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Trump's self-contradictory security strategy

US president sees China as both aggressor and partner

| China
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on his National Security Strategy in Washington on Dec. 18.   © Reuters

If you are looking to President Donald Trump's National Security Strategy (NSS) to clear up the often confusing, contradictory and incoherent actions and statements emanating from the U.S. administration, you will be disappointed.

It's not that the 55-page document, released this week, is not a coherent, cohesive articulation of the goals and intentions of the administration. The NSS bluntly identifies the threats and challenges to U.S. objectives of a peaceful, prosperous world led by democratic capitalism in a Hobbesian world. For starters, it argues forcefully that China and Russia are "revisionist powers," that "want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests."

While in many respects the NSS, which the White House is mandated by law to produce, resembles previous versions produced by his predecessors and traditional U.S. foreign policy goals, it is decidedly more inward-looking, reflecting Trump's "America First" philosophy.

In fact, in his speech, Trump indicted his predecessors for neglecting U.S. interests by signing "disastrous trade deals," as well as "nation-building abroad" while failing "to replenish our nation at home," and not demanding that wealthy U.S. allies pay more for their defense. "Our leaders, Trump argued, "drifted from American principles. They lost sight of America's destiny."

Trump argues, "A nation that does not protect prosperity at home cannot protect its interests abroad. Thus, three of the NSS four "pillars" are domestic-focused: defend the homeland (e.g. build a wall to secure borders); promote prosperity and strengthen our defenses.

Some of Trump's lament reflects the rise of China, India and other emerging economies relative to the U.S., rather than the shortcoming of previous U.S. predecessors. But some of the president's and the NSS paper's arguments, are accurate. Where would the U.S. be if it had not spent more than $4 trillion on wars of choice in the Greater Middle East? And the NSS points the finger at long-standing U.S. assumptions that as China integrated itself into the international order it would become more liberal and would reform as its economy, and, as its middle-class grew, it would become a more rule-abiding power. Instead, it argues China "undermined" global economic institutions and U.S. interests.

However, the problem is that in many instances, the NSS arguments point to policies which are the opposite of what Trump is actually doing. Nor is it clear what key words mean. For example, in his speech accompanying the NSS, in the same sentence in which he echoes the document calling China and Russia rivals, he speaks of building "great partnerships" with them. So what does it mean that they are "strategic competitors" pursuing "economic aggression" to weaken the U.S.?

The NSS departs from the usual description of China policy as "part cooperative, part competitive." China is seen as demonstrably an irredentist power (e.g., the expansionist claims it is making in the South China Sea) but it appears to want larger voice in western-led institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization, not an alternative.

The change from previous administrations is to present China unambiguously as a revisionist power and threat -- even as in contradiction, he works with Beijing as a partner over North Korea (most prominently, but on other issues like terrorism as well).

Contradictions in the strategy

Sifting through the NSS, there are a host of other contradictions:

  • With an eye clearly on China as an economic competitor, the NSS says the U.S. will seek to retain its technological edge. But Trump's budget cuts R&D money for all major research institutions, the National Institute of Health, national laboratories and other programs. This at a time when China is ramping up;
  • The NSS says the U.S. will "pursue bilateral trade and investment agreements with countries that commit to fair and reciprocal trade..." But what is Trump's Plan B, as Canada and Japan launch trade accords with EU, Japan and other Asian nations pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord without the U.S., and China leads talks for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in Asia? There is little interest in bilateral deals with the U.S., as the rest of the world moves on with multilateral arrangements.
  • The NSS says the U.S. must "engage and lead" multilateral institutions. But Trump rejects "globalism," withdrew from the Paris climate accord (the term climate change does not appear in the strategy), rejected TPP, rejects multilateral trade deals, calls the WTO "a disaster." He also broke with the United Nations consensus and recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and refused to certify Iran's compliance in its nuclear deal with the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members and Germany (even though U.S. intelligence said Tehran was in compliance).
  • Missile defense is listed as a priority. The NSS says U.S. missile defense capabilities "will include the ability to defeat missile threat prior to launch." But the U.S. has never pre-empted any North Korean missile launches.

In broad terms, the NSS derides previous U.S. administrations for being too complacent in the post-Cold War world since the 1990s. Instead, it argues that we have returned to a world of geopolitical competition of a kind that existed before the First World War, and rampant nationalism. There is some truth to this, but successful foreign policy in the 21st century is more complicated than such comparisons imply. In short, the National Security Strategy confuses more than it enlightens, raising more questions than answers about what to expect from the U.S.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

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