Lies, damned lies, and National Security Strategies

The NSS desribes a standard Republican foreign policy. But this isn’t a standard presidency.

U.S. national security strategies are rarely good guides to U.S. foreign policy. They reflect an administration’s image of itself or, more charitably, its aspirations, rather than the reality of foreign policy. An NSS is political advertising and geopolitical signaling.  It is not an effort to describe strategy, with all of its messy trade-offs and compromises.

But even by this low standard, Trump’s NSS tells us extraordinarily little about U.S. foreign policy. The reason is obvious. The President doesn’t appear to have read it and, to judge by the speech he gave on its release, he doesn’t agree with much of it. Presidents have at times repudiated elements of their own national security strategies. George W. Bush eventually swore off the preemption doctrine from his 2002 NSS, for example. But rarely have Presidents done so on the day of release.

The greatest gulf between Trump and the NSS is on Russia. The NSS talks about Russia and China as strategic competitors and Russia particularly as a revisionist power that threatens the integrity of Western democracy. It claims that Russia and China are trying to deny the U.S. access to critical regions and to change the international order in their favor. But Trump’s speech hardly mentioned that challenge, and focused instead on how to establish partnership with those countries. He mostly referenced Russia to crow about a congratulatory phone call he had with Vladimir Putin over a foiled terrorist plot.

More generally, the NSS portrays the United States as an optimistic leader in global affairs. It extols the virtues of American alliances and their importance for prevailing in today’s geopolitical competitions. Trump’s America, by contrast, is angry and self-interested. His speech mostly ignored the problem of geopolitical competition and complained repeatedly about the unfairness of international trading rules, the threats from immigration and terrorism, and the perfidy of allies. He even demanded that NATO allies reimburse the United States for defending them, a demand that is not in the NSS and in fact contradicts its description of the value of alliances.

In the end, this NSS is a bog standard Republican foreign policy document. It celebrates American power and purpose, focuses on geopolitical and terrorist threats, ignores “softer” threats such as climate change and poverty, and skates over the negative consequences of American interventions in places such as Yemen (which is never mentioned). And, of course, it loves the idea of missile defense. One need not like it, but it is hardly difficult to understand or fit it within traditional American foreign policy debates.

The more difficult question is to understand who is actually making U.S. foreign policy. Is it the sober-sounding generals and republican foreign policy professionals who wrote this document?  Or is it the volatile President who repudiated it on the day of its release? 

On the evidence, the answer is both and neither. The professionals make the policy on a day-to-day basis and control implementation. But the President intervenes at random moments when it suits his domestic political interests or just his mood, effectively screwing up any effort to create a consistent policy. This is the story of American policy on the Iran Nuclear Deal, the withdrawal from the TPP, the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the Saudi-Qatar dispute.

In that sense, yesterday's incoherence perfectly reflects reality. So maybe we learned something from the NSS after all. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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