In recent months, the Trump administration has called for a dramatic shift in the direction of American foreign policy. How drastic of a shift? As the administration’s National Defense Strategy pithily put it: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” This means that when it comes to investing in new capabilities and planning for the future, the United States will focus more on threats and challenges from Russia and China than on counter-terrorism, rogue states, and nation building.
Russia and China both represent very different types of power. They use different tactics to exert their influence, but both seek to erode the U.S.-led regional orders in Europe and East Asia, and to promote a spheres-of-influence-based model. Russia uses hard power, including military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and political warfare against western democracies. China has expanded its presence in the South China Sea, launched major mercantilist economic initiatives to enhance its influence abroad, and has used its power to pressure American companies, universities, and media organizations. During the Obama years, something of a bipartisan consensus emerged between mainstream Democratic and Republican foreign-policy experts that the president had under-reacted to Russian and Chinese assertiveness. Many of them welcome the focus suggested by Trump’s National Defense Strategy and his National Security Strategy
Foreign governments, meanwhile, are trying to make sense of the new approach under Trump. They’re asking if it heralds a change as significant as the war on terrorism after 9/11, or the adoption of containment in the late 1940s.
It has become abundantly clear that President Trump does not buy his own administration’s strategic shift toward great power competition. Compare the new strategic doctrine to three of President Trump’s recent speeches—one that launched the National Security Strategy, his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and yesterday’s State of the Union. In each, there was at most a single, obligatory, passing reference to rivals like Russia and China, with little elaboration. In his speech to launch the National Security Strategy, he immediately followed up this reference with a plea for partnership with Putin.
President Trump did, however, articulate a consistent vision of U.S. national security policy in these speeches. In particular, he spoke at length and with passion about threats to U.S. interests—immigrants, terrorism, and North Korea. For example, his State of the Union included 813 words about the threat posed by immigration, 463 words about North Korea, 366 words about terrorism, and only 14 about great-power rivals, fewer than he used to discuss communist states like Cuba and Venezuela. He said his top priority is dealing with the “open borders [that] have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.” In the past, he has talked about the threat from trade deals that the United States has signed in the past. There was less on this in the State of the Union, but it remains a key part of his worldview.
One consistent thread throughout Trump’s presidency: He has never spoken at any length about rivalry with Russia. He has taken a hard line on China on economic matters and on its policy towards North Korea, but, unlike his team, he has not spoken about the rivalry as a clash of democratic and authoritarian models of international order. That points to another odd tension: The United States now has two competing national security doctrines—Trump’s and that of his national security team. They are now operating in parallel universes.
Does it matter?
The answer might be no. If the defense budget expands, if the United States maintains its forward presence overseas, if the State Department focuses on Moscow and Beijing, and if the National Security Council pushes the bureaucracy to think about great-power politics, perhaps the president’s dissent or disinterest is superfluous. After all, Trump is not actively trying to prevent the shift to great-power competition. He did not veto the National Security Strategy—he’s just operating as if it does not exist. The worst that could happen is that the presidency would not be used as a bully pulpit to mobilize the government and prepare the public. Or so the argument goes.
However, since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has always been defined by the views and character of the commander-in-chief. This time is unlikely to be different. Trump’s position exacerbates America’s chief strategic vulnerability, and it weakens its primary advantage in a competition with Russia and China.
President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the threat that Russian interference poses to western democracies leaves the United States particularly vulnerable. The U.S. government has largely shrugged at the challenges of protecting itself against future attacks, or deterring Russia from conducting them. It’s unclear how long it can maintain such detachment. The day before the State of the Union, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s hand-picked CIA director, warned of Russian interference in the 2018 mid-term elections, only for the president to let it be known that he would not impose new sanctions on the Kremlin as mandated by Congress. A statement issued by the State Department said that sanctions were unnecessary. Just dangling the threat of sanctions, State suggested, had effectively deterred Russia—a direct rebuke of Pompeo and the new national-security doctrine.
In this context, the Trump administration is exhibiting signs of what one could call Maginot-Line thinking. In 1929, France began building a line of defenses, known as the Maginot Line, along its border with Germany to protect against the very real threat from its neighbor. The line was completed in 1938. Adolph Hitler chose to simply go around it by invading France by way of Belgium. Today, the United States faces a conventional and nuclear threat from Russia in Europe, but faced with a robust U.S. response, Putin may choose to press ahead where the country remains largely defenseless. And it’s not just Russia. It remains to be seen if Trump will back a proposal in the National Security Strategy to investigate China’s political influence in the United States, especially given his family’s business interests there.
Trump is also unilaterally abandoning America’s greatest strategic advantage in a 21st-century great power competition. It’s not its military, its economy, or even its nuclear power, important as those are. America’s unique advantage is that it defines its strategic interests in a way that is compatible with the strategic interests of dozens of other powerful states—meaning, they want the United States to succeed. By insisting that the international order be free, open, democratic, and cooperative, the United States is offering something that appeals to a wide swath of people across all nations. Yes, the United States shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden for decades, but this was precisely why other nations treated it differently than the great powers and empires of old.
The key insight of Trump’s America First worldview is that the United States should no longer play this wider role. It should only act to protect its own interests. This is the context in which the rejection of free trade, the retreat from multilateral institutions, and the end of democracy promotion should be seen. But if the United States follows the examples of Russia and China and elects to define its interests so narrowly, it reduces the appeal of the American model of international order. Little would differentiate America from the other great powers that aspired to leadership, either now or in the past.
Amid all this, however, the greatest risk comes not from long-term strategic planning but from key decision points that arise every week. One such decision: Two days before the State of the Union, Trump stayed silent about protests in Russia over its forthcoming elections, in stark contrast to his public comments encouraging the recent protests in Iran. In a couple of months he’ll have to decide whether to congratulate Putin on his inevitable, overwhelming victory, which would give it the stamp of legitimacy, or to speak plainly about Russian authoritarianism. An even more notable flash point: Just hours before Trump gave his State of the Union speech, news broke that the White House had decided not to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea. According to The Washington Post, Cha became persona non grata after raising concerns about a “bloody nose strike” on North Korea’s nuclear program.
North Korea is a problem where Trump’s narrow nationalism and a great-power worldview collide. A strike on North Korea could kill tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of South Koreans. If carried out over the objections of the South Korean government, it would likely result in the collapse of the U.S.-Korea alliance, and perhaps dissolve its relationships across East Asia more generally. Worryingly, a preventive strike on North Korea is the one area where he appears to have persuaded some officials on the National Security Council, including H.R. McMaster, although Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is believed to remain adamantly opposed.
If one takes Trump’s statements at face value, he is unlikely to be moved by these dangerous possibilities. He worries only about the North Korean nuclear threat to the United States. If he can eliminate that threat, the collapse of U.S. influence in the region may be a price worth paying. After all, he has been a critic of the U.S.-Korea alliance for over 30 years.
The clash of worldviews will also be particularly important in upcoming personnel decisions. Trump appointed Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state to manage the relationship with Putin. The president has been clear that he still seeks a partnership with the Russian leader. For this reason, if Tillerson goes, Trump is unlikely to replace him with a Russia hawk like Pompeo or Lindsay Graham and may instead opt for someone like Jon Huntsman, currently the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Huntsman has called for expanding Washington’s cooperation with Moscow and minimizing differences over election interference.
In the long run, the United States will shift to a foreign policy focused on great-power rivals because that is where the international system is headed. But for the remainder of the Trump presidency, that shift will be stymied by a commander-in-chief with a very different view of the world and no interest in a broader geopolitical agenda to shape the international order. When he departs the Oval Office, the United States is likely to have lost more ground to its rivals.