US National Security Strategy reflects Trump and his campaign

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's first blueprint for national security, which he announced on Monday (Dec 18), is consistent with his campaign rhetoric.

The National Security Strategy (NSS) paints America as increasingly challenged by ambitious revisionist powers China and Russia, as well as rogue regimes Iran and North Korea. It also cites the threats of rampant immigration, radical militants, unfair trade deals and predatory foreign commercial interests undermining American innovation.

The Trump administration's answer to these is a bellicose "America First" nationalism underpinned by a beefed-up and modernised military, a strong economy at home and hard nosed mercantilism abroad and a "great reawakening of America, a resurgence of confidence, and a rebirth of patriotism, prosperity, and pride", as he said on Monday when he outlined the NSS.

Mr Trump's speech on the NSS at the Reagan Centre in Washington DC was greeted with cheers predictably from hawks like Dr Sebastian Gorka, who had boasted of American "hyper power" when he was a national security adviser in the Trump White House.

"This national security strategy is founded on a mantra of 'America first' - not 'America alone' - under which the President and his White House reassert the Judeo-Christian values of the republic and the ties that bind us to those who share those values, be they countries in Europe, such as Poland, or countries in the Middle East, such as Israel," he wrote in the journal The Hill.

But critics have pounced on the dissonance between the rhetoric of the NSS, and the reality - that America's diplomatic heft has been eroded under Mr Trump; and severe political polarisation at home undermines America.

The 55-page NSS document is in true Trump fashion, characteristically blunt - for which many analysts gave the US leader credit.

China and Russia came in for special mention as "revisionist" powers that sought to, in effect, take the game away from America if America does not gear up and defend itself.

"Every other NSS has glossed over the level of strategic competition in the world and this one is brutally frank about the global competition," Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, told The Straits Times.

Dr Ali Soufan, New York-based CEO of The Soufan Group consultancy, told ST that nobody would disagree with the broad statement of pursuing American power and prosperity.

"But just looking at the facts... if you want to accomplish engagement around the world to promote US interests or power, you need diplomacy," he said.

Yet 60 per cent of senior State Department positions were still empty, he pointed out. "We have no Ambassador in Egypt, Saudi, Jordan, Qatar," he said.

Apart from China, the rest of Asia gets short shrift in the NSS. Asean is mentioned just once - "The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) remain centrepieces of the Indo-Pacific's regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom."

The document added: "We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India. In South-east Asia, the Philippines and Thailand remain important allies and markets for Americans.

"Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are growing security and economic partners of the United States."

Multilateral institutions also get only a perfunctory mention.

Mr Richard Ponzio, a former State Department official now with the Stimson Centre in Washington, tweeted: "Returning American Foreign Policy to a focus on Great Power (19th and 20th century) rivalry… seems to all but abandon a role for multilateral institutions in mediating between and reconciling the interest of Great Powers."

Scathing criticism came from the other side of the political aisle, from Democratic Congressman Eliot L. Engel, a ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In a statement, he criticised the Trump administration's "haphazard, fly-by-the-seat of-your pants 'foreign policy' that has severely eroded our country's leadership on the global stage and made us less safe".

 
 
 

He added: "Prioritising 'America First' over longstanding alliances, reversing President Obama's landmark accomplishments on climate change, and mindlessly slashing American diplomacy and development efforts harms our standing in the world, undermines our national security, and cedes much greater influence to our adversaries."

Still, many of Mr Trump's critics, still wistful for the Barack Obama era, have habitually underestimated the current US leader. Though Mr Trump's political base is narrow, he plays to it consistently, following through on promises however divisive, and skilfully blaming the Washington political-bureaucratic-media elite for obstructionism.

How the NSS will translate into policy, will be better revealed as other policy papers are rolled out next year - including the National Defence Strategy - in early 2018.

"Every NSS has contradictions in the articulation of ends, ways, and means," wrote Dr Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This one is no different. The strategy will have to evolve."

He added: "Trump's NSS is the first to start out anticipating the China challenge - an easier intellectual leap in the wake of Xi Jinping's triumphalist 19th Party Congress in October 2017 to be sure - but one that will likely shape American strategic thinking for some time to come."