The Blob – a wonderful nickname for the Washington, D.C.-centered complex of establishmentarian foreign policy bureaucrats, former officials, think tanks, lobbyists, and journalists – has actually come up with a useful insight in noting some important contradictions between the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) document, and the president’s speech announcing the document’s release.
It’s hardly new to observe that big differences on crucial issues seem to divide President Trump from his top advisers, though it’s always valuable to note, since this gap can’t possibly make American diplomacy more effective, and could cause real problems. My chief NSS-related concern, however, could be even more important: Mr. Trump’s speech once again demonstrates that he himself remains pretty confused about his foreign policy priorities – and not entirely convinced that priority-setting is particularly important at all.
Not that presidents are often perfectly consistent about America’s approach to international challenges and opportunities. And given the diversity of these challenges and opportunities, consistency itself can be a vastly overrated virtue – at best. But these days, much more clarity is urgently needed – especially since President Trump has touted himself as such a disrupter; especially since the America First-style disruption he touts is badly needed on many fronts, in my opinion; and especially since disruption is badly needed because some genuinely dangerous situations are nearing crisis territory, and some existing crises keep worsening.
With that backdrop in my mind, two of these clashing ideas – maybe described more accurately as sets of impulses? – stand out. The first has to do with America’s major security alliances. Mr. Trump has consistently, and in my view, understandably, complained about defense free-riding by countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region in particular that for decades have enjoyed protection by U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. And his December 18 NSS speech continued in this vein, scolding his White House predecessors for failing “to insist that our often very wealthy allies pay their fair share for defense, putting a massive and unfair burden on the U.S. taxpayer and our great U.S. military.”
He’s absolutely right that major economies like like Germany, Japan, and South Korea should pay far more, and not only because they can afford to do so – and free up American resources for major domestic needs in the process. They need to pay more because they face far greater threats from potential aggressors like Russia and China and North Korea than does the United States.
If President Trump would start highlighting the discrepancy – firmly based in geography – between the security challenges faced by the United States and those faced by its allies, he might actually achieve greater defense burden-sharing. But he makes a fatal mistake when boasts that his administration’s “new” strategy “emphasizes strengthening alliances to cope with these threats. It recognizes that our strength is magnified by allies who share principles — and our principles — and shoulder their fair share of responsibility for our common security.”
For whenever the allies have heard phrases like “common security,” they have concluded that the United States can’t afford to put any meaningful pressure on them to boost defense budgets – because its own vital interests will always persuade it to fill any gaps. History could not teach more clearly the lesson that America’s failure to stress that its alliances are helpful assets, not vital necessities, and that its support for these arrangements is not unconditional, has been the kiss of death for any efforts to eliminate or reduce free-riding. And the Trump administration’s burden-sharing campaign will surely founder on exactly these shoals.
If we were living in another (past) decade, this shortcoming might be No Big Deal. After all, as I’ve previously written, America’s major alliance commitments, including their nuclear dimension, involved either pledges to protect arguably vital or potentially vital regions, or to deter adversaries, like North Korea, that couldn’t retaliate in kind against the American homeland. So it’s anything but entirely surprising that, for decades during the Cold War and after, these alliances achieved their overseas goals and kept the United States itself safe.
But the likeliest alliance-related potential flashpoints nowadays are totally different. Russia, which still has plenty of nuclear weapons, is seriously threatening only Baltic and other East European countries that were recklessly invited to join the North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) even though their fates have never been considered vital interests by American leaders. Even during the Cold War, America’s European allies were never entirely convinced that Washington would risk DC, or New York, to save Paris or London. It’s that much less credible to suppose that U.S. leader would risk a major American city to save Riga.
Frighteningly, however, that’s precisely a catastrophe that the United States today could suffer because it remains American strategy to deny a president any real choice but to act. And the means to this perilous end? A growing U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe not remotely strong enough to repel a Russian attack, but large enough to put irresistible political pressure on Washington to go nuclear to save it from annihilation, or to retaliate for its loss.
Such American tripwire forces remain on the Korean peninsula, too, and their tripwire mission also remains exactly the same – even though North Korea can now, or will shortly be able to, respond to American nuclear weapons use by destroying U.S. cities.
In other words, greater alliance burden-sharing – and probably much greater changes – now need to be squarely on President Trump’s table not simply to achieve greater economic equity and to finance domestic policies more responsibly. They’re needed to reduce as dramatically as possible the chances that nuclear weapons will land on American soil. But as Mr. Trump’s speech indicates, there’s no reason to suppose that he’s even considering this type of disruption.
The second set of clashing ideas or impulses has to do with the overall purpose of American foreign policy. I’ve been writing for decades that the main flaw in the internationalist approach dominating the country’s diplomacy for decades has been its insistence that the United States can be no more secure, prosperous, or free than the world at large. Therefore, internationalism (which Mr. Trump and many of his supporters tend to call “globalism”), whether in its conservative or liberal forms, has pursued a worldwide reformist and policing agenda even in areas where the United States had no tangible stakes whatever, or where the benefits never remotely approached the costs and risks.
In his NSS speech, Trump (again) rightly lambasted the archetypical post-Cold War version of this internationalism: “nation-building.” He emphasized that “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone” and repeated an important (potentially and constructively) disruptive in marker laid down in previous addresses:
“We will pursue the vision we have carried around the world over this past year — a vision of strong, sovereign, and independent nations that respect their citizens and respect their neighbors; nations that thrive in commerce and cooperation, rooted in their histories and branching out toward their destinies.”
The point about a world of “strong, sovereign, and independent nations” represents long overdue pushback against the globalist objective of a world increasingly governed by ever more powerful international rules and institutions that can only undermine national self-rule – and are likeliest to focus on restraining U.S. freedom of action.
But the business about respecting citizens and neighbors (along with his concern about “vigorous military, economic, and political contests…now playing out all around the world”), and thriving in commerce and cooperation, too strongly resembles the standard internationalist boilerplate that has launched the nation on so many, often disastrously, misguided Americanizing missions.
And although an explicit Trump-ian return to nation-building etc seems wildly improbable, first consider the president’s description of his anti-terrorism goals in the Middle East, and then try to figure out how they can be reached without transforming this dysfunctional region into something light years from where it is now, and that it has never been: “confronting, discrediting, and defeating radical Islamic terrorism and ideology” and preventing “terrorists such as ISIS to gain control of vast parts of territory all across the Middle East.”
Far better for him to focus like the proverbial laser beam on “not letting them into the United States” – a goal that, however difficult, is far more practicable than curing what ails a remote, often hostile part of the world with which the United States has almost nothing in common.
The conventional wisdom about documents like the National Security Strategy is that they’re overwhelmingly for show, have virtually nothing to do with an administration’s day in and day out decisions, and lack any meaningful predictive power. Ditto for sweeping presidential speeches on grandiose subjects. And again, the conventional wisdom isn’t entirely wrong.
But as even cynics tend to concede, just as NSS-like reports result from the work of numerous government agencies and therefore hundreds of junior and senior officials (including political appointees), prepared presidential remarks (even in this administration) usually represent the combined efforts of many White House officials and also incorporate input from a wide range of government agencies. As a result, it’s far-fetched to suppose that they’re completely devoid of meaning. For me, they can reveal two important insights about a chief executive’s foreign policy outlook and potential.
First, as suggested above, they can yoke presidents to ill-considered and even dangerous commitments. Consequently, they can create equally ill-considered and even dangerous public expectations, too. Of course, circumstances force politicians to execute U-turns all the time, but the more obvious they are (because they reverse positions prominently staked out), the more (needlessly) damaging they can be.
Second, and more important, they speak can volumes about how well presidents can handle the challenge of making hard foreign policy choices, their related willingness to acknowledge in the first place that not all good things are possible simultaneously, or even close, and their consequent ability to establish sustainable priorities. In these respects, the president’s remarks about his administration’s first NSS display too many of the shortcomings that produced globalism’s major failures.