For those willing to take it seriously, the question of Trump-ian national security and foreign policy has always been the extent to which the disruptive if not incendiary rhetoric of Donald Trump, the man, would be matched by a Trump administration effort to remake U.S. policy in accordance with his Twitter account. Was “America First” a fundamental reconception of the U.S. role in the world with new policies to match? Or could we expect more policy continuity than actual disruption?
Of course, many remain entirely unwilling to get to this question. Trumpian rhetoric is too unsettling for them to countenance in any way. To deride the utility of U.S. alliance commitments, the value of global trade, the obligation of the United States to adhere to international humanitarian law and human rights treaties such as the Convention against Torture—and to do so, moreover, under the same slogan as the pro-German isolationism of the 1930s—is more than enough to indicate a fundamental, disastrous change of course. By this light, Trump has been walking away from two generations of policy that served the United States very well.
The first year of the administration has offered many presidential tweets and rhetorical flourishes to buttress that view. It has also offered evidence for a certain skepticism about the discontinuity Trump represented. Senior administration officials did indeed spend time abroad insisting that allies pay up—but they also made the case for the value of alliances. Trump did indeed strike a blow at the Obama administration’s Iran agreement—but as part of a strategic reorientation of U.S. policy in the Middle East around Iran as the main threat to the region, in response to which the United States was promoting a de facto alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump was extravagant in promising “fire and fury” to North Korea in case of an attack on the United States (or on our Asian allies, at least at times)—yet in the context of promoting deterrence in the problematic mind of Kim Jong-un and of persuading China the United States means business, such rhetoric was not beyond the pale.
Some have found it agreeable to portray the gap between tweet and action as the effect of experienced senior hands around the president, many of them former top military officers, in modulating his impulses. In this view, Trump is in constant need of being hauled back from the brink of disaster.
With the publication of the administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), however, the picture has grown considerably more complex. The first thing that must be said of it is that Trump himself apparently likes it a great deal. He made a point of giving a speech to tout it, a departure from typical presidential practice for previous iterations of the document. The second is that it apparently reflects not only his views but those of senior officials in his administration, starting with national security adviser H. R. McMaster—indisputably one of the grown-ups in the room. This in turn raises the interesting possibility that there is less to the supposed gap between Trump and those around him than meets the eye. But that’s neither because the tweets are carrying the day nor because actual policy is more continuous than disrupted but, for better or worse, because the administration from the president on down has got a firmer grip on a new(ish) strategic framework than previously suspected.
In two words, that framework is “national interest,” which is what the United States will always pursue and the pursuit of which is “America First” in action. The new NSS rarely varies from the central subject of its consideration, namely, do international developments X and Y or possible U.S. policy choices A and B promote or hinder U.S. national interests? The document presents its conclusions as “principled realism,” where the “realism” is the pursuit of national interest. The “principle” comes from the exceptional American regard for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” spelled out and acted upon since the Declaration of Independence.
A comparison of the 2017 NSS with the first National Security Strategies promulgated in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations quickly yields two major differences between Trump and his immediate predecessors. The first is that the Trump document spurns the universal claims of classical liberalism as applied to international politics. For both Bush and Obama, the United States was part of a larger whole, one (admittedly very powerful) liberal state among a number of liberal states comprising a liberal international order that was in principle universal, although not yet in fact. For Bush, this phenomenon had a divine origin, God’s gift to human beings of the desire for freedom. For Obama, it was secular—clever humans coming to their senses about their own best interests.
For Trump, to the contrary, the United States from its founding set an American standard for the defense of the “institutions, traditions, and principles that have allowed us to live in freedom, to build the nation that we love.” The United States has defended its standard successfully through considerable adversity, from the revolution and the Civil War through the defeat of fascism and communism. Rather than a part of a larger whole, the United States was the focal point around which liberalism writ large gathered. This gathering was owed to the improved understanding of the countries who came to appreciate the superior virtue embodied in the United States. That’s what makes good allies. But without the United States in the first place, what passes for a liberal international order would be nowhere in the world to be found.
The second major difference is that the Trump NSS explicitly rejects his two predecessors’ notion of an “arc of history”—which is to say, the idea that history is directional and moving towards universal liberalism. Again, Bush and Obama, so different in so many ways, shared a Whig view of history as progress: hence the project Bush spelled out in his second inaugural of “ending tyranny” (to be fair, he said it would take “generations,” but end it we could); hence as well Obama’s propensity to describe the behavior of certain actors as on the “wrong side” of history. For Trump’s NSS, on the contrary, the constant of history is international conflict. The way to deal with it is to be strong and self-confident in the way the United States exemplified until recently beginning “to drift” into “complacency.”
Some of Trump’s more ideological supporters (his ideological detractors as well) have detected a burgeoning Trump ideology here: anti-“globalist,” anti-“entangling alliances,” anti-interventionist, from his supporters’ point of view; from his detractors’, blood-and-soil ultranationalism and authoritarianism. The latter are unlikely to change their views no matter what happens; the former are likely to be disappointed by how little of their agenda even a self-consciously national-interest-based approach to foreign policy entails—as we have seen so far.