Photo: President Trump explaining a 'New National Security Strategy for a New Era' on December 18, 2017. Credit: - Photo: 2018

Back to the Past with Trump’s National Security Strategy – Part 1

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile* 

This is the first of a four-part article looking at the approach to Russia and China in the national security strategy of the United States under the administration of President Donald Trump. The article is a follow-up to the five-part article by the same author on ‘US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions’ published earlier by IDN. – The Editor.

ROME (IDN) – At the end of 2017, the administration of US President Donald Trump published its National Security Strategy (NSS), the report that the president of the United States is required to present annually to Congress. It is legitimate to ask what interest a document such as an NSS can have since it certainly contains no military action plans, not even in general terms.

An NSS is the result of compromises within the US Administration and is often overtaken by unforeseen developments; on the other hand, the availability of the means envisaged for achieving stated objectives can well exceed the duration of the Administration that produced it – and not just by a few years.

The doubts increase in the face of a president like Trump – contested by foreign and military policy experts in his own party – and the series of sackings or resignations of high-level staff, both as a result of disagreements with the president and imposed by the results of investigations.

Of the 30 twentieth-century Secretaries of State, Rex Tillerson is one of the six who have remained in office for the least time, and in the post-Cold War period only Lawrence Eagleburger lasted less. The Trump administration is on its third National Security Advisor in just over a year, while in the space of eight years Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr. had just two and Barack Obama three.

Besides, it cannot be said that the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser appointed by Trump – Mike Pompeo, appointed as director of the CIA, and John Bolton, formerly Ambassador to the United Nations for G.W. Bush – are characters indicative of a moderate orientation: they are decidedly “hawks” chosen exclusively because of their political proximity to the president.

Furthermore, while all versions of the NSS pay ritual homage to “American values”, it sounds strange to read in a document introduced by Donald Trump that “the United States rejects bigotry, ignorance and oppression” and that it is committed to defending the rights of women and girls (NSS 2017).

In more substantial terms, as widely predictable in some points, for example on Russia and on NATO, the 2017 edition of the NSS appears in contrast with the fears and hopes raised by Trump before his election. One can thus question the extent to which the document reflects the president’s thinking and therefore how reliable it is.

It is remarkable that Trump’s message preceding the latest NSS speaks of “rival powers” aggressive towards American interests in the world, without naming Russia and China; then, in his speech of December 18, 2017, presenting the document, Trump cited a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin thanking him for the intelligence that the CIA was able to provide concerning a major terrorist attack planned in St. Petersburg, but also said “we face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth”, specifying that “based on my direction, this document has been in development for over a year. It has the endorsement of my entire Cabinet.”

It is not at all unusual for an NSS to be published beyond the terms prescribed by law, but this latter sentence appears as a superfluous clarification, a reassurance that seems to imply the opposite.

As for the rest, the discourse differs from the NSS only in its even more triumphalist tones and for the self-celebration of the presumed identification of the people with the president, elected with almost three million votes less than competitor Hilary Clinton:

“But last year, all of that began to change. The American people rejected the failures of the past. You rediscovered your voice and reclaimed ownership of this nation and its destiny. On January 20th, 2017, I stood on the steps of the Capitol to herald the day the people became the rulers of their nation again. (Applause). Thank you. Now, less than one year later, I am proud to report that the entire world has heard the news and has already seen the signs. America is coming back, and America is coming back strong.”

The NSS report was established in 1986 by the Goldwater-Nichols Act: since then 17 have been published. Well, if you compare NSS 2017 with the editions following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is clear that it is a very original document, almost on a par with the NSS 2002 of Bush Jr., who formulated the doctrine of ‘preventive war’.

While it is not possible to deduce from an NSS exactly what a US administration will do and when, general indications can nevertheless be drawn about the perception of threats to national security and the attitude with which they are intended to be addressed.  

NSS 2017 contains relatively little about human rights and the promotion of democracy – a fact which may gratify the sympathisers of President Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – but the prospect it outlines, which in emphatic terms one might say grand strategy, is no less dangerous than the decision that led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Perhaps even more so, in terms of relations with the nuclear powers of China and Russia and for reasons that are not only due to the constraints posed by the Congress but are intrinsic to the concept of America First! as defined by Trump.

The vision of the world contained in the NSS 2017 is substantially in line with that of Trump; however, in its realisation this same vision can lead to considerable fluctuations and confusion in the conduct of US foreign policy, not only because of internal opposition but because it is internally contradictory: this could be the reason for personal disagreements in the Administration, in which different parts push on the poles that constitute the contradiction.

The structure of NSS 2017 is made up of a message from Trump himself, an introduction, four chapters related to as many pillars of national security, plus a chapter that applies the strategy in the regions of the world.

Formally, each chapter presents some priority actions to achieve the objectives indicated, which is a novelty that appears to give concreteness but which in reality is only stylistic; and yet the four pillars or objectives – protecting the American people, promoting prosperity in America, preserving peace through force and advancing America’s influence – are banalities present in every NSS.

The peculiarity of this document must be sought in the way in which those objectives are concretely defined, above all in the definition of the problem of national security and threats.

Defining the problem of national security

The message signed by Donald Trump that serves as a preface to NSS 2017 is an arrogant revendication of the Administration’s alleged successes, including “having crushed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” which, however, was claimed by all the players involved just before Trump took office.

The list of problems inherited from the previous administrations is long: from “rogue states” to international terrorism, aggressive powers, uncontrolled immigration, criminal cartels, unequal distribution of defence costs between the United States and allies, and impropriety in economic relations.

Against this background, the successes boasted with a triumphalist tone are even more evident: the Trump administration is already “tracing a new and very different course”. The President stands as a saviour of the Fatherland, as the one who restored confidence in American values ​​and America’s position in the world – “after oneyear, the world knows that America is prosperous, America is secure, and America is strong” (NSS 2017).

However, a note of alarm is sounded both in Trump’s message and in the text of the NSS itself: “The United States faces an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats that have intensified in recent years”. Apparently it seems a contradiction, but the alarmist note performs several functions.

First of all, keeping the alarm about terrorism and the “rogue states” high is a necessity intrinsic to the doctrine of war and preventive military operations, which is now one of the options for action openly touted by all US administrations, albeit with different formulas.

Formalisation of this doctrine is a distortion of jus ad bellum (the right to engage in war), with implications also for jus in bello (the rules regulating the conduct of war, for example concerning the treatment of prisoners and civilian populations).

Even in a very broad and very debatable interpretation of the norms of international law, one of the binding criteria – and not the only one – which can justify a military action that anticipates an enemy attack is that of the imminence of aggression.

However, no matter how far it is cloaked in formal references to the needs of self-defence, in the logic of preventive war formalised since NSS 2002 the concept of the imminence of attack is freed from specific temporal and material references, and therefore emptied of real meaning.

The main justification for war and preventive military operations has become the possibility and intention that entities defined as terrorist or “rogue state” procure weapons of mass destruction; this is also tantamount to affirming that for these entities the possession of weapons of mass destruction coincides with the certainty of their use in an indeterminate future and place. War or preventive military operations are thus justified a priori.

In Trump’s introductory message to the NSS, the unequal sharing of security burdens between the United States and the allies is indicated as one of the reasons that has encouraged opponents to take dangerous actions and the point is then reiterated in the document. Obviously, it is not at all the alliances themselves that are called into question, but the terms with which the other states contribute.

The list of faults does not stop here however. It covers all the whole of the 1990s (the administrations of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and implicitly also those of George Bush Jr. In NSS 2017, criticism of the idea that US military superiority was guaranteed is fundamental, as is criticism of the Wilsonian (after Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913 to 1921) concept of “democratic peace” which, although articulated in different ways, has been at the centre of the foreign policy pursued by the United States since the end of the Cold War.

NSS 2017 is notable for the way it combines the emphasis of relaunching domestic liberalism – of deregulation or rather re-regulation – with a strong competitive characterisation of the world economy and of relations between states that also extends, with due distinction, to allies. The recent protectionist measures, which provide for differentiated treatment and exemptions for allies, fall within this logic.

In this NSS, alarmism must be understood in the light of the domestic use of foreign policy, namely the fact that the problem of the national security strategy is defined not only by external threats but also by the “strategic complacency” of all previous administrations, the conduct of which is thus discredited.

According to NSS 2017, the policies of previous administrations deprived the United States of part of the strategic advantages it enjoyed after having emerged victorious from the Cold War, thus allowing other players on the international scene to implement long-term plans to challenge the United States. It is this “strategic complacency” that NSS 2017 intends to overturn. And the players in question are China and Russia.

Overall, in the definition of problems of national security, the strategy of America First! is the exact opposite of the idea “that power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game” (NSS 2010).

If the NSS 2002 of Bush Jr. intended to mark a discontinuity due to the fact that for the first time since the war with the United Kingdom in 1812-1815 the heart of the United States had been the object of an attack from the outside, NSS 2017 intends to mark a deliberate discontinuity, not imposed only by the external environment.

The theory of democratic peace in previous administrations

In some respects, NSS 2017 may recall the strategies of previous administrations: the importance of economic problems is common to those of Clinton and Obama; and the view that terrorism and “rogue” states are one but not the only main threat was shared by the abhorred (by Trump) Obama.

Understandably, most problems do not change from one administration to another and even the generally indicated objectives are not so different.

For example, cybersecurity was already in the Clintonian NSS 2001, which recalled the cyber conflict between China and Taiwan, increased IT security research funding by 32 percent and presented a series of initiatives to protect against cyber attacks, including the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P), presented as “an innovative public/private partnership” in terms not different from what can be read in NSS 2017 about collaboration between government and private companies.

The same can be said for anti-missile defence and for the affirmation that “we will compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power” (NSS 2017).

However, the worldview of NSS 2017 is very different from previous strategy documents and consequently also the emphasis on the problems and especially the frame within which they are treated. For the sake of clarity, a historical digression is necessary.

Since the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, US foreign policy has presented a component that can be called “Wilsonian”, more or less accentuated by various administrations: America as champion of the “free world”, of democracy and economic freedom, of internationalist power, attentive to maintaining good relations with the allies, promoter of international institutions and active in them.

A fundamental element of Wilsonianism is the idea that democracies do not engage in war against each other and are less inclined to the war of dictatorships and totalitarian states: it is the theory of “democratic peace”.

This, in turn, in the case of the United States combines a sense of national exceptionalism with a universal mission, because it is assumed that for the United States the interest of national security coincides with the promotion and support of democracy throughout the world.

* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published the full version of this article in Italian under the title ‘Russia e Cina nella National Security Strategy dell’Amministrazione Trump’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 April 2018]

Photo: President Trump explaining a ‘New National Security Strategy for a New Era’ on December 18, 2017. Credit:

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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