As a statement of policy, the United States’ new National Security Strategy is mostly unobjectionable. As an expression of President Donald Trump’s worldview, however, it is oddly encouraging. The question is whether Trump will stand by the words that went out in his name.
The policy first: The greatest difference between last week’s document and previous ones — they are required by Congress — is its emphasis on domestic security. Unfortunately, this is also the issue on which it is weakest. Promised new investment in border security, immigration control and domestic missile defense will not necessarily make Americans safer. And while the document stresses the need for improved cybersecurity, there aren’t many specifics to show that the administration understands the problem.
Another shortcoming is the report’s downplaying of climate change, which the Pentagon considers one of the greatest threats to U.S. security. Simply urging the nation to lead in energy misses the point.
The report’s treatment of China is also worrisome. It lumps Beijing in with Moscow as a “revisionist” power and names it a strategic “competitor” in the economic as well as military spheres. Unfortunately, this vague assessment (what does the term mean, exactly?) is followed by more tough talk on trade with China that could lead to a self-defeating trade war. Nor does the plan offer any details about how to increase Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea.
So how exactly is the report encouraging? It’s the idea that Trump — at least on paper — is promoting alliances, addressing the threats posed by authoritarian powers and acknowledging the benefits of the global system the U.S. has upheld for seven decades.
For example, the document tries to reassure those who were concerned by Trump’s initial hesitation to back NATO’s mutual-protection clause, calling the alliance “one of our great advantages over our competitors” and warning that Russia is “using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe.”
More generally, the report warns that simply engaging rivals will not turn them into “benign actors and trustworthy partners,” a seeming slap at past outreach to Iran and a welcome sign from an administration that has sometimes seemed soft on Russia and China. It also rightly acknowledges that there will be occasions in which interests may align for cooperation with great-power rivals — what the administration calls “principled realism.”
The usual question about a bureaucratic exercise such as this is what impact it will have on policy. The more immediate question is what influence it will have on a particularly impulsive president.
Still, viewed as more of a compass than a road map, the National Security Strategy at least provides a sense of direction. Whether it’s the right direction — and in many cases it’s not — at least now the administration has elucidated its rationale for moving forward.
FROM AN EDITORIAL AT BLOOMBERG VIEW