President Donald Trump just unveiled his vision for America’s national security — and it shows the contradictions at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy.
On Monday, Trump released his official National Security Strategy, a document laying out how the US plans to handle its national security priorities. Congress requires the president to produce updates periodically.
On the one hand, the new National Security Strategy reflects a lot of Trump’s own priorities. It focuses heavily on homeland security and trade, staying true to Trump’s “America First” promise to protect Americans and increase US economic growth.
“The first duty of our government is to serve its citizens,” Trump said in a speech on Monday. “With every decision and every action, we are now putting America first.”
But Trump’s strategy has similarities to others that came before it. It considers China and Russia as competitors for global influence. It stresses the importance of working with countries around the world to defeat terrorism and improve the global economy. And it emphasizes a need to strengthen the US military.
There is bipartisan consensus on these points.
“If you look at the framework, there’s a lot of continuity” with strategies from past administrations, said Stephen Hadley, President George W. Bush’s second national security adviser.
“But the issue here is emphasis,” he continued, mentioning Trump’s recalibration to focus on America’s sovereignty and power, not engagement abroad.
“In most of the specifics, it’s not so different from past strategies,” said Jake Sullivan, who was expected to be named the national security adviser if Hillary Clinton were president.
What follows is a quick guide to the three main takeaways from Trump’s new national security strategy — and what they could mean for America, and the world, in the next few years.
1) Trump is serious about “America First”
It’s hard to get more America First than this strategy.
Trump made sure to hit this theme hard in his speech. He brought up building the border wall, enforcing stricter immigration laws, and the need to protect the US from terrorists coming into the country. He also discussed the need to renegotiate trade deals like NAFTA, the free-trade deal between the US, Canada, and Mexico, so jobs that might’ve gone to Americans don’t go to its neighbors.
But that could lead to headaches for the administration. For example, it’s unclear that Trump will succeed in altering those deals. As Vox’s Alexia Fernández-Campbell reported, Canada, Mexico, and the US all want different things when it comes to NAFTA: Canada and Mexico want to reduce tariffs on goods, while the US wants to reduce the trade deficit.
This may be the least surprising element, but perhaps the most important. It’s quintessential Trump — and it’s now at the core of America’s security strategy.
2) The US will compete against China and Russia
The strategy also explicitly names China and Russia as top national security threats, stating that the two countries “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
There’s little doubt that China and Russia are trying to extend their power around the world. For example, China is building islands in the South China Sea to enhance its claim there, and Russia annexed part of Ukraine in 2014 and meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.
But it’s somewhat odd because Trump has emphasized cooperation with these countries while in office, not competition.
That was a turnaround for Trump on China. China is a “rival in its ambition to dominate Asia,” he wrote in his 2000 book The America We Deserve. It wants to “beat us and own our country,” he tweeted in 2011. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he said of Chinese trade practices during a May 2016 campaign rally. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
But the more Trump has spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his time in office, the more pro-China Trump has sounded. And by the time he visited Beijing for the first time, in November, Trump was projecting stunning optimism about the possibility of closer ties between Beijing and Washington.
As for Russia, Trump continues to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin and believes a better relationship with him will lead to world peace. Trump also seems not too worried about Russia’s election meddling: He has yet to hold a single Cabinet meeting to discuss Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
To be sure, the document also names North Korea and ISIS as global threats. The strategy reiterates the administration’s position that North Korea can’t have a nuclear weapon that can reach the United States on a missile; and it also says the US will defeat ISIS wherever its members are around the globe.
Still, the main thrust of the national security strategy: The US is back in an era of global competition against rival powers. “The strategy conceives of us as a competitor in the sandbox with Russia and China,” Sullivan said.
Basically, this part of the strategy doesn’t sound very much like Trump, even if it does accurately reflect the state of the world. Will Trump start to follow the path laid out by his own national security strategy?
3) Trump doesn’t consider climate change a threat
President Obama’s 2015 national security strategy noted that “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.”
The Trump administration’s new national security strategy, on the other hand, doesn’t mention climate change at all.
Of course, Trump has already made his views on the environment quite clear. He removed the US from the Paris climate accord in June. Trump is also laying the groundwork to increase coal production and drill for more oil.
But ignoring the threat of climate change doesn’t just go against what climate activists warn — it goes against the Pentagon’s advice. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that climate change would make the world less stable and require the entire government to curb it.
For the Pentagon, the impact of global warming would be immediate — and significant. According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, a three-foot rise in sea levels will threaten the operations of more than 128 US military sites.
The Navy, and especially its facility in Norfolk, Virginia — the country’s largest naval base — would likely be severely impacted. Already, the base is dealing with “nuisance flooding” — that is, when water around the base area makes it harder to get in and out of the installation.
That said, the document still echoes national security priorities from past administrations. It still outlines the importance of alliances. It mentions defeating terrorists like ISIS and al-Qaeda. It even references the importance of international organizations like the UN, even though Trump believes they require reforms.
But where the Obama administration focused on building alliances and partnerships as a top priority, Trump wants to focus on, well, America first. Only then, his strategy claims, can the US best protect itself and its interests.