The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s national security strategy ignores the lessons of Europe’s bloody history

President Trump addresses the United Nations in New York on Sept. 19. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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The Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy aimed to promote  “a rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.”

The most notable feature of the new National Security Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration this week is the virtual absence of any search for  international order. Instead, it argues that the order that was set up has worked against the interests of the United States and that the guiding principle now should be competition between sovereign states, not the cooperation between interdependent states.

Two concepts are accordingly recurring throughout Trump’s strategy. The first is the one of sovereign states, and the second is the one of competition between them. It stresses that “a central continuity in history is the contest for power,” that “we will compete with all tools of national power” and that “sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world.”

Any European, and most others, as well, would argue that the last statement runs fundamentally against the verdict of history. Time after time, it has been the fierce competition between sovereign states, unbound by any shared and recognized order, that has plunged the world in war and chaos. Reading the Trump document, it sounds as though the first half of 1914 was the ideal state of affairs. The year’s grim aftermath in Western history should have been pointed out to the strategy’s authors.

There is little doubt that China and Russia, in their different ways, are revisionist powers, aiming at altering or upsetting the existing global order, thus requiring  new policy responses. But there is a distinct difference between following in China’s and Russia’s footsteps and ditching the existing order, and seeking to uphold and encourage or press them to join the current global order.

The Trump doctrine looks to be going in the first direction — that is, ditching the existing world order. I’m certain most Europeans and others would prefer the second option. Indeed, reading through the document, it seems as though it’s not only China and Russia that are revisionist in these respects; they have now been joined by the United States.

The reaction in Moscow to Trump’s security strategy has been less negative than one would have previously believed. The Kremlin has recognized a kindred soul in approaching global affairs that differs rather fundamentally from the U.S. spirit they’ve had to deal with in the past. If Trump’s geopolitical game is one without rules, then Putin is all in favor of it.

The Chinese reaction might well be more nuanced, despite the rush toward the Thucydides trap that seems to run through the Trump doctrine. Beijing might be more prepared to gradually revise than to fundamentally ditch the global order — and I would argue that this is an approach we should seek to embrace. It may not wholly succeed, but failing to try is a recipe for disaster.

As we Europeans read history, we remember that ours is a continent where fierce competition among sovereign states has produced wars that have spread throughout the world. The road ahead requires cooperation among interdependent states to tackle challenges that are increasingly common. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, migration, epidemics, global criminal networks, cyber disruptions, terrorism — solely competition between nominally sovereign states would take us nowhere on all these issues.

Concluding his work on “World Order,” Henry Kissinger writes that “a world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope and should be our inspiration.”

I don’t know whether Kissinger left a copy in the Oval Office when he was there last. Anyhow, it obviously hasn’t been read.