President Trump's New National Security Strategy

By Anthony H. Cordesman

President Trump's new National Security Strategy (NSS) deserves careful attention, particularly by America's allies and strategic partners and by those who deal with everything the President says or issues in terms of knee jerk criticism. It is a document that President Trump reviewed and altered in some depth and that represents his views—rather than a bureaucratic compromise. At the same time, it both expands on the classic themes of U.S. strategy—rather than rejects them—and commits the U.S. to playing its traditional role in leading the free world.

"America First" Means International, Not Isolation

One of the most critical aspects of the document is its definition of "America First"—one which clearly rejects the isolationism of those who first used the term, and rejects the denial of America's overseas role that some around the President advocated before he appointed his present national security team. It directly addresses both America's need to remain committed overseas and deal with competition from Russia and China:

An America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence, and will to lead abroad. It is an America that can preserve peace, uphold liberty, and create enduring advantages for the American people. Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world.

A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations...

This National Security Strategy puts America first.

...Our founding principles have made the United States among the greatest forces for good in the world. But we are also aware that we must protect and build upon our accomplishments, always conscious of the fact that the interests of the American people constitute our true North Star.

America’s achievements and standing in the world were neither inevitable nor accidental. On many occasions, Americans have had to compete with adversarial forces to preserve and advance our security, prosperity, and the principles we hold dear.

The United States consolidated these military victories with political and economic triumphs built on market economies and fair trade, democratic principles, and shared security partnerships.

...The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.

China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence...

These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.

...The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.

China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence...

These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.


This wording is not the same as in the documents issued by past administrations, but it clearly addresses the need for the U.S. to keep playing the key elements of its current role in the world, as do the relevant portions of the rest of the document. It also reflects the fact that President Trump may swing from position to position at times in his tweets and short statements, but so far has ended up closer to the center in shaping his national security positions than many of his critics take fully into account.

Redefining U.S. National Security in Terms of Both Domestic and International "Pillars"

At the same, this is an innovative strategy as well. The new National Security Strategy centers around four pillars. The first two pillars add new sets of domestic goals to the more traditional international and military ones, and the remaining two pick up new domestic priorities as well:

America possesses unmatched political, economic, military, and technological advantages. But to maintain these advantages, build upon our strengths, and unleash the talents of the American people, we must protect four vital national interests in this competitive world.

First, our fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life . We will strengthen control of our borders and reform our immigration system. We will protect our critical infrastructure and go after malicious cyber actors. A layered missile defense system will defend our homeland from missile attack. And we will pursue threats to their source, so that jihadist terrorists are stopped before they ever reach our borders.

Second, we will promote American prosperity. We will rejuvenate the American economy for the benefit of American workers and companies. We will insist upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances. The United States must preserve its lead in research and technology and protect our economy from competitors who unfairly acquire our intellectual property. And we will embrace America’s energy dominance because unleashing abundant energy resources stimulates our economy.

Third, we will preserve peace through strength by rebuilding our military so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win. We will compete to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power and to strengthen America’s capabilities—including in space and cyberspace —and revitalize others that have been neglected. Allies and partners magnify our power, and we expect them to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.

Fourth, we will advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous. We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected. America’s commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny. We can play a catalytic role in promoting private-sector-led economic growth, helping aspiring partners become future trading and security partners. And we will remain a generous nation, even as we expect others to share responsibility.

The first two pillars clearly tie domestic strength to military security and make it clear that making “America first" is critically dependent on allies and strategic partners. The next two pillars make these points even more clearly, and the fourth provides a new commitment to playing a key role in international organizations—both those that affect national security directly like NATO, and the wide range of civil organizations that some on the far right disregard or see as hostile.

The strategy presents a conservative view of America's role, but it is also a very international one, and one that clearly ties the President's domestic priorities to American action and leadership overseas.

Pillar I: "Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life" Means the U.S. Must "Pursue Threats to Their Source"

The President's commitment to preserving American leadership and international action is particularly clear in the wording that the new National Security strategy uses in explaining the First Pillar, and explaining what it means to " protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life."

This national security strategy begins with the determination to protect the American people, the American way of life, and American interests... Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world… Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system.

North Korea seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons. Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction. Jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are determined to attack the United States and radicalize Americans with their hateful ideology. States and non-state actors undermine social order through drug and human trafficking networks, which they use to commit violent crimes and kill thousands of American each year.

Adversaries target sources of American strength, including our democratic system and our economy. They steal and exploit our intellectual property and personal data, interfere in our political processes, target our aviation and maritime sectors, and hold our critical infrastructure at risk. All of these actions threaten the foundations of the American way of life...

We must prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological attacks, block terrorists from reaching our homeland, reduce drug and human trafficking, and protect our critical infrastructure. We must also deter, disrupt, and defeat potential threats before they reach the United States...

We must also take steps to respond quickly to meet the needs of the American people in the event of natural disaster or attack on our homeland. We must build a culture of preparedness and resilience across our governmental functions...

The strategy goes on to address more controversial themes like protecting America's borders—although it makes no mention of a "wall." But, it does not define this in terms of immigrants or give priority to fighting terrorists and extremists. It stresses the need to "pursue threats to their source," and focuses on far more serious threats, and ones that are truly international:

The danger from hostile state and non-state actors who are trying to acquire nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological WMD is increasing...

As missiles grow in numbers, types, and effectiveness, to include those with greater ranges, they are the most likely means for states like North Korea to use a nuclear weapon against the United States. North Korea is also pursuing chemical and biological weapons which could also be delivered by missile.

...Biological incidents have the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life. Biological threats to the U.S. homeland—whether as the result of deliberate attack, accident, or a natural outbreak—are growing and require actions to address this problem at its source... There is no perfect defense against the range of threats facing our homeland. That is why America must, alongside allies and partners, stay on the offensive against those violent non-state groups that target the United States and its allies.

The primary transnational threats Americans face are from jihadist terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. Although their objectives differ, these actors pose some common challenges...

...The United States must devote greater resources to dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and their subsidiary networks... Today, cyberspace offers state and non-state actors the ability to wage campaigns against American political, economic, and security interests without ever physically crossing our borders

Pillar II: Promote American Prosperity: Recasting the Campaign Language in More Pragmatic Terms

The section on promoting American prosperity picks up on the President's domestic campaign priorities and ties them to national security. It is far more moderate and pragmatic than the campaign language, however, and some of the language that the President has used since.

It also gives high priority to a new theme that few can argue with: Maintaining America's "lead in research, technology, invention, and innovation." These are critical national priorities, and the only question citing them raises is how they are going to be funded, given some of the budget cuts and constraints that reduce or limit federal support of such activities.

At the same time, there is an odd subsection calling for the U.S. to "embrace energy dominance." The wording is both awkward and silly. The U.S. is not going to dominate world energy, nor should a future U.S. with some 400 million people try to dominate energy in a world that will have some 8.6 billion other people who have their own rights and needs. There is a clear need to debate the way the U.S. develops its energy resources and to take the lead in clean energy technology and conservation, but this subsection badly needed a midnight rewrite.

Pillar III: Preserve Peace through Strength

The "peace through strength" pillar makes it clear that the President clearly understands America's key security priorities, and understands them in terms of "competition" rather than "war." It reasserts one of the most fundamental lessons and themes of U.S. national security that has shaped U.S. security policy since the beginning of World War II and throughout the Cold War:

A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different. Three main sets of challengers – the revisionist powers of China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups – are actively competing against the United States and its allies and partners.

Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests, in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor...These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.

...Protecting American interests requires that we compete continuously within and across these contests, which are being played out in regions around the world. The outcome of these contests will influence the political, economic, and military strength of the United States and our allies and partners... The United States will seek areas of cooperation with competitors from a position of strength, foremost by ensuring our military power is second to none and fully integrated with our allies and all of our instruments of power.

The new National Security Strategy again breaks new ground in tying domestic progress to military security, and in calling for efforts to renew America's competitive advantage. It also makes some points about the post-Cold War world that clearly do need to be addressed in a National Security Strategy:

...Some conditions are new, and have changed how these competitions are unfolding. We face simultaneous threats from different actors across multiple arenas – all accelerated by technology. The United States must develop new concepts and capabilities to protect our homeland, advance our prosperity, and preserve peace... deterrence today is significantly more complex to achieve than during the Cold War...

The spread of accurate and inexpensive weapons and the use of cyber tools have allowed state and non-state competitors to harm the United States across various domains. Such capabilities contest what was until recently U.S. dominance across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains.

In addition, adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law...They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time – making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond...

China, Russia, and other state and non-state actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either “at peace” or “at war,” when it is actually an arena of continuous competition…

The new National Security Strategy does, however, mirror past National Security Strategy documents, and America's vacuous Quadrennial Defense Reviews, in one key respect. The sections on the "Military and Intelligence,” "Strengthening the Defense Industrial Base," "Nuclear Forces," "Space," "Cyberspace," "Intelligence," "preserve peace through strength," and “advance American influence," all set good goals, but they do not even begin to hint at a strategy. There are no specifics, no broad plans, no summary indications of costs and resource, and no timeframes for action. About the only specific—early in the new strategy document—is an unexplained call: "layered missile defense system will defend our homeland from missile attack."

To quote Gertrude Stein, America's primary critical thinker about military strategy, "there is no there there." Like the President's campaign goals for increasing U.S. military forces, and calls for further increases in defense spending, it is not enough to set broad goals when they are not tied to specific missions and specific plans.

This is especially true when the U.S. is still bound by the Budget Control Act, may soon pass a tax bill that will put more strain on the federal budget, and a President has only a guarantee of three more years in office. A meaningful National Security Strategy must be far more specific, and give a far clearer lead to the executive branch and the military, the Congress, the American people and our allies. Having the right goals and good intentions is meaningless unless they produce results.

The subsection on "Diplomacy and Statecraft" also presents key problems. Calling for "competitive diplomacy" and the best use of "Tools of Economic Diplomacy" rings hollow when there is still no clear picture of how the State Department and diplomatic service are being reorganized, or even when the current studies and reorganization efforts are schedule to be completed and implemented.

The section on "Information Statecraft" recognizes that, "America’s competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information. They exploit marketing techniques to target individuals based upon their activities, interests, opinions, and values. They disseminate misinformation and propaganda, but it again gives no specifics on how the U.S. will actually meet this challenge.

Pillar IV: Advance American Influence

The section on the final pillar again makes it clear that "America First" is a call for joint international action with America's allies and strategic partners throughout the world—not a retreat from the world or form of isolationism:

Our America First foreign policy celebrates America’s influence in the world as a positive force that can help set the conditions for peace and prosperity and for developing successful societies.

There is no arc of history that ensures that America’s free political and economic system will automatically prevail... Around the world, nations and individuals admire what America stands for. We treat people equally and value and uphold the rule of law…

The United States offers partnership to those who share our aspirations for freedom and prosperity...We are not going to impose our values on others. Our alliances, partnerships, and coalitions are built on free will and shared interests...Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States. They add directly to U.S. political, economic, military, intelligence, and other capabilities...

By modernizing U.S. instruments of diplomacy and development, we will catalyze conditions to help them achieve that goal…These aspiring partners include states that are fragile, recovering from conflict, and seeking a path forward to sustainable security and economic growth. Stable, prosperous, and friendly states enhance American security and boost U.S. economic opportunities.

Some of the greatest triumphs of American statecraft resulted from helping fragile and developing countries become successful societies. These successes, in turn, created profitable markets for American businesses, allies to help achieve favorable regional balances of power, and coalition partners to share burdens and address a variety of problems around the world…

Today, the United States must compete for positive relationships around the world. China and Russia target their investments in the developing world to expand influence and gain competitive advantages against the United States.

The strategy raises an interesting challenge to the issue of nation building, and dealing with the impact of war in states like Afghanistan and Iraq in saying that, "the United States will promote a development model that partners with countries that want progress, consistent with their culture, based on free market principles, fair and reciprocal trade, private sector activity, and rule of law. The United States will shift away from a reliance on assistance based on grants to approaches that attract private capital and catalyze private sector activity"

It also firmly commits the United States to active participation in a wide range of international forums like the United Nations,

The United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values. A competition for influence exists in these institutions. As we participate in them, we must protect American sovereignty and advance American interests and values...

Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens...If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost... Where existing institutions and rules need modernizing, the United States will lead to update them

And, it sets the right broad goals for shaping U.S. regional strategy,

The United States must tailor its approaches to different regions of the world to protect our national interests. We require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions, and the promise of available opportunities, all in context of local political, economic, social, and historical realities.

Changes in a regional balance of power can have global consequences and threaten U.S. interests. Markets, raw materials, lines of communication, and human capital are located within, or move among, key regions of the world...

The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Sustaining favorable balances of power will require a strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners because allies and partners magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. influence...

But once again, when it comes to each region, there are virtually no specifics even in terms of goals—much less plans for action. The sections on the "Indo-Pacific," “Europe," "The Middle East," “South and Central Asia," "Western Hemisphere," and "Africa" say almost nothing about strategy and sometimes seem so anodyne as to be nearly meaningless. For example, what kind of strategy is it to say that,

For years, the interconnected problems of Iranian expansion, state collapse, jihadist ideology, socio-economic stagnation, and regional rivalries have convulsed the Middle East. The United States has learned that neither aspirations for democratic transformation nor disengagement can insulate us from the region’s problems. We must be realistic about our expectations for the region without allowing pessimism to obscure our interests or vision for a modern Middle East.

National Security, But Where Is the Strategy?

In many ways, this is a reassuring and innovative effort, and it is striking that President Trump has issued one during his first year in office. President Obama did not, and only issued two in eight years in office, and President George W. Bush did not, and only issued a total of one. The new strategy also is no vaguer or lacking in specifics than almost all of its predecessors since the current legislation calling for an annual National Security Strategy was passed as part of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986.

In fairness, the President has tasked a whole range of more specific strategy studies, and these may address such specifics in the future. But surely, we could have done more to reassure our strategic partners and explain our intentions, talked about continued U.S. military and national security commitments, and highlighted key areas where deterrence and containment are being strengthened or need to be.

It is not enough to set national security goals. In an unstable and threatening world, at a time we cannot seem to manage our national budgets, and at a time when we face a growing deficit crisis driven by rising entitlement costs, we really need an actual strategy.

Note: The original legislative requirement passed in 1947. ( 50 U.S. Code § 3043 - Annual national security strategy report.)

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy