The challenges in America’s new national security strategy

Tarek Osman
Wednesday 3 Jan 2018

The main line of thought in the Trump administration’s first national security strategy, released on 18 December 2017, is returning America to its post-Cold war position of sole supremacy. A derivative is that the administration sees China and Russia as competitors. This demonstrates America’s recognition that today it has serious rivals in important political, economic, and military theatres.

This recognition gives rise to three implications.

First, America will use its military might decisively if, what it considers to be, its strategic interests are threatened. And so, for example, we see a conspicuously clear military "solution" to the confrontation with North Korea, as well as talk of crushing militant Islamists (as opposed to engaging in a battle of ideas or ways of empowering reformists).

Second, the strategy sees organisations such as the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation, primarily, as instruments to be used in different situations. Some might argue that this has always been the case. But even if that is true, what this strategy points to is a brusque modus operandi in the international political-economic landscape.

And third, the strategy’s approach to strategic challenges is anchored in prioritising outcomes in the short term. And so, for example, the political shape of the Korean Peninsula after a military confrontation with North Korea is far more important here than any ideological discussion on an "axis of evil" (of the George W Bush administration) or theoretical discourses such as "arcs of history" (from President Obama’s strategic doctrine).

Many observers see national-security strategies as documents with limited bearing on actual policy-making – a Congressional requirement that any administration must deliver, but which it hardly intends to stick to. Others see it as a marketing document intended to please the administration’s core constituency of voters. True – but dismissing the strategy altogether would be mistaken.

The Trump administration is rich in highly assertive men who truly believe that America’s approach to global politics since the end of the Cold War resulted in weakness relative to the emerging challengers. And so, in their view, America’s engagements in the world must restore what has been lost in those 25 years.

This worldview and these implications do not necessarily result in doom and gloom. Two outcomes are actually welcomed. First, this strategy is honest about the feelings and anxieties of scores of Americans at this moment – whether because of the rise of China (arguably the most important geo-strategic development since the end of the Second World War) or transformative technological changes that will, certainly, leave tens of millions of Americans worse off. This honesty aligns foreign-policy objectives with the concerns of American voters, which leads to consistency, and to voters owning the consequences of these policies.

The second outcome to be welcomed here is sobriety. In the 1990s, America was drunk on its Cold War victory. Some saw an end of history, whereby the liberal-democratic order had won forever. Others talked of a decades-long peace dividend. In the 2000s, America embarked on a-trillion-dollar messianic mission to fix certain places in the world. The 1990s’ worldview has been proven wrong; the mission of the 2000s yielded disasters. Today’s approach stems from a practical view of how to respond to the strategic challenges that America faces.

But this approach will generate three major problems.

First, this strategy pays lip service to the interests of key American partners, primarily Europe. In reality, it demands of them certain military, political, and economic commitments without putting forward a case for why America’s strategic goals (which stem from the administration’s “America First” idea) correspond to theirs. For example, it is far from clear why Berlin, Paris, Rome and Brussels (the seat of the European Union) must commit to America’s strategic competition (let alone potential confrontation) with China, which will almost certainly be Europe’s biggest market and a key provider of investment capital, in the coming two decades. Without persuading Europe, “America First” might end up being “America Alone”.

Second, the strategy’s decisiveness, assertiveness, and seeking clear wins in the short term do not correspond with any meaningful assessment of America’s resources today. Resources here does not mean only economic and financial resources, but also technological advancement; access to raw materials, talent, and markets; hard and soft power; and the ability to shape the global landscape to its advantage. In almost all of these areas, the strategy’s grand rhetoric could well be undermined by American losses in the last two decades.

Third, the strategy does not reflect on how China will respond to this blunt American attempt to preserve and perpetuate America’s sole supremacy. China does face many challenges and handicaps, but China today has arrived at a stage whereby it is not totally occupied with its economic growth. China will neither acquiesce nor sit idle as the US attempts to contain and curtail its rise as a rival superpower.

In a way, this strategy could be seen as a discussion-starter – between America and its allies, as well as its competitors. This discussion could avert misunderstandings, especially since there are strategic theatres where misunderstandings could result in miscalculations with grave consequences. These theatres include the Korean Peninsula and the entire EU-Russia border (where America, through NATO, has major military presence).

For the rest of the world, this strategy should lead to corresponding national-security thinking. The complexities in what the US administration is trying to undertake will likely cause the administration to move sharply and often surprisingly. The rest of the world will have to learn, quickly, how to anticipate and mitigate against the risks that such moves would generate.

*The writer is the EBRD’s Senior Political Counsellor for the Arab World, and the author, most recently, of “Islamism: A History of Political Islam from the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Rise of ISIS” (Yale, 2017).

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