President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.

President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The National Security Strategy Commits the US to a Lonelier and Less Generous Course

As previewed by H.R. McMaster, the new NSS contrasts strikingly to the visions of other recent presidents.

The Trump administration unveils a National Security Strategy next week, but National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster provided an advance glimpse of the plan on Tuesday.

A helpful way to understand where this still-new administration is leading is to compare McMaster’s bullet-pointed speech to the final strategy documents released by two previous administrations, in 2015 and 2006, and note what is changing. McMaster spoke at a Washington conference hosted by Policy Exchange, a U.K. think tank that I chaired from 2014 until earlier this year. Granted, his short speech inevitably abridged the long-form document. Yet even allowing for that, the differences can be seen.

The Obama administration’s 2015 document addressed in some detail epidemics and climate change. The Bush administration committed the United States to supporting human dignity, opening societies, and supporting the building of democracy. The main lines of the Trump approach jettison these concerns. If McMaster fairly summarized the new approach, the United States will soon formally commit itself to a lonelier and less generous course.

The new Trump policy is headed by four priorities: defending the homeland, protecting American prosperity, sustaining peace through strength, and advancing American influence. All these themes were present in 2006 and 2015 too, but the differences in emphasis in 2017 are crucial. The two previous presidencies spoke of American economic interests as both shared and expanding. The Trump approach is narrower and gloomier: American prosperity is to be protected, not enlarged; foreign economies are seen as rivals, not partners. McMaster spoke of fighting back against currency manipulation and unfair trade. Which is important as far as it goes—and indeed such themes have been struck before. But what is missing this time, if the advance summary is indicative, is awareness of the American economy as integrated into a global system, giving the U.S. an interest in the health of the whole.

“The American consumer cannot sustain global demand—growth must be more balanced,” cautioned the Obama report of 2015. “U.S. markets and educational opportunities will help the next generation of global entrepreneurs sustain momentum in growing a global middle class.” The Bush administration wrote in 2006: “The United States promotes the enduring vision of a global economy that welcomes all participants and encourages the voluntary exchange of goods and services based on mutual benefit, not favoritism.”

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McMaster’s speech nodded to the reduction of poverty worldwide over the past two decades. But there was no sense that this transformation represented a crucial and positive change in the strategic environment, one offering opportunities for Americans as well as risks. America under the leadership of Donald Trump seems much more intent on preserving the legacy of the past than building with others the possibilities of the future.

Within the Trump administration, McMaster has been a leading—if not always successful—champion of alliances and allies. He did his utmost to coax and cajole Donald Trump to endorse NATO’s mutual defense Article V during Trump’s visit to NATO headquarters in June. (To the dismay and surprise of McMaster and other top aides, Trump spontaneously omitted the key passage of the speech.) The very fact that McMaster chose to unveil the strategy at a joint event with his U.K. counterpart, Mark Sedwill, symbolizes his own commitment to internationalism. The United States, he said, drew strength from coalitions with other strong and independent nation-states—although that last comment may also have been an expression of the Trump administration’s unconcealed dislike for the European Union.

And yet, every salute was joined to a scold. McMaster insisted more than once upon “cooperation with reciprocity”—a phrase seemingly intended to signal a new approach and emphasis. Where once the U.S. perceived itself as the single largest beneficiary of the rules-based international order undergirded by American power, Team Trump seems to be absorbing the president’s perception of the United States as an imposed-upon dupe. In his Roy Moore endorsement speech in Pensacola, Florida, Trump repeated his tweeted demands that U.S. allies pay cash in return for American protection. It’s unlikely that the demand will be so crudely stated in an NSC document—but the grievance has been absorbed and has impressed itself on U.S. policy.

Most startling is the repudiation of a values component to U.S. foreign policy. Here of course the Trump foreign-policy vision faces an insuperable problem: The single most daunting problem for American soft power and global influence is the president himself. Trump is almost unanimously reviled within America’s democratic allies. Confidence not only in him personally, but in American leadership generally, has starkly collapsed. Only 29 percent of Australians, 24 percent of Japanese, 22 percent of Canadians and British, 14 percent of the French, and 11 percent of Germans trust Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. In South Korea, he is trusted only by 17 percent—even as Trump tries to build a coalition against North Korea that will crucially depend on South Korean support. (Periodically threatening trade war against South Korea surely does not help.)

Worryingly, McMaster cited Trump’s Warsaw speech as an example of how this administration would extend its influence. The most immediate effect of that speech was to empower Poland’s increasingly authoritarian government to proceed with an attack on freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary. As Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post on July 16:

Last week, only days after Trump’s visit, [Poland’s Law and Justice party] passed a bill that will politicize the National Council of the Judiciary, the constitutional body that selects judges. Then it went further: Without public hearings, it introduced another bill that, if signed into law, would enable the justice minister, in breach of the constitution, to dismiss—immediately—all of the members of Poland’s highest court.

Those plans were eventually beaten back by the largest public protests in Poland since Solidarity days—but no thanks to Trump. “The United States’s message has encouraged Law and Justice to isolate itself in Europe, safe in its belief that America has its back.”

Trump’s defense of Western values in Poland was not a defense of democracy or liberty, but an eruption of chauvinist boasting about the merits of European culture as compared to that of unnamed but inferior others.

We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.

We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.

And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.

What we have, what we inherited from our—and you know this better than anybody, and you see it today with this incredible group of people—what we've inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again.  

This is not language to win friends and influence people even inside Europe, much less the rest of the world. The day may come when the United States needs cooperation from partners without a symphonic tradition and who do not share ancestors with Donald Trump. The day may even possibly come when the U.S. needs cooperation from partners who do not agree that the country that elected Trump as its president strives for excellence and rewards brilliance quite so much as it boasts it does.

This problem is inherent and inescapable. It will demand tact and ingenuity to resolve. Apparently, based on the words read today by one of the most formidable soldier-intellectuals of recent times, the national-security strategy of the United States is to pretend that the problem does not exist at all.