According to National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, the White House is aiming to release its National Security Strategy (NSS) sometime this fall, but they “don’t yet have a firm date.” The significance of the NSS varies from administration to administration. Few people remember the last National Security Strategy (I do). Nonetheless, a strategy document like the NSS acts as an important beacon for national security bureaucrats. It can guide them in drafting policy options and responses. So this matters. Furthermore, given President Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric, his NSS has the potential to be as significant as the 2002 National Security Strategy.
“Significant” does not necessarily mean “good”. Having watched this administration attempt to do foreign policy over the past seven months, I do not envy the staffer tasked with crafting Trump’s NSS. There are only three ways the NSS can be drafted: as a conventional strategy, as a Trumpian strategy or as an honest strategy. All three options will disappoint.
Let me explain. A conventional NSS would argue that despite all the ridiculous rhetoric, despite the withdrawals from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate change deal, Trump’s grand strategy is little changed from the liberal internationalist status quo. After some considerable churn, his foreign policy team looks pretty mainstream. After a bit of hemming and hawing, the president has reaffirmed NATO’s Article V and the Pacific Rim alliances as well. The United States has not withdrawn from any ratified trade treaties. Maybe there is less daylight between Trump and H.R. McMaster than observers thought.
Call this the Carafano gambit. It is the least likely possibility, in part because of the political blowback it would face from Trump’s Breitbart base. Consider the following reaction from Steve Bannon on “60 Minutes” from this past Sunday in response to GOP criticism of his national security:
This is once again where the narrative is dead wrong. And by the way, the head — all the stuff in the Wall Street Journal, the sign advertisements, from all the geniuses in the Bush administration that got us here. The geniuses in the Bush administration that let China in the W.T.O. and genius in the Bush administration told us, “Hey, they’re gonna be a liberal democracy. They’re going to be free-market capitalism, okay? The same geniuses that got us into Iraq, that’s the geniuses of the Bush administration. I hold these people in contempt, total and complete contempt. I don’t want to hear it.
At the same time, I doubt that the mainstream foreign community would buy the conventional strategy. Both Trump’s rhetoric and his loudest actions have been at variance with the mainstream approach. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has noted repeatedly that over time Trump has become more predictable, less credible and less powerful. Mainstream analysts would not want to claim Trump’s dubious foreign policy record as the product of their ideas. This kind of NSS would likely yield the worst of both worlds; scorn from the America First crowd without any corresponding benefit elsewhere.
The second approach is for the NSS to be the full-blown articulation of a #MAGA, America First, Trumpian approach. The only trouble with this is that every time Trump even comes close to going full Trump on foreign policy, the result is a fiasco.
Consider the recent rumblings about the Trump administration withdrawing or re-litigating the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS). This is a classic example of Trump thinking he can renegotiate the current terms of the liberal international order through better bargaining. The Financial Times’ Shawn Donnan patiently explains why this approach has gone nowhere:
One of the president’s biggest economic campaign promises was a new, muscular approach to trade featuring hefty tariffs on China and other rivals as well as a wholesale ripping-up of US trade agreements. Things could still change. Yet, nine months in, it is fair to say Mr. Trump is looking increasingly like a bully without a playground in which to exercise his muscle….
During a special meeting convened during the summer to discuss Mr. Trump’s concerns over Korus and the US trade deficit with South Korea, Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, issued a list of unilateral concessions that he wanted to see Seoul make. Those, according to people briefed on the discussions, included accelerating the Korus schedule for South Korea’s gradual removal of certain tariffs on US goods and a freeze on the same applying to Korean imports into the US….
The response by Mr. Kim, who led the Korean team that negotiated the original deal, was very well calculated. He was aware of one blunt reality: the unwinding of Korus would lead to much higher tariffs on US imports into South Korea than vice versa. But there was another. Simply, the US in the Trump era does not speak with a unified voice on trade. Congress, the US Chamber of Commerce, myriad agricultural groups and the nation’s chief executives have all come out against the Trump plan to withdraw from Korus during the past week. And that illustrates Washington’s diminishing power at the negotiating table.
The administration can try to claim that a mercantilist national security strategy will make America great again. But it has zero evidence to date to bolster the validity of this claim and a lot of evidence that it is flat-out wrong. The national security community would have a hearty laugh at this approach.
Finally, the Trump administration could just be honest and admit that there is no coherent national security strategy. The foreign policy team is split on many issues. The president has the attention span of a flea and approaches these issues in a transactional manner. The White House may be dissatisfied with status quo. It may even have some valid objections behind this dissatisfaction. But administration officials have zero ideas about what to do in its stead. The result has been a subpar facsimile of a mainstream foreign policy, run by a disorganized group of third-raters trying to please a mercurial commander in chief.
This would be the ugliest variant of Trump’s national security strategy. It would, however, have the merit of being true.