National Security & Defense

Trump’s New National-Security Strategy Projects Confidence

President Trumps unveils the administration’s national-security strategy in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
It will eschew the passive ‘lead from behind’ approach of President Obama.

President Trump today unveiled his new National Security Strategy (NSS), exceeding the expectations of the national-security community by producing a remarkably coherent NSS within his first twelve months in office. President Obama took 16 months to present his vision, and President George W. Bush, dealing with the disturbance of 9/11 to his strategic considerations, took 20 months. Clearly guided by the vision enunciated by the president during his 2016 campaign and validated by that national election, the team of Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, Dina Powell, and Nadia Schadlow has crafted a “sustainment” strategy supported by a peace-through-strength defense buildup. What is very clear is that this strategy is not a break from the nation’s post–World War II–era national-security policy but rather a realistic distillation of that policy tailored to the challenges the nation faces today.

However, in a break from his post–Cold War predecessors, President Trump readily announces that the United States is presently in a great-power competition and names the nation’s prime competitors as Russia and China. While appeals to American values remain, and in fact are strongly stated, it is the promotion of American interests that emerges most starkly. The president states that he plans to compete aggressively in the economic sphere by pursuing free, fair, and reciprocal trade on a bilateral basis while also confronting nations that violate the free-trade agreements signed in the past. Additionally, the new NSS breaks from the language of the Obama administration by overtly promoting American exceptionalism and presenting the United States as a force for good in the world. As such, the new NSS emerges as a true amalgam of Theodore Roosevelt’s warrior approach to the world and Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to be its priest.

From the perspective of pure defense analysis, President Trump and McMaster, his national-security adviser, have taken a new path. Rather than continue to pursue a pure capabilities-overmatch acquisitions strategy within the Department of Defense, the Trump NSS seeks a balance between capabilities and capacity by continuing to invest in cutting-edge technologies while also expanding the force and improving readiness. It seeks to accomplish this by investing in high-end, cutting-edge combat systems to win wars while also providing for larger numbers of personnel and buying cheaper legacy combat systems to maintain the peace. Clearly, President Trump’s commitment to a 355-ship Navy falls within this approach. The president also firmly commits the nation to recapitalizing the nation’s nuclear-deterrent force and renewing all three legs of the nuclear triad. This strategy is enabled by the president’s call for increased defense spending, a goal that is shared by Armed Services Committee members in both the House and the Senate.

There is also a new stream of thought within this document that raises the issue of American resilience, the nation’s ability to take a blow and keep fighting without interruption. The White House, in a move that harkens back to the Eisenhower era’s Project Solarium, provides a deep focus on the nation’s defense-industrial base. It advocates the renewal of the manufacturing sector and the avoidance of dependence on single-point domestic sources or even reliance on foreign suppliers for key components of the nation’s prime weapons systems. It goes on to encourage investments that preserve and promote the expansion of critical skills within the defense sector. Anyone who has paid attention to the arguments regarding why the nation cannot quickly expand its Navy due to shipbuilding manpower constraints can recognize this critical need.

Interestingly, the president also called out space as a “priority domain.” This is both refreshing and concerning. It is refreshing that the nation has a leader who at last understands our military’s dependence upon space-based systems to fight and win the nation’s wars. It is concerning because space is now officially recognized by nearly all space-faring nations as an area of competition, both economically and militarily, and the United States is not, at present, well positioned to leverage its technological lead in this arena to preserve its military advantage. It is clear that the vice president’s newly reenergized space council will be the focus of activity for this domain for the foreseeable future.

Counter to broader expectations, the new NSS also renews the United States’ commitments to its treaty allies. The Trump NSS not only promises to renew and bolster ties with traditional allies and partners, it goes on to state that it will seek to encourage others to join the community of like-minded democratic states that make up over half of the world’s global GDP. It is clear that the administration is seeking to make use of some traditional forms of diplomacy while seeking to modernize other elements to align with the dynamic nature of the current global, international competitive environment.

From the perspective of pure defense analysis, President Trump and McMaster, his national-security adviser, have taken a new path.

In the end, the Trump National Security Strategy announces the return of an assertive United States on the international stage with the clear intent of promoting its interests first while also defending the international norms and laws that the nation has labored so long to establish and which are increasingly under attack by actors such as Russia, China, and Iran. It also avoids the vacuous bumper stickers of the past and attempts to establish a true strategy that seeks to find a balance between ends, ways, and means.

While it does seek a larger U.S. military, the NSS balances this increase with calls for fiscal restraint elsewhere within the federal budget and expanded revenues through curtailed federal regulation and a loosening of the market’s animal spirits. It is a strategy undergirded by confidence and a belief in the underlying goodness of the American system of government and its continued leading role in the world.


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Jerry Hendrix — Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.

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