Trump's national security strategy: Global force for principled realism

Trump's national security strategy: Global force for principled realism
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“America is no longer ‘a global force for good,’” Susan Rice believes. The national security adviser to President Obama made that pronouncement in a hard-hitting — and, in places, hyperbolic — New York Times op-ed last Wednesday, as she lambasted the world view of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE’s national security strategy.

Rice’s contribution to the discussion is but one of many from Obama-era officials on the historic document, but it is by far the most attention-grabbing of them.

Trump, unfortunately, has a knack for partisanship. He started the controversy by criticizing predecessors in comments last Monday when he released the NSS, as the national security roadmap is called, to the public.

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“For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another,” Trump said. “On top of everything else, our leaders drifted from American principles. They lost sight of America’s destiny. And they lost their belief in American greatness.”

 

There’s truth in his provocative comments. American leaders — especially the last two — tolerated the expansionism of Moscow and Beijing, allowing them to redraw borders by force. The last three inexplicably allowed China to spread nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology to states hostile to America. Trump’s post-Cold War predecessors presided over a rapid deterioration of stability, effectively permitting dangerous conduct of various kinds.

Why? Since the end of the multi-decade global struggle with the Soviet Union, American policymakers, replaying themes from the 1970s, promoted dubious notions of American decline. At the same time, they believed it was more important to integrate China into the international system than enforce promises Beijing made. And they appeared far too comfortable with elites in other countries, even ones seeking to undermine the United States.

So give high marks to Trump for necessary truth-telling — and low ones, for unnecessarily antagonizing predecessors. Presidents, after all, have an obligation to unite and lead. Trump, unfortunately, exacerbated divisions with his message releasing the national security strategy. Yet Trump’s unnecessary gusto in delivering truth did not relieve his critics of their obligation to maintain balance in their opinions.

Rice’s criticisms go too far. Her main complaint is that Trump has adopted a Hobbesian-like view of the world. “President Trump’s national security strategy marks a dramatic departure from the plans of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, painting a dark, almost dystopian portrait of an ‘extraordinarily dangerous’ world characterized by hostile states and lurking threats,” Rice writes. “There is no common good, no international community, no universal values, only American values.”

It is true that Trump, in the national security strategy, outlines his selfish-sounding “America first” policy, but the document makes a strong case that America first, by strengthening the United States, gives Washington the ability to promote its values and, ultimately, stability around the world. And the NSS does rejoice in American alliances and strong relations with like-minded states. “Together, the United States and our allies and partners represent well over half of the global GDP,” it states. “None of our adversaries have comparable coalitions.”

Rice’s description of the national security strategy’s vision, therefore, is way off target. One of the virtues of Trump’s conception of the world is that it is realistic. As Noah Rothman, writing for Commentary Magazine, notes, “Rice takes a theatrically dim view of what is essentially a restatement of the bedrock principle of almost all international-relations theory: The international environment is anarchic.”

Trump’s vision of free and prosperous sovereign states, competing with one another within sets of rules, is one that, say, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' 10 things we learned from Peter Strzok's congressional testimony Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks MORE could adopt. In fact, that is what James Stavridis, the retired admiral and now dean of Tufts Fletcher School, wrote recently on Bloomberg View as he commented on the NSS being a “pleasantly centrist document.”

“At the heart of the new strategy is a resolutely international outlook,” Stavridis writes. “This includes a reliance on allies and partners, an adoption of ‘principled realism,’ and concern over what might be termed a ‘tri-polar competition’ between the U.S., China, and Russia. The document correctly reflects the return of dangerous levels of great-power rivalry, and sketches a fairly compelling approach to dealing with the challenges of a rapidly expanding China.”

It is on China, as well as Russia, that the NSS excels, in moving away from the policies, in place since President Nixon, that have held an unrealistically benign view of the ultimate direction of the Chinese state. Moreover, Rice indicts herself on China, writing, “In fact, China is a competitor, not an avowed opponent, and has not illegally occupied its neighbors.”

Many of China’s neighbors, presently occupied by Chinese forces, would disagree. And she should know about Chinese occupation. The year before she took up her post as national security adviser, China took a chunk out of a neighbor, seizing strategic Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.

In early 2012, both Chinese and Philippine boats crowded the shoal, 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. The State Department then brokered a deal for both sides to withdraw their craft. Only Manila complied, and China has controlled Scarborough since.

To avoid confrontation with an aggressive Beijing, the Obama White House did not enforce the arrangement it had put together. By doing nothing, the administration empowered the most belligerent elements in the Chinese political system by showing everybody else in Beijing that aggression worked.

Beijing’s next moves, therefore, were predictable. The Chinese leadership, emboldened by success at Scarborough, ramped up attempts to seize more territory, from both the Philippines (at Second Thomas Shoal, also in the South China Sea) and Japan (at the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea). Rice, of course, knows this history, as she was forced to deal with the aftermath of President Obama’s misguided Scarborough policy.

Everyone would like the world to be as Rice perceives it, but the Chinese have shown us that she has not fully comprehended the challenges that they and others pose. Obama’s approach may or may not have been “ideological” as Rothman claims, but the Commentary writer is correct when he tells us the policies of the previous administration “rendered the U.S. and the world less safe.”

Obama’s policies were rooted in those of his seven predecessors, so it is unfair to single out the 44th president (or even his last national security adviser) for special criticism. What we can do, however, is note that Trump’s assessment of Chinese intentions, as evidenced in his national security strategy, is a needed corrective and that American policies must change.

“This strategy is guided by principled realism,” Trump’s national security strategy declares. “It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interests.”

“A global force for principled realism” does not have quite the same ring as Rice’s “global force for good,” but Trump’s vision, dealing with the world as it in fact is, permits Washington to move beyond policies that have sounded good to the ear but have not served America well.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” You can follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.