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Trump’s New National Security Strategy: Economics Trumps Military, Human Rights

Posted by Colin Clark on


UPDATED: Adds Mattis Comment On Allies

WASHINGTON: While partisans on both sides will try to recast President Trump’s new legally-mandated National Security Strategy in their own terms, we’re going to try and analyze it in terms of what it actually means.

One of the wisest and most rational defense strategists in this country, Anthony Cordesman, avers the NSS clearly establishes Donald Trump’s commitment to a continuing internationalist view of the world, not the isolationist view that seemed to be predominant at the time of his election.

“One of the most critical aspects of the document is its definition of ‘America First’—one which clearly rejects the isolationism of those who first used the term, and rejects the denial of America’s overseas role that some around the President advocated before he appointed his present national security team. It directly addresses both America’s need to remain committed overseas and deal with competition from Russia and China,” Cordesman writes in a lengthy analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But if you’re an ally, a competitor or someone living in an authoritarian country like China or Syria or North Korea, there’s an important point to note in the strategy. It lists “four pillars”. that are “vital national interests:”

  1. Protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life
  2. Promote American prosperity
  3. Preserve peace through strength
  4. Advance American influence

Note that “advance American influence” is last of the four pillars and there’s no mention of human rights or democracy in the top four. China and the European Union will certainly be focused on the idea that promoting American prosperity is our second-most important national security goal.

While Cordesman may be right (he usually is) about America’s continuing involvement overseas, the new Trump strategy seems likely to mean our “involvement” will mean tough bilateral trade negotiations coupled with a great deal of presidential talk, diplomacy and military action about how China in particular must do more to play by the international rules established over the last few centuries, usually referred to as the liberal international order.

One piece of evidence: The Financial Times was fed a good story over the weekend, saying that, “Trump will describe China as a strategic ‘competitor’ on Monday when he releases a national security strategy that accuses Beijing of maintaining a ‘repressive vision’ and pursuing policies of economic aggression aimed at weakening the US.”

The strategy itself calls both China and Russia “revisionist” powers bent on shaping “a world antithetical to US values and interests”. They are, it says, challenging “American power, influence, and interests” and “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

“The National Security Strategy is to be commended for acknowledging the reality that the United States is enmeshed in a long-term competition with China and Russia for international influence. It is also to be commended for highlighting the fact that the challenge is a multi-dimensional one,” says Tom Mahnken at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Importantly, he adds this caveat: “We will now need to see the extent to which this emphasis is reflected in investment in national security, diplomacy, and economic policy.”

While there isn’t a great deal of evidence that human rights and democracy will play much of a role in Trump national security, the strategy does claim “it is principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that promoting American values is key to spreading peace and prosperity around the globe.” But this is much more vague than virtually everything else in the strategy and seems to be offered more as a sop to those Republicans who still believe being the good guy around the world is a good thing to be.

In his introductory comments to the strategy Trump provides more evidence that values are something of an afterthought:

“The American people elected me to make America great again. I promised that my Administration would put the safety, interests, and well-being of our citizens first. I pledged that we would revitalize the American economy, rebuild our military, defend our borders, protect our sovereignty, and advance our values.”

Now it’d be fair to argue that the fact the Trump administration makes any mention of human rights and democracy in any form is noteworthy.

The strategy argues that our country before Trump “stood by while countries exploited the international institutions we helped to build. They subsidized their industries, forced technology transfers, and distorted markets. These and other actions challenged America’s economic security.” In a fairly extraordinary statement for a National Security Strategy, the Trump document argues that “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.” This seems to bolster the idea that promoting American prosperity is more important to our national security than is preserving “peace through strength.”

In his speech unveiling the strategy, Trump reintroduced his specious argument that rich countries should “reimburse” the United States for our help in protecting them, pointing to the NATO countries. You could hear NATO ambassadors’ teeth grinding from up and down Massachusetts Avenues.

UPDATE BEGINS If you want some idea of how different the view about allies is from the Pentagon, check out Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ official comment on the strategy, issued late this afternoon:

“As the world’s most lethal armed force, the men and women of the United States military ensure our diplomats always speak from a position of strength. Supported by our allies and partners, we will continue to defend our common security interests as we protect America from those seeking to threaten the freedoms we enjoy (Emphasis added).” It may also be worth noting the emphasis Mattis placed on those freedoms, clearly a fundamental part of what makes America great, now or later. UPDATE ENDS

Here’s the basic layout of threats to the United States:

North Korea seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons. Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction. Jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida are determined to attack the United States and radicalize Americans with their hateful ideology. Non-state actors undermine social order through drug and human trafficking networks, which they use to commit violent crimes and kill thousands of American each year.

“Adversaries (ed: it seems safe to insert “Russia and China” here) target sources of American strength, including our democratic system and our economy. They steal and exploit our intellectual property and personal data, interfere in our political processes, target our aviation and maritime sectors, and hold our critical infrastructure at risk. All of these actions threaten the foundations of the American way of life. Reestablishing lawful control of our borders is a first step toward protecting the American homeland and strengthening American sovereignty.”

In his speech Trump again claimed he will get rid of the “defense sequester.” He seems to whip this one out every now and then in his major defense speeches although he has done little to achieve it since being elected. (Those looking for an authoritative analysis of 2018 defense spending and the “defense sequester” please read Mackenzie Eaglen’s op-ed on the subject we are publishing tomorrow morning.)

As Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says in a statement issued just before Trump began his speech, Congress must “pass adequate and reliable funding for our troops. This strategy is a good start, but only sufficient funding for our military can make it real.” So far, there is relatively little evidence that will happen for the next two years.

What do you think?