Three Ways to Read Trump’s National Security Strategy

By Eliot A. Cohen

December 19, 2017

To the authors of any administration’s National Security Strategy—mandated for over 30 years now—it is a great state paper, a literary beacon by which government agencies can follow the president’s lead, a work of measured but forceful prose, whose lucidity is undeniable save by the malicious or irremediably malcontent. It is fair to say that no one who picks up these monographs without the painful experience of having labored on or near one shares that view. That is no criticism of their drafters, who are often exceptionally well-educated at advanced institutions of learning, where they have studied strategic thought at the feet of masters. No, the difficulty lies in the process by which the NSS is invariably composed. For that one needs other metaphors.

One approach is to adopt the mind of a tracker examining the scat of a shaggy, shambling woodland beast. The spoor may be aesthetically unappealing, but it provides insight into the beast’s diet, possibly its direction of travel, maybe even its overall health. This metaphor suggests the experience and acuity needed by readers, because unfortunately, the gastric juices of the bureaucratic digestive system dissolve most nutritional content in the NSS. The result are leavings composed chiefly of stern but anodyne injunctions to “preserve peace through strength” or “advance American interests” or “disrupt terror plots” or “identify and prioritize risks.” These are neither new (every administration inserts them or phrases just like them into the NSS) nor particularly illuminating. No one, not even one’s despised and rejected predecessors, would have suggested that we should not advance American interests, after all. The National Security Strategy is invariably as long on adjectives and adverbs as it is short on concrete nouns, numbers, and verbs. It sets no deadlines, outlines no actions, is divorced from budget numbers, and consists for the most part of abstract blither. It is not strategy as any historically minded student of the subject would understand it. It is merely what is left over when actual purpose, real choices, and important decisions have failed to pass through the alimentary canal.

Another way of exploring the NSS is with the mindset of a rigorous 19th-century critical student of the Bible. In the same way that those scholars dissected the holy texts for multiple authors (J, P, and E for the five books of Moses, Proto-, Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah for that prophet’s works) so too may one begin to see multiple hands in the crafting of this otherwise enigmatic work. Here too, remarkably enough, three authors emerge: the Trumpian Monarchist, the Deep State Scribe, and the Bureaucratic Redactor.

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The Trumpian Monarchist is, unsurprisingly, most evident in the cover letter inscribed with the jagged two-inch-high signature of the object of the royal cult. It takes the darkest possible view of this “extraordinarily dangerous world.” It warns an errant people not to “tolerate economic aggression,” even as it bemoans “unfair burden sharing with our allies” while celebrating its own “beautiful vision” of restoring America to its pre-lapsarian greatness. A prevalent scholarly view is that only this page-and-a-half bear the unmistakable and consistent hand of the Trumpian Monarchist, although his erratic mark reappears periodically elsewhere.

The Deep State Scribe evidently wrote most of this text, making as he or she did numerous references to American values, the importance of alliance relationships, and expressing deep suspicion of the hereditary foe of the people, Russia. The Scribe, immersed in years of study of the foundational beliefs of the American foreign-policy establishment, faithfully reproduces them—believing, for example that the United States should “remain a beacon of liberty and opportunity around the world” or “protect religious freedom and religious minorities.”

The Bureaucratic Redactor had no easy task, for the Trumpian Monarchist and the Deep State Scribe did not see the world the same way. The Scribal tradition was more authentic and widely believed by the people, but immediate power lay with the Trumpian Monarchist. The Redactor saw his or her job as somehow reconciling these philosophically opposed worldviews by scattering absurdities such as “Competitive Diplomacy” and commandments to “catalyze opportunities.” This achieved consensus by confusion, as did raptures about the importance of diplomacy that neglected the demolition of the State Department, or denunciation of Russia without reference to its meddling in the 2016 election. The Trumpian Monarchist being only semi-literate, he did not compose (some believe that he did not even read, or read closely) the bulk of the text. But prudence dictated that he be bought off by making repeated references to “vetting” and visa restrictions, by scornfully tossing aside the false gods of previous authorities (such as climate change), and by throwing in all kinds of policies that have little to do with national security, such as rejuvenating the domestic economy.

The danger of a sacred text lies in its ability to justify all kinds of behaviors, some times in the names of pagan deities that demand unquestioning sacrifices. So it is with national security, a phrase whose power to beat down enemies and restrict various freedoms has exercised an unhealthy appeal for many rulers. Invest any problem—from the environment to primary school education, the issuing of visas to net neutrality—with the phrase national security and the ruler gains dignity and most importantly power. Only a skeptic towards the presidential cult would suggest that this is way overblown or even a threat to freedom.

See also: New National Security Strategy Sees Rising Russia, Retreat on ‘Democratic Peace’

This text bears contemplation, though not as its authors undoubtedly intended. At the end of the day, however, the analogy to scat may actually be the most useful. There is not a great deal one can actually do with spoor; it does not predict whether the beast will turn right or left, gore an innocent farmer or charge madly off a cliff. It offers a few clues, and that is about it. So by all means study it. Just don’t swallow it.

By Eliot A. Cohen // Eliot A. Cohen is the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He is the author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

December 19, 2017