President Donald Trump gave a big national security speech yesterday, tied to the release of a written national security strategy. This marked a change from presidents Obama and Bush, who submitted their congressionally mandated national security strategies without an accompanying address. But the document itself is just as useless as its predecessors. U.S. foreign policy does not tend to comport with presidential rhetoric.
Trump's national security strategy claims that the U.S. will avoid nation-building and needless interventions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took to Twitter to applaud this as a "realist foreign policy," something he has advocated himself for years. But there's precious little evidence that the Trump administration is actually interested in that kind of approach in the real world, as opposed to in their rhetoric.
As Bonnie Kristian noted last week, Trump's "new" national security strategy is unlikely to change the American pattern of "promiscuous intervention," if for no other reason than that the administration has not yet attempted to change that pattern at all. From Afghanistan to Syria, the Trump administration has pursued a foreign policy that largely follows the contours set by the other post-9/11 presidents.
Trump's Afghanistan policy boils down to less transparency about the quagmire, while in Syria the president ordered the bombing of government targets earlier this year while ramping up America's military presence in the country. Trump has also expanded the war on terror in Somalia and around the Muslim world.
The disconnect between Trump's national security strategy rhetoric and the reality runs the other way too.
The strategy document, for example, identifies China as a competitor, which The New York Times describes as a "radical departure" from the language used in the Obama era, when China was presented more as a strategic partner. Yet you'd be hard pressed to point to any actual Obama-era policy that treated China more as a partner than as a competitor. The main point of Obama's "Asia pivot" was to contain China's influence. The Trans-Pacific Partnership excluded China, the largest Pacific economy other than the U.S.
Trump, meanwhile, has made some attempts to improve diplomatic relations with China, engaging its leadership on issues like North Korea more substantively than his predecessor. He has also mostly avoided needless escalation in places like the South China Sea, where many countries, including China and some American allies, have mutually exclusive territorial claims.
The Chinese have noted this discrepancy. "On the one hand, the U.S. government claims that it is attempting to build a great partnership with China," a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement this morning. "On the other hand, it labels China as a rival."
There were disconnects, even, between the national security strategy document and the speech Trump gave in support of it. Most prominently, the document appears to take a harder line against Russia, accusing it and China of being "revisionist powers" operating on the "edges of international law" to undermine the U.S. and change the status quo in their favor. In his speech, Trump said he hoped for a "great partnership" with those two countries "but in a manner that always protects our national interest."
That phrase "national interest" does a lot of work in U.S. foreign policy. It's an ill-defined term that justifies all kinds of policy decisions, mostly interventionist ones. In Trump's incarnation, the national interest includes ensuring the U.S. is a "winner" in trade and other economic arenas. That imposes a zero-sum thinking that can only lead to the U.S. losing out. Attacks on free trade, while popular with some voters, are an exercise in killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Given Trump's decades-long history of pushing protectionism and trashing trade, this may be one of the few places where his foreign policy will end up matching his rhetoric. That would be a tragedy.