The authors of the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy, released this week, are marketing it as an expression of “principled realism.” Belligerent narcissism more accurately describes its contents.
Pro forma references to women’s rights and the environment aside, the strategy identifies two priorities. The first is to “rejuvenate the American economy” by cutting taxes, eliminating regulation, boosting the supply of fossil fuels, and renegotiating trade deals. Implicit in this prescription is a conviction that what ails the world’s most affluent nation is that we are not rich enough. With sufficient growth, other problems solve themselves, a faith-based argument Republicans have been making for a generation.
Yet while emphasizing economic prosperity as a panacea, the document includes this tantalizing aside: “Rare and fragile institutions of republican government can only endure if they are sustained by a culture that cherishes those institutions.” The word culture fairly leaps off the page. Both the election of Donald Trump and the response generated by his ascent suggest that ours is a deeply divided culture. Sadly, the strategy offers no thoughts about what that division signifies nor an inkling of a suggestion about how to repair it.
The second strategic priority — perhaps not surprising given the prominence of generals among Trump’s advisers — is to confront America’s adversaries. Those adversaries are legion, and Trump’s strategy alludes to “an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a range of threats that have intensified in recent years.”
The authors of the document show a striking lack of curiosity as to why the United States today finds itself so beset by dangers. They refer vaguely to a period of post-Cold War “complacency” when “the United States began to drift” and, in doing so, “surrendered our advantages in key areas.” To substantiate that view, the strategy ignores the myriad US military campaigns, large and small, undertaken since the Cold War ended. Nor does it mention initiatives such as NATO’s eastward expansion up to the very borders of Russia. Overall, it conveys the impression that threats emerged not because of anything the United States did, but because it didn’t do enough.
The strategy sorts those threats into three distinct categories. In the first are China and Russia, each posing a “challenge [to] American power, influence, and interests.” The pairing of Russia and China as prime US competitors is, to put it mildly, odd. Russia’s economy is equivalent in size to Italy’s. China’s may soon become the world’s largest, helped in no small measure by an insatiable American appetite for goods bearing a “Made in China” label. In other words, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia may have the capacity to annoy, it does not even approximate a peer competitor. And while China may well be emerging as a full-fledged superpower, relations between the United States and China combine rivalry and interdependence in equal parts. Yet the NSS appears stuck in a time warp, as if Stalin still ruled the Kremlin and Maoist revolutionaries were calling the shots in Beijing.
Occupying the second category of threats are North Korea and Iran, classified as “rogue states” and “the scourge of the world.” Kim Jong Un does indeed pose a proximate danger, one that President Trump has repeatedly indicated that he expects China to address. In effect, the administration wants a Category 1 threat to address a Category 2 threat, an irony that the National Security Strategy passes over in silence.
Grouping Iran with North Korea, in effect reviving George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” provides the authors of the document with a convenient scapegoat. To finger Iran as a source of instability diverts attention from the catastrophic destabilization that the United States has caused, not least by invading Iraq. And to single out Iran for “support[ing] terrorist groups” gives a pass to others, such as Saudi Arabia, that have spent countless sums promoting radical Islamism across the Greater Middle East.
The third category of threats consists of non-state actors such jihadist groups. The strategy refers to ongoing efforts to defeat Islamic militants as the “long war” while not indicating how or when that war will end. Trump will simply persist, which suggests that the long war will become much longer.
To address these several dangers, the strategy calls for a bigger and better US military, enabling its forces “to fight and win” any conflict anywhere. Why the United States in recent decades has been doing so much fighting and so little winning is another question that the document evades. Reduced to its essence, the proposed strategy centers on this: Give us more money and we will try harder.
Of course, the United States already spends much more money on its military than any other nation. With forces scattered around the planet, it also conducts more operations in more places than anyone. In doing so, it kills more people. And, as the world’s leading arms exporter, it facilitates even more killing by others.
These define the unacknowledged but actual “principles” that guide US policy. While these principles predate Trump, his National Security Strategy implicitly affirms them, without bothering to assess whether they actually work. They are simply accepted as fixed and given. These principles rest on expectations, also unacknowledged, that the world will accommodate American wants and needs, other nations adjusting their own expectations accordingly. This defines the very inverse of realism.
In his introduction to the new strategy, Trump writes that his administration is “charting a new and very different course.” File that statement under the heading of alt facts.
Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author most recently of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.”