The White House has just released a new National Security Strategy. It is not a long read and it mostly makes good general sense … or it would if almost anyone other than Donald Trump was the US president; but that’s just my very personal opinion.
It needs to be read in conjunction with an essay by Walter Russell Mead that was published in the March/April 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, and that essay presumes some familiarity with Mead’s 2001 book ‘Special Providence.’ In that award wining book Mead argues that American foreign policy has been a success, broadly and generally, because at various times one of four distinct themes emerged when it was needed. “Mead attributes this success to four schools of thought, named after four American statesmen: the Hamiltonian (protection of commerce), Jeffersonian (maintenance of a democratic system), Jacksonian (populist values, military strength), and Wilsonian (moral principle). The title of Mead’s book comes from a remark usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck, who is alleged to have said, “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”“
Now, not for the first time in US history, Mead says that the Jacksonians are in the political/policy driver’s seat.
But things are different now. Earlier generations of Jacksonians were aggressive, militaristic, and definitely put America First, but they did not see the rest of the world as being uniformly hostile. The Trump (or Trump supporters’) version of Jacksonian populism does … and it does so, in my opinion, with hints of darker themes, too.
What does it say?
But, despite my, personal reservations about President Trump and what drives him, I pay attention to the highly regards strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, when he says that “President Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) deserves careful attention, particularly by America’s allies and strategic partners and by those who deal with everything the President says or issues in terms of knee jerk criticism. It is a document that President Trump reviewed and altered in some depth and that represents his views—rather than a bureaucratic compromise. At the same time, it both expands on the classic themes of U.S. strategy—rather than rejects them—and commits the U.S. to playing its traditional role in leading the free world.“
Dr. Cordesman says that “America First,” in this document, means a commitment to America being active in the world in pursuit of its own vital interests, not retreating into isolationism. He also says that President Trump’s strategy is innovative in that it strengthens the two traditional pillars of grand strategy (international affairs and military muscle) with two new ones: domestic issues and the economy. Anthony Cordesman says “The President’s commitment to preserving American leadership and international action is particularly clear in the wording that the new National Security strategy uses in explaining the First Pillar, and explaining what it means to ” protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life.”” It is, I agree, a pretty clear and ringing endorsement of America’s intention to remain engaged in the world. He goes on to say that “The section on promoting American prosperity picks up on the President’s domestic campaign priorities and ties them to national security. It is far more moderate and pragmatic than the campaign language, however, and some of the language that the President has used since.” I agree that the language in the document is more pragmatic but I still mistrust President Trump’s basic instincts which I am certain are dangerous and stupidly protectionist and, therefore, dangerous to America’s friends, neighbours and trading partners, especially to Canada. He goes on, further, saying that “The “peace through strength” pillar makes it clear that the President clearly understands America’s key security priorities, and understands them in terms of “competition” rather than “war.” It reasserts one of the most fundamental lessons and themes of U.S. national security that has shaped U.S. security policy since the beginning of World War II and throughout the Cold War.” Professor Cordesman concludes his Cook’s Tour of the four pillars by explaining “The section on the final pillar again makes it clear that “America First” is a call for joint international action with America’s allies and strategic partners throughout the world—not a retreat from the world or form of isolationism.” I read that in the words, too … but I wonder how that will translate into action when “Mad Dog” Mattis, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson are not there to whisper in this president’s ear.
Anthony Cordesman concludes, and I broadly agree, that: “In many ways, this is a reassuring and innovative effort, and it is striking that President Trump has issued one during his first year in office … [and while] … The new strategy also is no vaguer or lacking in specifics than almost all of its predecessors … [and] … In fairness, the President has tasked a whole range of more specific strategy studies, and these may address such specifics in the future. But surely, we could have done more to reassure our strategic partners and explain our intentions, talked about continued U.S. military and national security commitments, and highlighted key areas where deterrence and containment are being strengthened or need to be … [but] … It is not enough to set national security goals. In an unstable and threatening world, at a time we cannot seem to manage our national budgets, and at a time when we face a growing deficit crisis driven by rising entitlement costs, we really need an actual strategy.“
An almost instant analysis by Canada’s Global News pays most attention to the (somewhat surprising) assertion (admission?) that Russia is interfering in the domestic political affairs of others. The paper explicitly accuses both China and Russia of trying to upset the global status quo which, we must assume President Trump assumes, serves America’s interests in Europe and Asia. He (Trump) is right, of course, that is what China and Russia are trying to do because they, too, think that the global status quo favours America. That is, in fact, what all countries do, or should do, in their grand strategies: try to shift the balance of wealth, power and influence in their favour. That’s what Canada did from 1947 until 1968 and did again, albeit more sporadicly and far less effectively, after 1984.
What does it mean?
Despite some of the reassuring rhetoric, Mead’s Jacksonians, with their emphasis on unilateralism, protectionism and even isolationism, are firmly in control of US policy. They, sensibly, see that domestic and foreign policy concerns are interrelated ~ which is one of the very few things that Pierre Trudeau got right in his otherwise monumentally flawed 1970 White Paper ‘A Foreign Policy for Canadians.‘ But this, the document President Trump released, is a statement of immediate and specific goals and tactics, it’s not a grand strategy.
It is, however, a warning for friends, like Canada, and foes alike: America is not withdrawing but it is no longer willing to lead a liberal, secular, Western consensus; “America First” means that America will, in so far as it can, go it alone, expecting, as a matter of right, allied support from e.g. Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France and Germany and so on.
This is a very, very conservative document … devoid of values and hopes. It is a naked threat, rather then being an invitation to join America in any sort of global quest for a better world for all. It will not reassure Angela Merkel, Theresa May or Justin Trudeau ~ they should conclude that Western nations must repair their own defences and see to their alliances, even if they would rather spend money elsewhere. My suspicion is that it is almost exactly what Xi Jinping expected … all short term bluster, no long term strategic vision.