Trump’s security strategy shifts to a more realistic approach

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President Trump’s first National Security Strategy takes important steps toward a foreign policy that focuses on the safety and prosperity of the American people. It features both continuity and change, but the relatively modest changes are the more important element of the strategy.

Trump’s plan abandons the naïve idealism that America can or should remake foreign countries into pluralistic, inclusive market-oriented democracies, by force if necessary. The strategy focuses instead on offering technical assistance and institutional reform options, which other governments are free to take or leave.

{mosads}But it describes the strategy as “principled realism.” Is it? The stated principles include the common-sense-yet-controversial (in Washington) statement that a government should serve the sovereign individuals within its borders. This humble and prudent basis recognizes the limits of fallible human minds and institutions. Indeed, the prideful arrogance of many Washington elites’ policies has done more to generate horrors than to prevent them.

Yet “principled” has little inherent meaning. Principles can be wise or foolish. They could be based on traditional morality like rights, utility, or virtue ethics — balancing courage, justice, prudence, and temperance. They could also support an imbalanced or impractically activist foreign policy.

On the other hand, emphasizing realism is a welcome course correction.

Geopolitics is an anarchist jumble of states competing and collaborating, sometimes to serve the people they represent, yet sometimes to advance the private interests of public officials.

The world still has threats, and during this waning unipolar moment (emphasis on “moment”), Washington is once again recognizing that great power competition and maintaining a balance of powers are salient elements of American security strategy.

Trump’s strategy respects the importance of alliances and cooperation, such as multilateral institutions and trade agreements. It rightfully calls for our partners to pull their own weight, however. For too long, American taxpayers have subsidized the internal and regional security of prosperous countries that are entirely capable of deterring aggression and securing their own borders. They need to — and can — do more.

Stationing tens of thousands of American troops in war-torn countries at the beginning of the Cold War was essential for American security. They prevented a hostile hegemony — the Soviet Union or Communist China — from dominating Western Europe, East Asia, or the Middle East, which would have given them control of massive human and natural resources.

Times have changed. Russia and China certainly are trying to change the international order, but they generally seek influence without military conquest. Troubling aggression on their land and maritime boundaries deserve condemnation and consequence, but neither seems intent on gobbling up neighbors wholesale.

The report’s explicit connection between economic vitality and security is paramount. A prosperous country has more flexibility to confront challenges. The people have more ability to solve problems through private action like nongovernmental organizations and innovation. If it becomes necessary for government to extract resources from the people during a crisis, more is available in a richer society like the United States, and the impact on living standards to meet those challenges is less than poorer countries, like Russia and China, would face.

Naturally, the report could be improved.

President Trump cares about winning. From the perspective of citizens, however, “winning” means security at home, peaceful coexistence wherever possible, freedom, and prosperity. Foreign affairs are a means to preserve those goods now and for the foreseeable future.

The report and its authors on the National Security Council are indeed correct that hoping to “turn [authoritarian governments] into benign actors and trustworthy partners” was a fool’s errand. But so is hoping that isolating and threatening them will yield better results. Sometimes the best option is to manage problems. We may compound existing issues if we exert enough pressure to drive them toward each other. Instead of being able to deal with them on a regional or even bilateral basis, we might foster an anti-America block that balances against us.

Trade is a more positive force than the report suggests. Existing trade agreements are not perfect, but they promote mutual prosperity and understanding. They also enhance our intelligence capabilities by improving plausibility of business covers for operatives.

Strategy is supposed to set priorities. Yet, the report does not outline principles for how the administration will set higher or lower priorities, let alone explicitly state our most important security interests, secondary interests, and non-interests.

Nor does it grapple with the challenge of budget constraints. Even after Congress enacts a budget deal, security and foreign policy agencies will still have to make choices and face tradeoffs.

Prioritizing means and ends under budget, geographic, and other constraints is the heart of strategy. President Trump wants to increase Pentagon spending, but he might get less than he wants. If so, how do resource levels affect which missions America pursues and how it conducts them? How does the balance between military and civilian tools shift with budget levels? Which activities can we stop doing with little or no impact to our security and prosperity?

All that said, this strategy report substantially improves on prior doctrine.

Refocusing U.S. foreign policy tools on America’s national interests is long overdue. Cold War institutions need to be updated not only for the post-Cold War era, but also for possible increased competition among great powers amid rapid technological innovation.

President Trump’s report on the national security strategy is hardly the last word, of course. Additional strategy reports based on it will be produced over the coming months. The president’s budget proposal, Congress’ budget and appropriations work, defense authorization, trade reform,State Department overhaul, and more will be informed, but not dictated, by this national security strategy.

Kurt Couchman is the vice president of Public Policy for Defense Priorities with over six years of experience as a policy expert in congressional offices.

Tags 20th century in the United States Donald Trump First 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency Foreign policy of the United States National security National Security Strategy Political terminology Public policy U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century

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