Trump Theory: The (Theoretical) Nuances Within President Trump’s National Security Strategy

Rossella Marino dissects the latest US National Security Strategy report released by President Trump’s administration last month.

On December 18, US President Donald Trump released a much anticipated document that many hoped would shed light on his opaque foreign policy. The National Security Strategy is a report that the US government has had to provide annually to Congress ever since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1968. It serves the purpose of structuring the defence activities of the State by informing the institutional actors concerned of the Administration’s priorities, reinforcing the rigorous relationship between the constitutional powers of the US federal system. Over the years these reports have moved from a style that was quite functional in nature to one that is now more symbolic. However, the unique snapshot it provides of the incumbent Administration’s interpretation of the international system creates a veritable playground for geeks of IR theory, and allows for speculations to be made on future behaviours and potential trajectories.

The first observation to be made is that any longed-for clarification of Trump’s foreign policy – often  described as puzzling, or worse, non-existent – is frustratingly absent. The document’s fifty-five pages hardly communicate any ground-breaking posture. On the contrary, Trump simply recycles the winning electoral slogan ‘America first.’ The report is structured around four fundamental pillars: protecting the American people and territory, promoting American prosperity, preserving the American peace and advancing American influence. The US’s main opponents are openly defined, namely Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and the threat from terrorist organisations. Of interest also for historical reasons is the inclusion of cyberspace as an outstanding security concern.

While what is included offers few practical policy actions, what is excluded is compelling. Just by glancing at the index, the differences with Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy report are striking. Unlike his predecessor, Trump omits references to climate change, poverty, and the ‘enduring alliance’ with Europe. The stark differences in the specifics between these two reports would lead one to assume, not unjustifiably, that Trump’s Strategy represents a clear break from the past. However, closer inspection reveals that the details of the report are based on some long-standing ideological tenets which will be considered below. An assessment of these provides an interesting avenue for discussion as it exposes that President Trump, despite his attempts to portray himself as a non-conformist, in fact adheres with acclaimed traditions which are not questioned but reified.

The fathers and followers of realism will probably have something to say about the coupling of their theory with the adjective ‘principled’. It comes across as one of the countless attempts at softening an account rooted in brute force, power politics and uniformity. Although the report initially proposes that the support for ‘strong, sovereign nations’ in line with ‘American principles’ should be seen as the basic means to achieve ‘peace, security, and prosperity’, under the pillar ‘Preserve Peace Through Strength’, Trump in fact chooses realism over principles. He does not list pacifist values and commitments but instead suggests the renewal of a series of crucial capabilities. Worryingly, no indication is given as to which force is to take over amid international confrontation; a compliance with not-better-specified principles or the mathematical calculations of black boxes driven by the security dilemma? Even an amateur can recognise that these two approaches cannot be pursued simultaneously.

Liberalism is not wholly disregarded. Acknowledgement is paid to the understanding that ever more intertwined global economic interactions will continue to raise the opportunity cost of competition. Capital input is confirmed as a driving force behind development and the building of reliable alliances, but in this regard Keynes must make space for turbocapitalism, free enterprise and private investments: heralded as ‘history’s greatest antidote to poverty’ by Trump. Such hyperbolic assertions further entrench the ideological battle lines between statism and the invisible hand. This was starkly shown by the partisan divide both in Congress and the Senate over the US tax reform bill that was approved shortly before Christmas. On the international stage, US liberalism now comes at a cost, namely that those institutions which offer platforms for inter-state cooperation will only be supported if they are sponsors of American interests. The report makes it clear that extensive financial contributions by the US must now result in the US assuming an equitable dominance over decision-making. Trump has already demonstrated that he is prepared to stand by this inflammatory position when he threatened to stop financially aiding countries that vote against it in the UN. The critique of this behaviour is not an idealistic one but a functional one, for it risks inflaming animosities and exacerbating the chance of conflict.

Moving beyond the intended meaning of the plan, the document is a treasure trove for any constructivist or post-structuralist interested in language. One could start with the acknowledgement that the very existence of this report is determined by the current fabrications of the international political system we live in. Following on from this admission both the terms ‘national’ and ‘security’ require deconstruction. What are the consequences of classifying some abstract entities as inherent enemies for highly simplistic reasons and of the stiffness of the categories ‘political’, ‘military’ and ‘economic’ in relation to the actions to be enforced in key regional contexts? Above all, it is interesting to see that, according to Trump, each holder of an American passport is automatically added to the undifferentiated American nation. They universally ‘work hard, dream big and never give up’ and feel unconditionally resilient and supportive of the famous ‘values’ revolving around a set of Western liberties and human rights. An individual this way inclined would undeniably be a good member of society but would also be more puppet than human, as these characteristics are cherry-picked to portray a convenient standardised image and offensively dishonour the uniqueness of millions of human beings. Needless to say, all passages and words may be challenged, yet the author’s intention is not to pursue extreme relativism, but rather to encourage a careful reconsideration of our shared representations.

The Trump Administration’s first National Security Strategy report has shown itself to be a surrogate of old convictions and obsolete refrains. In looking beyond the practical, factual evaluations, one reveals a President leading the United States to a meeting with history. The President condemns the excessive confidence that was placed in his country after the victory of the ‘free nations’ in the Cold War, and the ‘free-riding’ that this has encouraged. He asserts that while certain ‘traditional’ enemies have been absorbed into the US-led interdependent system, this process did not spontaneously turn them into ‘benign actors and trustworthy partners’ but instead he accuses them of exploiting ‘international institutions and global commerce’ to their own advantage. While the veracity of such accusations can never be conclusively proven it has compelled Trump to pursue a policy of endless competition to always uphold the American interest.

Rossella Marino is a graduate student in European and International Studies at the University of Trento.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Juan Torres