National security strategies are strange beasts. Their glittering generalities and kitchen sink approach to detailing threats, interests, and priorities can make it difficult to know how literally, or seriously, to take them. All strategies reflect on the importance of American leadership and bask in the warmth of American values. And thanks to the growing bipartisan consensus around primacy since the end of the Cold War all strategies have more or less looked the same. Each one promises a stronger and safer America with help from our trusted allies. Given this, most Americans would be hard pressed to tell one national security strategy from the next.
Sadly, Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy contains not only the worst elements from the past, namely the pursuit of primacy and a commitment to an endless war on terrorism, but also charts new territory by embracing a new nationalism that unnecessarily elevates immigration to a national security threat and retreats from the post-World War II commitment to free trade.
Though Trump’s penchant for military solutions has always been obvious, the extent to which his new security strategy embraces primacy is disappointing. As a candidate, Trump railed against the war in Iraq and nation building abroad. The national security strategy, however, calls for the United States to “compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” The strategy also calls for an expanded – and unending – war on terrorism. In short, Trump intends to commit the United States not only to a globe-straddling military presence and to counterproductive and unending military intervention, but also to risking conflict with nations like China over regional issues that mean very little for American national security.
Unsurprisingly, given the turn to primacy, Trump’s strategy also calls for “rebuilding” America’s military, despite the fact that the United States already possesses the world’s most powerful military, spends more on defense than the next seven nations combined, and enjoys an alliance system that far outstrips those of Russia or China. In the end, any boost in defense spending will only add to the national debt while doing little for American security.
With regard to the economic side of foreign policy, Trump’s abandonment of decades of American support for international free trade regimes signals a dangerous form of economic nationalism. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his criticism of NAFTA, and his repeated complaints about the use of unfair trading practices by China, Japan, and other trading partners, make it clear that Trump either does not understand or does not trust the process by which the United States and the rest of the world rebuilt the global economy after World War II. Contrary to Trump’s insistences, however, protectionism and trade wars will do nothing to make America great again.
Finally, Trump’s inclusion of immigration, legal and illegal, as one of the major components of the national security strategy is not only unprecedented, but it smacks of a nativism that identifies threats not based on objective metrics but on cultural differences and vague notions of “us versus them.” None of Trump’s proposed policies, from building a border wall to banning travelers from Muslim-majority nations to extreme vetting or reducing legal immigration, are based on solid evidence about likely harms to Americans. None of these policies will improve national security. Instead, Trump’s strategy is only likely to inflame tensions among races, nations, and religious groups.
Experience with previous national security documents suggests that we should treat Trump’s new strategy more as a guide than as gospel. It’s a safe bet that Trump, even more than most presidents, will deviate from the script as threats arise and opportunities emerge. But to the extent that Trump follows his new playbook, we can expect many of the same problems that have bedeviled U.S. foreign policy for the past sixteen years along with a host of new ones.