The least popular first-year US president on record saw fit to begin his “America First” National Security Strategy (NSS) speech by trashing his predecessors. It was a “Trump first” moment, albeit in the name of “the people”.
President Donald Trump boasted (pdf) of a “new and very different course” for the United States, when only 3 in 10 Americans reckon he’s on the right course for the US. He said, “When the American people speak, all of us should listen.” Yet he’s doing anything but listening to the more than two-thirds of the American people who disapprove of his leadership.
The gap between rhetoric and reality couldn’t have been wider; the contrast couldn’t have been sharper. Trump bragged that the US is “leading again on the world stage”, just as his UN ambassador Nikki Haley was being chastised at the UN Security Council on Monday.
The US was isolated and outnumbered at the UNSC with 14 to 1 votes against its stance on Jerusalem. It stood alone, defensive and defiant, as ambassador Haley whined about the world’s “insult” to the US, rejecting its decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She warned her audience that the humiliation wouldn’t be forgotten.
Monday’s scene at the UN makes Trump’s assertions about renewed US respectability and influence around the world seem laughable. It is indeed a symptom of a greater problem of rudderless leadership in the US, and by extension, in the world.
What’s new in the new NSS?
Any national security strategy must, by definition, recognise threats, prescribe actions and underline priorities. And so Trump’s NSS lists all major threats and challenges the US faces today and prescribes “priority actions” to deal with them, albeit under different headlines. It uses the same jargon and structure and voices the same concerns and diatribes that previous NSS reports included in the past three decades.
But Trump’s doctrine reveals a zero-sum vision that leads to a zero-sum strategy: Us vs them. It is a vision of an alien world that’s hostile to US interests, a vision that led the US to pull out of the Paris Climate accords, from UNESCO, and from the Trans-Pacific partnership, among others.
That’s not America first; it’s America alone.
Trump claims his strategy puts American security and American interests first. So have all other previous presidents. Trump insists he’s pursuing “peace through strength”, as if previous presidents pursued peace through weakness. He boasts of “promoting American prosperity” as if his predecessors promoted American poverty. He argues that his NSS “puts America first”, as if Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush or Barack Obama put America second or last.
It would’ve been fine if that were merely a play on words, or if the US were withdrawing from the world to take care of its own. Indeed, it would’ve been welcomed if Washington became a benevolent hegemon that led the world by the power of its example rather than the example of its power. Alas, it is not.
A three-tier national security strategy
President Trump has advanced a three-tier strategy to protect the homeland, promote American prosperity, and preserve peace through strength. But his logic is populist, his style antagonistic, and his policy is belligerent.
To protect the American people and the American way of life, Trump bases his strategy primarily on fear of “the other” – fear of immigrants and fear of Muslims. It is populist nationalism that’s more interested in erecting walls than building bridges.
To promote American prosperity, Trump bases his strategy mainly on treating economic security as national security. This is no different than “it’s the economy, stupid” approach pursued by President Clinton in the early 1990s.
But Trump’s strategy of deregulation and tax cuts at home, and confronting “competitors” abroad, could mean a race to the bottom – potentially to new tariffs – and even trade war with the likes of China, leading to global recession.
Equally or perhaps more dangerous is Trump’s “peace through strength” strategy. Again, no one expects the US to abandon its formidable military power to pursue pacifist foreign policy. But the president’s emphasis on military force to deal with threats – real or imagined – and his increase of the US military budget to some $700bn – is terribly dangerous.
His suggestion of taxing states for their protection is utterly preposterous and renders the US a mercenary power. Demanding of US allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to increase their military spending is utterly outrageous and could be dangerously destabilising. Whatever happened to arms non-proliferation treaties?!
A new era for a new strategy
A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, you’d expect the US to enjoy the fruits of its achievements and build on the successes of the past. But, while Trump may speak of “advancing American influence”, in reality, he’s undercutting the US’ leadership of a world order it created and championed for decades.
Trump portends to devise a new strategy to face new challenges in a new era. In reality, his strategy may be responsible for ushering in a new era of greater global instability, hostility and chaos.
And nowhere is this as clear as in the greater Middle East, where Trump rewards Israel’s aggression, inflames religious hatred, boasts of a war with no limits or deadlines in Afghanistan, escalates the US “war on terror”, floods the region with billions of dollars worth of arms, and makes Faustian deals with bullies and dictators.
In sum, Trump has embraced a hyperrealist foreign policy and sees no real value in universal values. Trump’s America will make new partnerships with those who share Trump’s goals, and transform common interests into a common cause.