A Bold Strategy to Save Trump From Trumpism

(Bloomberg View) -- The officials charged with writing President Donald Trump's first National Security Strategy, released Monday afternoon, faced a nearly impossible task. Given that Trump's policies and rhetoric have often seemed calculated to undercut rather than advance U.S. global leadership, there were only three possible outcomes of the strategy-crafting exercise, none of them particularly good.

First, the NSS might have been a full-throated defense of the narrowly nationalistic "America First" agenda Trump espoused on the campaign trail. This would have horrified much of the foreign policy establishment at home and hastened the already alarming drop-off in perceptions of American reliability abroad.

Second, it might have sought to thread the needle between Trump's declared preferences and the postwar tradition of U.S. leadership, in which case it would have risked being riven with logical tensions and even incoherence.

Third, it might have offered a more conventional, mainstream approach to global affairs, in which case the strategy itself would be somewhat reassuring -- but would also raise inevitable questions about the obvious mismatch between declared policy and presidential behavior. 

So the authors are to be commended for largely steering away from the first potential outcome, and authoring a document that is fairly hard-edged but nonetheless basically reasonable. Unfortunately, the strategy also suffers from some unavoidable contradictions, which unintentionally highlight just how troubling the president's conduct has been. 

The basic thrust of the paper is that the U.S. is now leaving the seemingly benign post-Cold War era, and entering a period of significant international danger and renewed geopolitical competition. The challenges to U.S. security come from a range of actors -- rogue states Iran and North Korea, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, rival great powers Russia and China. The key, then, is to position the U.S. advantageously for these competitions, by restoring its traditional strengths, addressing potential weaknesses, and building new sources of advantage. The four pillars of the strategy -- "Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life," "Promote American Prosperity," "Preserve Peace through Strength," and "Advance American Influence" -- all fit within this framework. 

As one would perhaps expect, there are aspects of the nearly 70-page document -- the longest NSS to date -- that represent vintage, unadulterated Trump. His monumental narcissism is on full display. The first sentence of the report declares that "the American people elected me to make America great again," and the first paragraph probably sets a record for uses of "me" and "I." The document argues, predictably but unconvincingly, that America has experienced a near-miraculous turnaround in its international position since Trump’s inauguration.

The "America First" label also figures prominently, as do arguments that the international system that the U.S. created has become "unfair" and prejudiced against American interests. The world is framed as an arena in which competition is remorseless and nations are either winning or losing. This is the Trumpian worldview that has proven so disconcerting to observers around the world.  

For the most part, however, the document is less extreme than one might have predicted. It is firmly enough aligned with longstanding concepts of U.S. foreign policy, in fact, that it might conceivably have come from a different Republican administration.

The NSS praises the postwar international system that the U.S. built, arguing only that the country took a wrong turn after the Cold War, when it became "complacent" as a result of its unrivaled power. It distinguishes clearly between U.S. allies and the adversaries -- namely Russia and China -- that are seeking to revise the global rules of the road, and it affirms the importance of our values as a source of American power. It critiques unfair trade practices, but speaks of reforming rather than destroying the global system that has delivered so much prosperity over the past 70 years.

There is not much fire-breathing rhetoric -- no references to “Rocket Man,” no threats to “totally destroy North Korea” -- even as the report discusses serious dangers to U.S. and global security.

Not least, the NSS emphasizes the need to build America's unilateral strengths, particularly in the military realm, but as a way of preserving U.S. leadership on behalf of a broader concept of international order. "We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States," the NSS notes -- a departure from the campaign rhetoric of a president who often seemed to view American leadership as an uncompensated burden. 

Parts of the document are even quite constructive. Although the emphasis on competition with China will be jarring for some observers, for instance, this theme represents a long-overdue recognition that Beijing is not integrating smoothly into the existing international system, and that the rise of an authoritarian peer rival constitutes a defining challenge for American statecraft in the coming years. Likewise, the discussion of gray-zone competition -- coercion that occurs in the space between traditional definitions of peace and war -- offers a needed warning that the U.S. could lose the struggle for influence in the Asia-Pacific and other key regions without a shot being fired.

In short, those observers who support American leadership of the postwar order -- but recognize that this leadership needs to be updated in light of changing circumstances -- can find a fair amount to like here. Nonetheless, there are two glaring problems.

The first is that there is unavoidably a certain incoherence in the document, which results from the struggle to reconcile the core themes of the document with the president's own predilections. The NSS explicitly labels Russia as a strategic competitor and identifies the cyber realm as a key arena of competition -- and yet there is only the most oblique reference to Russia's interference in the U.S. electoral process in 2016.

Similarly, the importance of U.S. leadership in meeting common challenges is touted, but the report largely elides the fact that Trump has pulled out of two major multilateral undertakings -- the Paris accords on combating climate change, which was meant to address an enormous long-term threat to global prosperity and security, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was originally intended to secure U.S. leadership and promote an open regional economy in the Asia-Pacific. On these issues, the NSS, like Trump's presidency itself, seems torn by contradictory impulses. 

This relates to a second and larger issue, which is that the NSS -- skillfully constructed as it is -- is often sharply at odds with the president's own instincts and behavior. The document prescribes unsentimental, cold-eyed competition with Russia and China, and yet Trump himself has preferred to fawn over, and be flattered by, the dictators in Moscow and Beijing.

The importance of democratic values features prominently in the report, but Trump has repeatedly talked down the role of democracy and human rights in American statecraft, and he has shown more fondness for authoritarians than democrats. The document stresses that the U.S. "rejects bigotry" and embraces the rule of law, but Trump has defended white supremacists, trafficked in xenophobia and nationalism, and displayed an alarming indifference to democratic norms at home and abroad. The authors note the importance of sober, steady American leadership, even as the president engages in reckless name-calling and casually threatens war against adversaries such as Venezuela and North Korea. 

The list of glaring inconsistencies goes on and on. Trump has seemingly delighted in picking fights with U.S. allies, even as the strategy issued in his name touts the "invaluable advantages" conferred by those partnerships. The NSS promises to restore U.S. military strength, yet the administration's proposed increase in defense spending was largely symbolic -- far short of what Secretary of Defense James Mattis privately remarked was necessary to deal with the challenges that the strategy rightly identifies -- and the president is on the verge of signing a tax bill that will further explode the deficit and thereby crowd out defense spending over the longer term.

Also, given that the paper says all the right things about the value of diplomacy, one would hardly know that the White House has alternated between ignoring and seeking to deconstruct the State Department. 

The result of these myriad discrepancies is to give the document an air of unreality -- and even, in the worst instances, to convey a certain delusional quality. "The whole world is lifted by America's renewal and the reemergence of American leadership" under Trump, the document states. Tell that to the world, because international esteem for and confidence in the U.S. has plummeted since Trump took office. The NSS quotes Alexander Hamilton as saying that "The world has its eye upon America," but today, most of the world doesn't particularly like what it is seeing. 

The National Security Strategy is thus both a reassuring and a deeply troubling document. It reminds us that the devoted patriots around Trump are working diligently to contain his most dangerous tendencies, and yet it also reminds us of just how hard -- although necessary -- that endeavor is.

If the more constructive themes of the document presage a shift in Trump’s approach to the world, then the report will have played a valuable role in reorienting an administration that has so far proven hugely damaging to American policy and power. If not, it will simply go down as one more effort to normalize a most abnormal American president. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu.

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