President Donald Trump on Monday sized up the global competition for economic and geopolitical clout and outlined a muscular new national security strategy to advance America’s interests in the world.
His conclusions won’t come as much of a surprise for those who have listened to his speeches and watched his tweets carefully. Synthesized to two phrases: American internationalists’ aspirations for kumbaya partnerships with China and Russia are out, confronting fierce competition is in. That competition doesn’t preclude trade deals that generate mutual benefits — the economy is still global — or military cooperation against common threats, terror groups included.
Trump acknowledged perilous realities in a 55-page national security report. From the document’s introduction: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They 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. … These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of communist influences elsewhere, presidents of both major parties have alternated between confronting America’s rivals in tussles over economic and military might on one hand and striving to make friends with Moscow and Beijing on the other. To read this document, as well as Trump’s speech Monday, is to see that beyond his cordial-on-the-surface relations with China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the American president wants those governments to understand they can’t challenge American interests without inviting a bold American response. Expect to hear echoes of Monday’s declarations if, say, Beijing tries to control shipping lanes in the South China Sea, or if Moscow tries to expand its influence in the Baltic states.
This national strategy — presidents customarily issue these every few years — is best read not as an ironclad promise or threat but as a hint of how the administration might react to coming military, political and economic challenges: with unapologetic emphasis on the America-first philosophy Trump has revived. “A secure, prosperous and free America will be strong and ready to lead abroad, to protect our interests and our way of life,” his report says.
The new strategic blueprint lays out a world full of threats — from terrorists, hackers, jihadists, global criminal organizations — and discusses how to confront each of them. But this is a forward-thrusting statement of purpose, not a delineation of tactics.
Allies and adversaries alike may read Monday’s document and perceive different levels of threat and opportunity. Good.