Trump’s National Security Strategy: The Path to Principled Realism

Every administration is required to submit an outline of its national security strategy. The requirement is baked into the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, and the subsequent periodic strategy blueprints have been almost as mundane as the initial bill that required them. Traditionally, they have been boilerplate-filled exercises in box checking. Administrations completed them because they had to, not because they were seen as an honest and powerful reflection of the nation’s foreign policy strategy.

But President Trump—as usual—is different. He recognizes that the world, and the United States’ place in it, is in peril. And he feels the need, even in his nascent presidency, to clearly articulate what needs to be done on the world stage.

“We know that American success is not a foregone conclusion,” President Trump said in a speech that accompanied the release of the strategy. “It must be earned and it must be won. Our rivals are tough, they’re tenacious and committed to the long term. But so are we.”

The foundation of President Trump’s approach is the principle that international peace and prosperity is best furthered by sovereign nations fulfilling their obligation to serve their own citizens while also pledging to work together, when appropriate, to advance their shared interests. 

“America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world. A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations.”

The National Security Strategy establishes four pillars atop that foundation:

  • Protecting the American people, homeland and the American way of life by securing our borders, pursuing threats at their source, and making investments to keep the United States safe in the Cyber Era.
  • Promoting American prosperity by rejuvenating the domestic economy, promoting free and fair economic relationships with other countries, and prioritizing research, technology and innovation.
  • Preserving peace through strength by rebuilding our military, including in the cyberspace domain, and upgrading our diplomatic capabilities.
  • Advancing American influence by helping developing countries become successful societies, proactively shaping multinational arrangements, and championing American values among our allies and trading partners.

These principles culminate in a document that stands in stark relief to its predecessors offered by President Obama, whose strategy focused on global natural threats (e.g. global warming) and human prejudices, and President Bush, whose approach sought to preemptively stop regimes who threatened the push toward global free-market democracy. Instead, as Victor David Hanson explains in American Greatness, Trump’s strain of principled realism is based in putting America first:

Trumpism here is pitched in realistic but not cynical terms. The United States cannot partner with, or lead, anyone if it is not preeminently strong—strength being defined as economic robustness, military wherewithal, strategic confidence, and spiritual renewal. There is neither a notion here of strategic patience and lead-from-behind hesitance nor of taking out a strongman in a Libyan-style optional attack. …

In sum, the Trump NSS takes a tragic rather than therapeutic view of human nature, and assumes that all nations gravitate to powerful states with principles, and retract from weaker and bullying powers.

The ultimate purpose of all strategy is to advance a nation’s self-interest in the broadest military, social, and economic sense, which ultimately translates into first keeping it safe.

Putting America first doesn’t mean that there is no place for others. Instead, it recognizes the limits of forceful nation building and the gravitational power of success.

“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but we will champion the values without apology.  We want strong alliances and partnerships based on cooperation and reciprocity,” Trump explained.  “We will make new partnerships with those who share our goals, and make common interests into a common cause.  We will not allow inflexible ideology to become an obstacle to peace.”

That goes doubly for Trump’s critics. There is room for honest differences. But reflexive anti-Trumpism, especially on issues of national security, does our nation harm. Now is the time to demonstrate strength through unity,