The Trump National Security Strategy in One Word: Sovereignty
The wait is over. President Trump has unveiled his much-anticipated National Security Strategy (NSS). This is the document that will guide the formulation of U.S. policy on a wide range of issues. Two things are remarkable about the document. First, it took the administration less than a year to produce it. Second, it is true both to the themes the president articulated as a candidate and to many principles that animated the foreign and defense policies of Trump’s predecessors going back to George Washington and the founding fathers.
Based on the comments and articles written in anticipation of the NSS, we know that many analysts and reporters will see in the document what they want to find. Even before it was published, we were informed that the NSS would be “devoid of values,” “decidedly non-Trumpian,” provide “a balanced approach,” and be “the most inward-focused vision of American foreign policy in recent memory.” Comments in the 24 hours following the release of the NSS were predictably all over the map.
What virtually all of these commentaries missed is the central animating principle of President Trump’s engagement with the world whether on trade, border security, foreign policy or national defense: American sovereignty. Throughout his campaign for the Oval Office and over the past year, President Trump has grounded his arguments for continuing America’s engagement in the world, its participation in international organizations and security alliances, the need to oppose Russian and Chinese efforts to overturn the current international order and the importance of restoring American military might in the defense of national sovereignty.
Webster’s Dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme power especially over a body politic; freedom from external control; autonomy; controlling influence.” But the assertion of sovereignty must not be interpreted as somehow turning inward, reflecting isolationist sentiments or rejecting participation in international fora. This nation fought some of its first wars against the Barbary pirates in defense of the sovereign right of American merchantmen to freely engage in global commerce.
Protecting and advancing American interests and asserting but not imposing our values are essential elements of national sovereignty. For three-quarters of a century, beginning with the Atlantic Charter, all administrations have recognized that the exercise of American sovereignty and the protection of our freedoms are intimately connected to the sovereignty of all nations and the rights of all people.
The importance of national sovereignty and its relationship to the exercise of personal and national freedoms have been central themes in all of President Trump’s major foreign policy statements. In Warsaw, Poland he argued that what united America, Poland and the nations of Europe was that they valued individual freedom and sovereignty. Trump went on to say, “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”
The President was even more explicit in his September speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly. He boldly challenged that organization and its membership:
“The true question for the United Nations today, for people all over the world who hope for better lives for themselves and their children, is a basic one: Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?”
Trump’s speech acknowledged and even embraced the idea of association and collective action. “To overcome the perils of the present and to achieve the promise of the future, we must begin with the wisdom of the past. Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world.”
Is it a surprise, then, that the NSS opens with a direct and forceful case for the full exercise of American sovereignty, of America First? As the document’s first paragraph states, “an America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face.” But the connection is immediately made between the exercise of national sovereignty and the maintenance of a stable, peaceful and prosperous world order: “[The strategy] is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.”
The NSS goes on to characterize the international environment as an almost Manichean competition between the defenders of national sovereignty, liberty and human values and anti-sovereignty, anti-democratic forces. Speaking about America’s state and non-state adversaries, the Strategy concludes that “while these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.”
In an article published prior to her entry into the administration, Dr. Nadia Schadlow, one of the architects of the NSS, observed that with respect to Russia, China, Iran and other hostile nations, “these adversaries are governed by repressive systems that are fundamentally designed to counter the very qualities that allow the best attributes of human nature to flourish.” The document she helped write makes a strong case that defending American sovereignty means competing with those who would constrain or undermine American values, influence, and institutions as well as the freedoms of all peoples.
National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, spent the past several weeks socializing the foreign policy establishment and interested observers at home and abroad as to the basic tenets of the NSS. In a series of public meetings and speeches, he made it clear that the exercise of national sovereignty, both our own and that of other free nations, is at the heart of the NSS. But there are no rights if they cannot be defended.
At a recent conference, McMaster asserted that Russia and China were revisionist powers engaged in “undermining the international order and stability” and “ignoring the sovereign rights of their neighbors and the rule of law.” He went on to argue that only by competitive engagement in all domains with these regimes and others seeking to constrain the rights of free peoples can America’s security and prosperity be assured.
The NSS asserts that the exercise of American sovereignty in the third decade of the 21st century means competing in all the arenas of national power. But as General McMaster acknowledged a few weeks ago, “we vacated a lot of competitive space in recent years and created opportunities for these revisionist powers.” Thus, competing effectively may require even greater involvement in the world than that exercised by recent administrations. So much for isolationism.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.