vision to foreign constituencies, especially governments not on the US’s summit agenda.
  3. Communicate with select domestic audiences, such as political supporters seeking Presidential recognition of their issues, and those who hope to see a coherent and farsighted strategy they could support.
  4. Create internal consensus on foreign and defense policy within the executive branch.
  5. Contribute to the overall agenda of the President, both in terms of substance and messaging.

Where the incoming executive team has not formulated a national security strategy, such as an after an election in which foreign policy and defense were not important campaign issues, the process of writing the report can be of immense importance:

Few things educate new political appointees faster as to their own strategic sensings, or to the qualities and competencies of the “permanent” government they lead within executive bureaucracies, than to have to commit in writing to the President their plans for the future and how they can be integrated, coordinated and otherwise shared with other agencies and departments. The ability to forge consensus among these competing views on direction, priorities and pace, and getting “on board” important players three political levels down from the president is recognized as an invaluable, if not totally daunting, opportunity for a new administration.[1]

Counterinsurgency objective

In order to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to the National Security Strategy of 2010, the United States needs to engage in a large amount of interagency cooperation and communication with the Muslim population in Afghanistan and throughout the world.[2] The objective of the National Security Strategy is to create a stable situation for the world, including those countries struggling with insurgencies. “The most effective long-term measure for conflict and resolution is the promotion of democracy and economic development.”[3] In order to promote democracy and economic development communication with the civilian population of the host-nation is essential. The Stability Operations Field Manual states that success depends on a U.S. ability to build local institutions and in the establishment of a legitimate permanent government, which builds trust between the citizens and the counterinsurgency personnel.”[3] The National Security Strategy establishes the interagency coordination in order to conduct useful public diplomacy to secure the population in the countries of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Previous national security strategies

The National Security Strategy issued on September 17, 2002 was released in the midst of controversy over the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war which is contained therein.[4] It also contains the notion of military pre-eminence that was reflected in a Department of Defense paper of 1992, “Defense Policy Guidance”, prepared by two principal authors (Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby) working under then US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The NSS 2002 also repeats and re-emphasizes past initiatives aimed at providing substantial foreign aid to countries that are moving towards Western-style democracy, with the “ambitious and specific target” of “doubl[ing] the size of the world’s poorest economies within a decade.”[4]:p. 21

The Bush doctrine emerges in the context of moving from the old Cold War doctrine of deterrence to a pro-active attempt to adjust policy to the realities of the current situation where the threat is just as likely to come from a terrorist group such as al-Qaeda as from a nation state such as Iraq or Iran.[5]

The document also treats AIDS as a threat to national security, promising substantial efforts to combat its spread and devastating effects.

The 2010 National Security Strategy

On May 26, 2010, the third most recent National Security Strategy was issued by President Barack Obama.[2]:p.8 The new Strategy was referred to by United Nations ambassador Susan Rice as a “dramatic departure” from its predecessor.[6] The Strategy advocated increased engagement with Russia, China and India.[7] The Strategy also identified nuclear non-proliferation and climate change as priorities,[8] while noting that the United States’s security depended on reviving its economy.[9] The drafters of the new Strategy made a conscious decision to remove terms such as “Islamic radicalism”, instead speaking of terrorism generally.[10]

The 2015 National Security Strategy

On February 6, 2015, the second most recent National Security Strategy was issued by President Barack Obama[11]:p.1310 to provide “a vision and strategy for advancing the nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership.” [12]

The 2017 National Security Strategy

President Donald Trump delivered his first national Security Strategy on December 18, 2017. The new document named China and Russia as “revisionist powers” while removing “climate change” as a national threat.[13] It also characterized the world as a competitive arena rather than a “community of nations” or “international community” as previous documents had.[14] NSS-2017 represents a break with past foreign policy doctrine. “My guess is that members of the Foreign Policy elite will encounter these first pages as a kind of boilerplate, even trite. Notice, though, that those two pages lead directly to a third page that repudiates the whole living body of American foreign policy thought. Everything since Ronald Reagan is rejected in two short paragraphs which explain exactly what four successive administrations got wrong.”[15]

Success, however, bred complacency. A belief emerged, among many, that American power would be unchallenged and self–sustaining. The United States began to drift. We experienced a crisis of confidence and surrendered our advantages in key areas. As we took our political, economic, and military advantages for granted, other actors steadily implemented their long-term plans to challenge America and to advance agendas opposed to the United States, our allies, and our partners.

We stood by while countries exploited the institutions we helped to build. They subsidized their industries, forced technology transfers, and distorted markets. These and other actions challenged America’s economic security. At home, excessive regulations and high taxes stifled growth and weakened free enterprise—history’s greatest antidote to poverty. Each time government encroached on the productive activities of private commerce, it threatened not only our prosperity but also the spirit of creation and innovation that has been key to our national greatness.[16]

See also