WASHINGTON — President Trump presented a blueprint for the country’s national security Monday that warns of a treacherous world in which the United States faces rising threats from an emboldened Russia and China, as well as from what it calls rogue governments, such as North Korea and Iran.
To fend off these multiple challenges, the report says with Cold War urgency, the government must put “America First,” fortifying its borders, ripping up unfair trade agreements, and rebuilding its military might.
But in his speech announcing the strategy, Trump struck a much different tone. Instead of explaining the nature of these threats, he delivered a campaignlike address, with familiar calls to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico and a heavy dose of self-congratulation for the bull market, the low jobless rate, and tax cuts, which, he promised, were “days away.”
“America is in the game, and America is going to win,” he said, to an audience that included Cabinet members and military officers.
The disconnect between the president’s speech and the analysis in his administration’s document attests to the broader challenge his national security advisers have faced, as they have struggled to develop an intellectual framework that encompasses Trump’s unpredictable, domestically driven, and Twitter-fueled approach to foreign policy. The same confusion has confronted foreign governments trying to understand Trump’s conflicting signals.
Trump, for example, spoke of how Russia and China “seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.” But he made no mention of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, even though the document itself makes fleeting reference to “Russia using tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.”
Indeed, Trump preferred to focus on a Sunday phone call from President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who thanked him for intelligence that the CIA had passed on to Russian authorities, which Trump said foiled a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg that could have killed thousands of people.
“That’s a great thing,” he said, “And the way it’s supposed to work.”
Outlining a national security strategy is mandated by Congress, but Trump broke with his two most recent predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, in announcing one himself. His aides said that reflected his enthusiastic approval of the exercise and that the Trump administration published its strategy months earlier than either the Bush or Obama administrations.
The strategy — which administration officials said was drawn from speeches that Trump had delivered during the 2016 campaign and as president while at the UN and on trips in Europe and Asia — ranges widely and includes jihadi extremism, space exploration, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics. But it is animated by a single idea: that the world has been on a three-decade holiday from superpower rivalry, and it suggests that that holiday is now over.
“After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned,” the document says. China and Russia, it says, “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.”
The document’s call to push back against China on trade is familiar from the campaign, but its description of the challenge posed by Russia seems at odds with Trump’s own refusal to criticize Putin for his seizure of Crimea, his efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and his violations of a key nuclear treaty with the United States.
While Obama’s two national security strategies emphasized cooperation with allies and economic partners, Trump’s strategy attempts to walk the line between his campaign slogan of “America First” and an insistence that he is not rejecting working with US partners — as long as they do so on terms advantageous to the United States.
Trump’s strategy contains more than a few hints of a return to a Cold War view of the world. Obama used his strategies to deemphasize nuclear weapons as a key to US defense, but Trump calls those weapons “the foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the United States.”
The national security strategies of past administrations were sometimes strong predictors of future action: It was Bush’s 2002 strategy that revived a national debate about the justifications for preemptive military action. And it helped frame the rationale for the invasion of Iraq six months later, arguing that the risks of inaction in the face of a major threat made “a compelling case for taking anticipatory actions to defend ourselves.”
The new strategy never uses the word “preemption,” including in its discussion of North Korea. This omission comes despite the fact that Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has said that if diplomacy and sanctions fail, “preventive war,” or a preemptive strike, might be needed to keep the North from attacking the United States.