In a speech delivered at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, US Defence Secretary James Mattis announced that countering China’s burgeoning influence and quelling an increasingly aggressive Russia will now be the top priority of its new national security strategy (NSS).
These concerns will outpace the threat of terrorism because America’s rivalry with these two states, as Mattis put it, has threatened its military advantage across the globe.
As part of the wide-ranging defence reforms in 1986, the US Congress had asked the White House to submit an annual report on the NSS that maps out the country’s global interest, goals and objectives and underscore its proposed short- and long-term uses of political, economic and other elements of national power. The NSS could then help Congress in making budgetary allocations and chalking out other strategies like the national defence strategy, the national bio-defence strategy, the national nuclear posture and the missile defense review.
However, over the last three decades – and with nearly every successive president – this document has generally been short on substance and direction. If former president Barrack Obama’s NSS papers were cynically called “essays in strategic patience”, Trump’s strategy is rhetorically muscular but far too divorced from original objectives.
The new strategy’s emphasis on ‘America First’ as a guiding force in the formulation of America’s foreign policy has been viewed as Trump’s own instincts woven into the US foreign policy doctrine, rather than an institutional input. It has failed to align ambitious ends with available means to achieve them. It has not prioritised objectives and lacks clarity in conveying actual presidential intent. Consequently, it has raised questions about the efficacy of the whole exercise amid calls to revisit the Goldwater-Nichols Act.
In an unconventional presentation of the new strategy, Trump credited himself by touting a booming economy in his first year in office and declared: “A nation that does not protect prosperity at home cannot protect its interests abroad. A nation that is not prepared to win a war is a nation [that is] 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”.
There is little doubt that China will remain in the crosshairs of Trump’s administration in terms of guarding American economic interests. Chinese trade practices have been referred to as unfair and are believed to involve the theft of intellectual property. This harsh indictment of China is at odds with Trump’s personal friendship with President Xi Jinping. The strategy is also far more critical than the previous policy about Russia’s proactive policies across the globe, including its actions in Ukraine and Georgia.
By ignoring non-state actors, who are carrying out nefarious activities in various parts of the world, Trump acted more like Captain America from the Marvel comics who might disengage from a still-alive hydra and throw his shield towards dragons and polar bears.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani recently admitted that with over 45 percent of Afghan territory under Taliban control, the situation has become so precarious in his country that if the US were to withdraw its support, the Kabul regime would collapse within six months. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Isis may have lost the physical space that it was occupying. But the threat of terrorism on weak regimes is far from over.
The 68-page strategy has been called the “principled realism” of an ever-competitive world where the question of “how the US advances its goals is more critical than ever”. It is laced extensively with phrases like “peace through strength”, which had been used throughout the millennium by the Hadrian in the first century and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Couching old phrases into new ones is quite common in most militaries. But it betrays a lack of intellectual depth and the originality of thought. There is a widespread impression that Trump’s administration is under the heavy influence of retired military personnel.
Trump feels that his strategy will pave the way for America to remain a leader in global affairs. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quick to react when he told reporters at the UN Headquarters in New York that militaries frequently want more resources. But “it is regrettable that instead of having [a] normal dialogue and instead of using the basis of international law, the US is trying to prove its leadership through such confrontational strategies and concepts”. Lavrov, an old hand in the global arena, is undoubtedly aware that Trump’s NSS will never be put into action.
The document takes a radical departure from Obama’s NSS, which had billed climate change as a major threat to US national interests. Trump has, therefore, abandoned the “environmental stewardship” of this universal global threat, where American’s central role could have benefitted the entire human race.
His intentions are clear from other actions. These include the decision to withdraw from 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation and embark on plans to allow oil drilling in nearly all waters off the US coast – an idea that Obama had briefly considered in some areas but eventually abandoned following concerns from coastal residents.
The new national security strategy focuses heavily on America’s economic relationships with other countries. It stipulates that the country’s economic security is fundamental to its national security. There is a warning of ‘economic aggression’ and trade imbalances from other countries like China, which could pose a major security concern.
Since he came into power, President Trump has, off and on, expressed his intentions to be less tolerant about violations. The desire to promote American prosperity through the protection of the ‘national innovation base’ captures the essence of a broader ecosystem of activities that Trump plans to undertake in order to ensure that the US maintains its edge. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, which US presidents have traditionally avoided, Trump made a speech that made it clear that America will ensure “fair and reciprocal” trade and just about threatened a trade war without mentioning the dreaded words.
On the military front, the US seems to be concerned about the potential threats posed by China and Russia, which have been termed as rival powers. The US will strive for modernisation and the war-readiness of its armed forces. There is a clear hint about Russian attempts to meddle in democracies and its influence campaigns – ironically though, Trump has been sceptical of the US intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election.
According to Trump, the country’s interest can be advanced if the instruments of information statecraft are upgraded and Homeland Security encompasses border security and missile defences more effectively. The identification of ‘new approaches to development’ can help build future allies and trading partners. Trump expects the private sector to take the lead in investment development abroad for this as opposed to the erstwhile traditional grant models used by government agencies.
The citizens of America have seldom been so binary. They either love Donald Trump or they loathe him. But the new national security strategy that was released last month has been viewed by many as a case study in the failure of US government to engage in serious strategic planning. Apart from camouflaging a perennially ad hoc foreign policy in an administration that is heavily influenced by former military generals, there is little chance that it will make any difference to US foreign policy in a meaningful manner.
Elsewhere – and especially in the developing world where the US president has kept everyone on tenterhooks – they might whisper the famous Chinese ‘prayer’ – may Donald Trump live in interesting times.
The writer is a retired viceadmiral.