A return to ‘principled realism’
On December 18, 2017, US President, Donald J. Trump, unveiled his administration’s National Security Strategy wherein he outlined the foundation and priorities that will drive US foreign policy during his time in office. The Strategy starts by declaring that it will use “principled realism” to put American interests, values and prosperity first. It says that engagement with the world need not mean abandoning national self-interest, that great power competition should be the main preoccupation of US security, and that allies should do more to provide for their own defence. Such realist rhetoric offends most foreign-policy pundits in Washington, who tend to deny that US interests and global goods are distinguishable.
A peep into Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy reveals that it is an attempt to patch together a worldview and corresponding plan of action from the US president’s public statements. It is based upon the view that peace, security and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad. While it does not contain many surprises, it is still an important document as it gives an authoritative description of the Trump administration’s assessment of threats to US national security and how the US plans to counter them. The strategy claims to be based on ‘principled realism’, that is, a combination of a realistic view of the world with the principles which characterize the American polity. It recognizes the central role of national power in a competitive world as it tries to promote US national interests while remaining faithful to “American principles” of respect for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, accountability of power enshrined in the US constitution establishing a democratic form of government and the rule of law. It declares, “Our task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and, in combination with other elements of national power, is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security.”
The document identifies China and Russia as posing a challenge to American power, influence and interests as they attempt to “erode American security and prosperity”. North Korea and Iran are accused of trying “to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, brutalize their own people”. In addition, the strategy considers “transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations” as serious threats to the US security. In the face of these perceived threats, the new Strategy would focus on four main tasks:
1. It would take steps to protect the American people, the homeland and the American way of life.
2. It would promote American prosperity by rejuvenating the US economy and insisting upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances.
3. It will aim to preserve peace through strength and ensure that “regions of the world are not dominated by one power.”
4. It would try to advance American influence on the premise that “a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.”
A Brief Analysis
Producing the document is a legal requirement; abiding by it is not. It is, in large part, a paper exercise, but not meaningless. At best, it can force an administration to step away from the urgent but ultimately less important matters to look at the big picture, and to consider how multiple and often competing priorities relate. At other times – as with the George W. Bush administration before the Iraq War – it lays out US thinking.
Trump administration has no body of thought; merely a crazy-quilt of ideas and assertions, as is evident from the frequency with which its members contradict each other. The strategy is Trumpian in its money-mindedness, skewing towards economic issues and dropping climate change from the list of global threats. It is Trumpian in its general tone of both gloom and hawkishness – with its declaration that Russia and China are “revisionist” powers trying to “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests”.
The criticism of Moscow is striking because it is so rare, though it was not echoed in Mr Trump’s remarks. The document accuses Russia of interfering in the domestic political affairs of other countries without mentioning the evidence of its meddling in the 2016 US Presidential election, which the president rejects.
The remarks on China are milder than predicted – and the document acknowledges the need to cooperate with both countries. Beijing will wait to see what, if any, action is taken before responding. But the underlying issue is undeniable. China is growing more powerful and more confident in its power. It wants to redraw international rules accordingly. This is the hardest of challenges for other powers, most of all the US; and it is complicated by the fact that America still needs China in handling issues such as North Korea.
Mr Trump has talked tough but has smoothed the path for China, diminishing his nation through his bigotry, ignorance, bluster and unreliability. Needing to strengthen alliances, he has frayed them. Ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement without offering an alternative vision of US engagement in the region, left the field open. His bellicose rhetoric on Pyongyang has frightened old friends. He has hectored Japan and South Korea about economic and other disagreements, threatening to tear up the free trade deal with Seoul. Further afield, he cosies up to authoritarian leaders and appears disengaged from – even disdainful of – those usually regarded as sharing US values.
What is for Pakistan?
The new strategy takes note of the continued threats to the US “from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan. The prospect for an India-Pakistan military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention”. Washington would press Pakistan to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts and “take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil”. It would also encourage Pakistan to continue demonstrating that it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets. As for Afghanistan, the US would support the Afghan government in its fight against “the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorists.” This support would aim to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield, thus, paving the way for diplomatic efforts to achieve enduring peace in Afghanistan.
The highlights of the Trump administration’s NSS given above reaffirm in many ways the essential features of the US policy towards Asia and South Asia that was being pursued by earlier administrations. There would, of course, be a greater emphasis on the build-up of the US military might than was the case during the Obama administration as reflected by the sharply increased US military budget of $700 billion for the fiscal year 2017-18. But the US policy of containment of China would continue as would the US policy of building up India as a counter-weight to China, particularly in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. As for Pakistan, it would remain under the US pressure for its alleged support to the Taliban and other militant groups operating from its soil for terrorist activities in Afghanistan and India. It is likely that if Islamabad does not fall in line with the US demands, Washington would place increasing restrictions on its development and military assistance to Pakistan. If the situation deteriorates further, the possibility of other punitive actions cannot be ruled out.
What Should Pakistan Do?
In the face of the new US National Security Strategy, it is imperative that we maintain national unity and cohesive functioning of the various state institutions, including civil and military as well as executive, legislature and judiciary, within their constitutional limits. None of them has the monopoly of wisdom, integrity or patriotism. No institution can be, or should be, allowed to assume the role of a state within a state. None should be allowed to transgress its constitutional limits to encroach upon the functions of the others. Unfortunately, some institutions of the state have violated these red lines in the past to generate the current climate of political instability, the last thing that the country needs at this critical moment in its history.
Secondly, our state institutions should focus on a realistic assessment of the current internal and external situation confronting the nation with a view to developing viable policy options for the consideration of the government with the aim to safeguard the country’s security, promote its economic well-being, and protect its cultural identity and values. Emotional responses to complex situations and issues should be avoided. This in the ultimate analysis is the question of governance where unfortunately all our state institutions are lacking and need to improve their performance. Finally, we should squarely face the reality that in the years to come there is going to be an inexorable process of the convergence of the strategic interests of the US and India, which carries serious negative implications for Pakistan’s security and economic prosperity. We cannot simply wish away this trend. Our effort instead should be to take into account this trend adequately in the formulation of our policies in various fields.
Priority Actions for South and Central Asia
Political: We will deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region. We will press Pakistan to intensify its counterterrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials. The United States will also encourage Pakistan to continue demonstrating that it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets. We will continue to partner with Afghanistan to promote peace and security in the region. We will continue to promote anti-corruption reform in Afghanistan to increase the legitimacy of its government and reduce the appeal of violent extremist organizations. We will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereign‑ as China increases its influence in the region.
Economic: We will encourage the economic integration of Central and South Asia to promote prosperity and economic linkages that will bolster connectivity and trade. And we will encourage India to increase its economic assistance in the region. In Pakistan, we will build trade and investment ties as security improves and as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in our counterterrorism goals.
Military and Security: We are committed to supporting the Afghan government and security forces in their fight against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorists. We will bolster the fighting strength of the Afghan security forces to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and to set the conditions for diplomatic efforts to achieve enduring peace. We will insist that Pakistan take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil. We will work with the Central Asian states to guarantee access to the region to support our counterterrorism efforts.
Four Key Takeaways
1. Economic security is national security
The Trump administration’s NSS focuses heavily on the US’s economic relationships with other countries as economic security is fundamental to US’s national security.
The NSS draws attention to the US’s trade imbalances with other countries and warns of “economic aggression” from other countries like China as key national security concerns.
2. Calling out China and Russia: ‘Rival powers’
The document repeatedly draws attention to China and Russia as two countries that “challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
Trump, in his speech, referred to both countries as “rival powers.”
The NSS also goes far further than the President publicly has in calling out destabilizing Russian behaviour across the globe, including its violations of Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty.
3. Top threats: Rogue regimes, terrorism and more
At the top of the Trump administration’s list of threats to the US are countries Trump has branded as “rogue regimes”: namely North Korea and Iran.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile activities have become the most pressing national security concern of Trump’s tenure, and Iran’s alleged support of terrorist groups and its attempts to expand its influence in the Middle East are also key concerns.
To confront the threat of jihadist terrorism, the NSS calls for keeping up US military action against terrorist groups like ISIS and combating radicalization in the United States. It also emphasizes the importance of cybersecurity and immigration enforcement, and reiterates Trump’s call for a wall along the US-Mexico border.
4. Climate change, scrapped
The plan breaks with assessments by the Obama administration and the current leadership at the Pentagon that climate change is a threat to US national security.
The document references the “importance of environmental stewardship” only in passing in a section focused on “energy dominance,” including tapping into the US’s domestic energy resources, including fossil fuels like “coal, natural gas, petroleum.”
The decision not to recognize climate change follows the President’s withdrawal, in 2017, from the Paris Climate Accords and his repeal of a slew of environmental regulations.
In a Nutshell
Reading through the document, here are some of its main themes:
- We live in a competitive environment, internationally.
- The United States has the right to pursue its own interests within this environment.
- Restoration of economic competitiveness as the basis for American power.
- Rebalanced US alliance relationships including increased burden-sharing and commercial reciprocity.
- Border control and homeland security as fundamental.
- American energy dominance.
- Pushing back against numerous adversaries of the United States overseas, including rogue states and major competitors.
- Acceptance of great power rivalry as a fact of life, combined with hopes for regional stability and cooperation where possible.
- A US military buildup.
- Hunting down jihadist terrorists wherever they live.