By Norman Friedman*
In mid-December the Administration issued its first National Security Strategy, titled America First but widely described as principled realism. Such annual documents are required under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Typically they list goals without much effort to prioritize, and they are often disdained as poor reflections of actual policy. The title and the description place the new policy in the long history of U.S. security strategy, which reflects the struggle to reconcile national interest and ideology – the promotion of human rights and democracy as a primary factor in policy. With the defeat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States is the only truly ideological power in the world.
A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, the United States was the undisputed world super power, and it seemed that its overwhelming military and economic power could be used to promote U.S. ideology – democracy – throughout the world. There might be a few holdouts, but it seemed that the crash of the Soviet Union showed that free market economics and its companion free intellectual market must prevail everywhere. The United States could safely divert military spending to civil or global ends. It must also have seemed that the U.S. economy was so strong that economic risks could be taken in the hope that ensuring prosperity abroad would also ensure peace in places like the Middle East.
The central message of the new strategic document is that this happy time is over. In order to protect itself and its friends the United States must look much more to its own military and economic strength. Too much has been given up for peripheral purposes which made better sense when the United State enjoyed uncontested supremacy. The document demands reforms of military procurement on the ground that complex rules, many of them enacted for social or political purposes, have made weapons entirely too expensive. Some estimates place the cost of peripheral regulations at a quarter or more of what is bought. Procurement is also far too slow. Our main rivals find it difficult to change course once they begin projects. Logically a more agile United States ought to be able to win. Unless we rethink procurement, we are no more agile than they are.
The United States faces two very different kinds of security challenges. One is to its status in the world: China is trying to elbow the United States aside, particularly in Asia, using a combination of military, economic, and cyber techniques. Although Russia, the primary Cold War adversary, is now substantially weaker, President Vladimir Putin is far more willing than his predecessors to take chances in what he sees as his war against the West. Both the Russians and the Chinese recognize that by its existence as a free society the United States is an example and an inherent threat. In 1989, for example, the Chinese democracy movement referred to the United States as its example. The Chinese government currently makes a considerable effort to turn Chinese admiration for the United States sour. The idea that the existence of the United States is an inherent threat was certainly imbibed by Vladimir Putin under the old Soviet regime. The strategy document does not bring up this issue, although it certainly recognizes both China and Russia as rivals – as opponents. That both the Chinese and the Russians consider U.S. ideology a real danger brings them together despite the real possibility that China will seek to detach part or all of Siberia from Russia.
The other major challenge is from increasingly aggressive Islamic terrorists. Their challenge has an economic side: the Middle East still supplies much of the world’s oil. Even a United States self-sufficient in energy would be affected by the global oil market. The strategy document explicitly recognizes the Islamic terrorist threat to the West. In contrast to past formulations, it does not posit that economic growth in the Islamic world will solve the problem. It seems to be at least partly the product of wounded pride. Incidentally, the issue of pride was probably also key to the unhappiness in industrial states, which tipped the election, even for those whose jobs were not wiped out.
The new strategy document differs from its predecessors in making U.S. economic strength central, and in arguing that to maintain that strength the United States must negotiate terms of international trade in a far more tough-minded way. That was a major campaign theme in 2016. Disastrous manufacturing job losses due to a free-trade agreement with China may have been a decisive factor in the election, at least in the middle of the country. It can be argued that the deal with China was a failed bet that while China might crush some U.S. manufacturing jobs it would create others by opening its market. In fact Chinese policy seems to have been much more to open foreign (in this case, U.S.) markets without reciprocity. The implication of the strategy, and particularly of its title, is that past U.S. administrations have focused far too much on world politics and liberal forms of trade and far too little on the welfare of Americans.
The strategy document certainly refers to U.S. ideology. The United States stands for societies based on the rights of the individual, as opposed to the overwhelming rights of the state. The new strategy argues that U.S. success is a demonstration that this is the right way to organize countries. The Unites States will support allies which espouse our ideology, and it will stand with people seeking freedom. There is much less of the idea that the primary purpose of the United States was to spread its liberation ideology. That was what Woodrow Wilson meant a century ago when he called for a world ‘safe for democracy’ – meaning a world in which dictatorship and authoritarian states were no longer tolerated. The experience in the Middle East seems to show that U.S.-style democracy cannot simply be imposed on all societies. Thus the document justifies operations in Afghanistan as a means of denying terrorists a safe haven, rather than as a crusade to uproot elements of a traditional society which is well described as cruel and grossly undemocratic.
Realism means that we understand that there are limits to how far we can advance our ideology without exhausting our means. This is a very old issue; during the Cold War we found ourselves supporting odious dictatorships because they offered vital strategic advantages, such as bases, in the ongoing war. This time we will support our friends even if they are undemocratic. Egypt is a case in point.
The paper omits a major U.S. advantage compared to the situation in the Cold War. We no longer face an enemy espousing its own hostile universal ideology, in that case Communism. The great Cold War threat was not so much a Soviet invasion of Europe (which would probably have been deterred by the nuclear threat) but subversion of the West. It is unlikely that Mr. Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ will inspire non-Chinese people living in Asia, for example. They may feel compelled to accept Chinese dominance of East Asia, but that is a very different matter, a calculation of relative Chinese and U.S. (and other) power. The Chinese and the Russians behave like past great powers, rather than the revolutionaries of the past century.
Some commentators have pointed to the absence of climate change in the strategy document. That can be read as a pointed reminder that the international situation itself is a matter of immediate peril to the United States. Climate change is a global fact and likely a global problem, but it is not a security issue like, say, a North Korean threat to incinerate U.S. cities, or the attempt by ISIS to unite Muslims to kill the West. The Administration’s view is that it does not belong in the same document. It sees conflating climate change with ISIS as part of the luxury the United States enjoyed before rivals, particularly China, rose.
Principled realism means that the United States can cooperate with its rivals when necessary. That can mean cooperation with Russia over Syria and ISIS and cooperation with China over North Korea. In both cases, anything approaching ideological purity would make cooperation obnoxious. In Syria the Russians have backed an odious dictator as part of a de facto alliance with Iran, which is certainly a serious regional problem. To the extent that Putin badly wants to weaken the West, he sees his arrangements in Iran and Syria as a way of attacking us, and there is little point in cooperation. However, he may be thinking tactically; he may want a price for cooperation. It is up to us to decide how much we can or should pay. If we do, it will not be our first experience of backing someone we abhor for a larger good.
In North Korea, the key to success is clearly China. Some critics have argued that by labelling China a rival the new strategy does not help secure cooperation. However, not doing so would be absurd – the Chinese constantly tell the world that they wish to unseat us. The issue is not how we describe China, but whether – or how – we can find common reasons to stabilize Korea. There is certainly reason to imagine that the Chinese regard the North Korean regime as dangerous to themselves.
Overall, the description of principled pragmatism is probably more informative than the 68-page National Security Strategy. It says that we wish to maintain our position in the world, and to maintain the ideology central to us. However, we will be pragmatic – we will not push out everywhere, we will be aware of what we can and cannot do. We will be particularly aware of our current limits – and we will seek to overcome them. Much of the 2016 campaign was about whether the United States was comfortably ahead of other powers in the world or was declining due to poor or vain policy choices over the past decade and more. President Trump won in part by arguing that the United States was declining, and that he would reverse that. His first formal National Security Strategy is about reversing perceived decline and meanwhile limiting the use of power to what we can hope to achieve.