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A public policy blog from AEI
The publication of the National Security Strategy and the subsequent National Defense Strategy have predictably ignited a flurry of critiques and comments trying to assess how exactly Trumpian the new documents are. How do they fit within traditional US grand strategy? What do they reveal about the internal power balance within the administration? Where do they concur or conflict with the president’s own words? How do the two documents compare and where do they differ? I will try to offer a different perspective, as I read it with my French and European eyes.
On the whole, there is little to disagree with when it comes to the analysis. Indeed, most of the threat assessments would concur with the perception of the current strategic landscape as seen from Europe. The US and Europe know they are confronted with the same threats and risks. Comparing the NSS with the latest French strategic review published in October 2017 confirms this — with Jihadist terrorism and nuclear proliferation unsurprisingly among the top concerns. One difference is the assessment of climate change, which the French document clearly identifies as a risk factor, while the NSS simply ignores it. Importantly, the characterization of the international system as dominated by great power competition is clearly echoed in the French document, which stresses the “return of military competition” and the extension of rivalries to seas, space, and the digital world. In that regard, the NSS can be credited with calling a spade a spade — and China and Russia revisionist powers. Building on this assessment, the National Defense Strategy (as far as we can assess from the public parts) offers a clear guidance as to how best confront these challenges.
The NDS’s list of priorities and objectives does not come as a shock either, and reads like a pretty classic outlay of interests and objectives. From the perspective of a US ally, the willingness to engage in great power competition from a position of strength can only be welcomed as a needed corrective to the hesitancy of the Obama administration, which created too many opportunities for Russia to exploit. Europeans should hope that the US will be willing and able to compete with and prevail over rival powers. After all, US dominance and the US network of alliances spanning the globe has been the bedrock of the liberal international world order.
But here is the rub. The strategy does not make that point. US dominance is seen as good enough for its own sake, and this is quite obviously the meaning of “America First.” The strategy offers no alternative vision to that of a world dominated by great power rivalries. There is no room for a cooperative approach to international relations, which is constantly denounced as a losing game for the US, one in which adversaries constantly take advantage of America. The way international trade practices are considered as “unfair” is a case in point, but it reflects a more general vision. Multilateral bodies are only seen as yet another arena of rivalry, where US dominance should be reasserted. This betrays a normative dimension behind the analytical judgments, which may be formulated in positive terms (“we will pursue this beautiful vision — a world of strong, sovereign and independent nations”) but actually reflects a zero-sum game mindset. Not only does power competition rule the world (“a central continuity in history is the contest for power”), but it should be so and there is no reason to try to change that fact.
Maybe the US can afford it after all. Given its military dominance and the depth of its market economy, the US will remain the top dog in any power competition — although it would certainly come at a cost. But Europeans will never pursue that vision, because they will better thrive in a world order where power competition among states is channeled and settled through cooperative frameworks, international bodies, and agreed rules. From a European perspective, multilateralism remains central to address global challenges, including nuclear proliferation. To Europeans, this is indeed not merely a matter of belief and conviction but also a matter of interest. European interests are best pursued and defended within the international frameworks and rules that Europeans know best, leveling the playing field with bigger powers. In that sense, the strategy embraces a world vision that Europeans seek to prevent.
What this means is that a purely “America First” strategy laid out in the NSS quite obviously runs the risk of decoupling US interests from that of its closest allies, thereby weakening the transatlantic link. By contrast, the National Defense Strategy, despite its narrower focus on defense, offers a much broader understanding of the role of the US alliance system as the “backbone of global security,” needed to support a “free and open international order.” The National Defense Strategy makes a good case for the value of US alliances and “mutually beneficial collective security,” in a way that seems much more compatible with European views. These differences may seem small, but they can be significant when it comes to defining Washington’s relationship with its closest allies.
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