Philosophers, Straussians maintain, learned to write at two levels for two sorts of readers. On the surface, their teaching would strive to be unobjectionable to the authorities of their regime; their deepest insights—or their real opinions—would lie hidden, accessible only to those few with the intellectual penetration and patience to navigate the apparent lapses in argument, mistakes in citation, or peculiarities of presentation that had been made deliberately to draw the adept to the philosophical core of a work.
In other words, this is a strategy in which the subtext matters at least as much as the text.
To understand what I mean, you have to appreciate the ways in which this document departs from past national security strategies. These documents have been mandated for 30 years, and they have mostly stressed the continuity of American grand strategy. While the threats might have changed in the post-Cold War world, Barack Obama’s grand strategies did not repudiate George W. Bush’s grand strategies, which in turn did not repudiate Bill Clinton’s, and so forth.
That is not the case with Trump’s NSS. This NSS explicitly rejects the past 30 years of national security strategies:
Following the remarkable victory of free nations in the Cold War, America emerged as the lone superpower with enormous advantages and momentum in the world. Success, however, bred complacency. A belief emerged, among many, that American power would be unchallenged and self-sustaining. The United States began to drift. We experienced a crisis of confidence and surrendered our advantages in key areas. As we took our political, economic, and military advantages for granted, other actors steadily implemented their long-term plans to challenge America and to advance agendas opposed to the United States, our allies, and our partners. …These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.
This part also resonates with Trump’s speech introducing it, in which he said, “For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another; too many of our leaders — so many — who forgot whose voices they were to respect, and whose interest they were supposed to defend.”
Similarly, the foreign economic policy side of the NSS sounds very Trumpian, with its mercantilist warnings of “economic aggression” and repeated pronouncements that it is a competitive world out there. On these themes, this NSS sounds very similar to the extraordinary H.R. McMaster-Gary Cohn op-ed from the late spring.
Traditional foreign policy watchers have heaped scorn on this NSS for being at odds with Trump’s actual foreign policy. Spencer Ackerman, for example, wrote, “Its 55 pages either elide the presidency that Trump has actually presented or weave from of his impulsive utterances an intricate tapestry that Trump will always be one tweet away from setting on fire.” Ilan Goldenberg wrote, “This foreign policy strategy is dead on arrival; it is plain impossible to execute such a strategy with a commander in chief who is neither capable of sticking to his word nor a believer in some of the document’s most important principles.” Tom Wright told Politico: “The National Security Strategy and the president’s speech to launch it were worlds apart. … It was as if he had not read the strategy at all.”
Or to sum things up:
This is the wrong way to think of the NSS. It is true that Trump himself will not embrace it — heck, even Trump’s National Security Council spokesman acknowledges that Trump probably never read it. But you know who does read the NSS? The national security bureaucracy, when looking for preapproved language. And it is not hard to read parts of this NSS as Straussian rebukes of Trump as well.
For example, this president has warmly embraced authoritarian leaders. This NSS most certainly does not. Consider this:
Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system to harm the United States. . . .Adversaries target sources of American strength, including our democratic system and our economy. They steal and exploit our intellectual property and personal data, interfere in our political processes, target our aviation and maritime sectors, and hold our critical infrastructure at risk. All of these actions threaten the foundations of the American way of life.
A democracy is only as resilient as its people. An informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, our society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought. Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data. The American public and private sectors must recognize this and work together to defend our way of life.
There is no way to read this document and not infer that the biggest threat to the American homeland is the foreign manipulation of public debate. Russia is explicitly mentioned. This national security strategy is warning about the very forces that led to the Trump administration in the first place.
This is the only explanation for the other massive unexplained contradictions contained within this national security strategy. The document stresses the need for bilateral trade agreements while still maintaining leadership of the World Trade Organization. It emphasizes the need for robust diplomacy but also wants to slash the State Department budget by a decent amount. It proclaims that it is a good thing for the United States to spend more on its military, while grousing that allies are not spending enough.
Maybe I am wrong, and in the end this is just an incoherent jumble of competing imperatives. Or, maybe, there is no effort to minimize these contradictions because its authors do not care. This NSS is, at its Straussian core, saying only three things:
- It’s a more multipolar world than it used to be;
- The other great powers have learned how to intervene in U.S. domestic politics
- We should learn how to combat this so something like Trump’s election never happens again.
There is a massive disconnect between Trump’s speech and this NSS, because Straussians are fully aware of the need to cloak their true intent in more coded language. In coping with a ruler who acts like a toddler, that is the prudent approach to crafting important strategy documents.