While most Americans with an interest in politics were probably following the debate over the Trump administration’s tax plan, on December 18th, the administration released an almost 70 page document explaining their national security strategy (NSS) for at least the next year. It is a policy paper that once again demonstrates that, the current president’s often puzzling rhetoric aside, American foreign policy is still in many ways still a bipartisan affair.
The NSS was reportedly overseen by Dr. Nadia Schadlow of the National Security Council (NSC), considered a close ally of Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a soldier intellectual who is in many ways a symbol of the continuity of America’s militarist foreign policy in this sometimes unusual administration.
The document itself is split into four ‘Pillars’. These four overarching themes: “Protecting the American People”, “Promoting American Prosperity”, “Preserving Peace through Strength” and “Advancing American Influence”, receive an individual chapter where the perceived challenges presented by each are further broken down by the authors.
The absence of footnotes or links allows demonstrably false statements to be presented as facts. This is especially true in regards to the hysterical critique of Iran, an imperfect country with still developing institutions that is presented as “the scourge of the world”.
As always, we are told that the Islamic Republic is the world‘s chief sponsor of terrorism, yet, as explained recently by the nonpartisan group, Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, “The latest edition of the Global Terrorism Index, a project of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, shows that four groups accounted for 74 percent of all fatalities from terrorism in 2015 – Boko Haram, Al-qaeda, the Taliban and Isis. “
What’s notable about this list is that Iran is Shia and each of these murderous, criminal groups expounds the Sunni supremacist philosophy promoted by Saudi Arabia, its rival Qatar and other Gulf monarchies.
A final section, perhaps tellingly not introduced with a presidential quote as are the Pillars that precede it, attempts to bring in some regional context and shows that, far from retreating into isolationism as many establishment voices warned during the campaign and after Trump’s surprising election victory, the United States government seeks as part of its overall strategy to continue garrisoning much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and economically dominating the rest of the globe, preventing the rise not only of great, but also regional, powers, hardly a break from the recent past.
A different tone, mostly the same policies
Rather than articulating new ‘Make America Great Again’ security policies, except for the inclusion of some topics like regulation on business that one doesn’t expect from such a document, there is very little that differentiates this NSS from those of the current president’s predecessors since at least the 1990s. In fact, when reading it alongside President Obama’s 2015 NSS, the primary, and quite frankly, frightening, difference is the absence of climate change among the threats presented in the newer text.
The one time when the subject of climate change does come up in the Trump NSS, the science is treated with extreme skepticism and immediately dismissed by the paper’s authors. While some might argue this stance is unique to Trump, the anti-science position had been promoted by Republican (and more rightwing Democratic) politicians for years before he arrived on the American political stage.
Representing the mainstream liberal view promoted by the Obama administration, the 2015 NSS, at just half the length of the first Trump administration policy paper (that may have been intentional considering how obsessed the president is with the size of things), lists climate change as a main topic under the heading, ‘Security’ saying, in part, “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.”
Also somewhat unique to this particular NSS is the aforementioned focus on regulation of industry and taxes, most forcefully presented in Pillar 2, “Promote American Prosperity”. These are topics that aren’t generally discussed in terms of security but that do, however, point to a wider world view in which business is left to its own devices regardless of the consequences for citizens and the natural world. The goal of energy dominance is enthusiastically promoted in this NSS as it was, in less triumphalist terms, in earlier national security strategies.
True in some ways to Trump’s unconventionally paranoid style, the document does focus on things that terrify most people while offering little more than free market rhetoric for solutions at home and militarism abroad. If one thing can be said about the Obama NSS that preceded it, it is more hopeful in tone as opposed to panic stricken, a contrast that could be applied to the two men themselves.
In the section titled “Combat Biothreats and Pandemics” under Pillar 1, “Protect the American People, the Homeland and the American Way of Life”, the reader sees what appears to be the real goal in overemphasizing these kinds of threats, with this section ending with the following statement, “We will protect and support advancements in biomedical innovation by strengthening the intellectual property system that is the foundation of the biomedical industry.”
Thus, the solution for a pandemic is to ensure that large pharmaceutical companies are poised to make the most profit from it.
Related to this, just a few pages later in the section on fighting ‘transnational criminal groups’, the opioid epidemic shortening the lifespans of mostly younger Americans is blamed on “drug cartels and Chinese fentanyl traffickers”. Entirely absent from this superficial evaluation are the drug companies and corrupted doctors who pushed addictive pills to American citizens for years, creating a fertile community of addicts for the aforementioned groups to later exploit.
Although this epidemic is killing thousands each year, this is the only time it is addressed in a document focused on finding strategies to combat threats to the security of the country’s citizens.
As Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at Chatham House, the British version of the establishment minded Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Policy shortly after the NSS was released, “But saving lives lost to drugs today does not require defeating drug traffickers, but rather committing more money and access to drug treatment, mandating greater federal regulation of prescription painkillers, and creating jobs – every one-percentage point increase in unemployment in American counties since 1999 resulted in a 3.6 percent increase in that county’s opiate death rate and a 7 percent increase in overdose visits to emergency rooms.”
War and rumors of war
As usual, perceived threats from outside the United States receive much more attention than those within it from drug addiction to the wide availability of firearms. If the NSS is any indication it seems there’s a good chance that there will be war either on the Korean peninsula or against Iran in the coming year, maybe both.
Either of these potential conflicts could make the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan look like cakewalks.
While some of us hoped that one of the small positives of a Trump presidency would be a less antagonistic relationship with Russia, the NSS makes clear that this will not happen anytime soon regardless of what the president says. This pushes Russia into the arms of another growing power, China, which itself is sharply rebuked in the text.
As Matt Rojansky of the Wilson Center recently told CNN, “We’re a year in, and it’s looking like we’ve settled on a Russia policy and that Russia policy is pretty confrontational.” The same story reports that just a few days after the release of the NSS, on December 22nd, the U.S. government would provide the Ukraine with so-called defensive weapons long sought after by that country’s leadership. This could lead to more violence in the east of the country where Russian speaking rebels are active and risks creating a wider war.
This sometimes aggressive attitude gets incredibly dangerous in the subsection which deals with nuclear weapons that seems to imply a dangerous new willingness to at least threaten their use beyond the traditional parameters of responding to a nuclear attack.
It reads, in part, “While nuclear deterrence strategies cannot prevent all conflict, they are essential to prevent nuclear attack, non-nuclear strategic attacks, and large-scale conventional aggression.”
While the first idea has long been part of the thinking in terms of nuclear strategy the latter two imply that the nuclear option is on the table for dealing with more ordinary threats, even presenting this argument in such a widely disseminated document likely being pored over by other nuclear powers, shows that Trump isn’t alone in recklessly promoting the very idea that the threat to use civilization ending weapons encourages reckless behavior in other countries. Exhibit A is North Korea.
In this way, considering its blustery tone, the current NSS could have been published in either the neoconservative “Weekly Standard” or the liberal interventionist “Atlantic Monthly”, and, just as in both those magazines, most of the solutions on offer, at least in terms of state and non-state actors like terrorist groups, begin and end with more militarism.
Just as in these publications, the criticisms leveled at competitors could just as easily be made about the United States itself. For example, when discussing the People’s Republic of China, the author(s) state, “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” in Asia.
These are all things the U.S. could be accused of doing, just on a much larger scale and at greater cost in both material and human terms.
There is some argument among those who write about these things concerning how important this NSS is, considering that the president can now ratchet up tensions around the world with a single, ill-considered tweet, but it does offer a window into the minds of the national security people working under the former reality TV star. These officials are usually celebrated in the press as the ‘adults in the room’ but people like McMaster are in many ways as scary as most of those that held these positions before them, especially in past Republican administrations.
It won’t be President Trump, who lacks the curiosity and patience necessary to understand the complexities of the world, who will determine the strategy in terms of U.S. involvement in an ever growing list of conflicts, let alone facing more abstract threats like climate change, it will be these generals who have been freed from civilian oversight. This is one of the few new things about the Trump administration’s national security policy, though it goes unmentioned in the NSS.