Trump's National Security Strategy, with Julianne Smith

December 19, 2017

The Pentagon. CREDIT: U.S. Navy/Public Domain

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart. I am here at Carnegie Council in New York City.

Today I am speaking with Julianne Smith. She is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. Previously she was deputy national security advisor to the vice president of the United States, and she was also an official working on NATO policy at the Pentagon in Washington.

Julie, thanks so much for speaking with us today about Trump's new National Security Strategy (NSS).

JULIANNE SMITH: My pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Much has been made of the difference between the national security document which came out this week and Trump's presentation of it. Do you think that there is a big difference between the two, or does it not matter?

JULIANNE SMITH: It is rare for presidents to launch their own National Security Strategy. We have not always seen that with past presidents. But, for one reason or another, President Trump decided to give a major policy address that everyone expected to be in complete sync with the actual National Security Strategy.

But what we got instead was more of a campaign rally. We had a long list of achievements that were wrapped in the priorities of this administration, but it sounded very similar to some of the other presentations or speeches that he has given at these rallies around the country. It was a lot of self-flattery and talking about all that he has done to "make American great again," but it was hard to find in that presentation the key tenets of what had been laid out in the actual National Security Strategy.

So it was rare on two counts: (1) to have the president talk about it; and (2) the actual disconnect between what he was saying in the speech and what actually appears in the document.

DEVIN STEWART: So the speech itself was more of a political gesture and the document was more of a bureaucratic instrument?

JULIANNE SMITH: Yes. The National Security Strategy is traditionally a bureaucratic exercise. The document itself is not read widely in the United States. I think the value of the document of a National Security Strategy is the process of actually going through and drafting it. It forces the interagency, multiple corners of the administration to come together and debate their top priorities and their strategies for the coming years. But here in Washington, other than a small class of people like myself who like to wonk out and read the document, the core audience actually lies outside the United States for the National Security Strategy.

A lot of our allies read it very closely, looking for clues about what they might expect from the administration. They look for emphasis on particular regions and particular threats.

Our adversaries look at it through the same lens. They look at it closely to see if they are mentioned by name. In this case, there is a heavy emphasis on China, and the Chinese have reacted pretty negatively to that over the last day or so.

But it is a bureaucratic exercise. It does not always matter in terms of how it is executed because the real question is whether or not resources and the budget actually mirror what is outlined in the strategy, and in the case of the Trump administration they actually need the people in place to execute the strategy. We are at a point in this administration where we still do not have key personnel in some of the top posts, which will have an impact on the degree to which they can execute it.

DEVIN STEWART: So what kind of world does the new National Security Strategy describe, and what is new about it? What is your overall assessment? Does it get it right or wrong?

JULIANNE SMITH: Well, I think parts of it resonate and reflect bits of past security strategies. It does talk about resurgent powers, China and Russia; it talks about rogue nations like Iran and North Korea; it talks about transnational threats—terrorism, for example. Those are themes that you have seen in past strategies.

Of course, there is an emphasis on strengthening the U.S. economy, U.S. competitiveness. It breaks down the world into regions, much as past strategies have done. So you can pick out bits of it and various sentences that do not seem to be a radical departure from what we have seen in past strategies.

But there are a couple of things that are very different. I think the way in which China is described in the strategy—as a threat, in a very negative and dark light, as a competitor, and it signals that the United States is preparing to take a more aggressive posture toward China—is reflective of what we heard from Trump during the campaign. It is not reflective of what Trump has actually done in practice as president. So that is one thing.

The second thing that I found interesting—and discouraging, frankly—was the lack of emphasis on climate change. Obama was very intent on including climate as a key national security challenge and threat. That is not what comes across in this strategy. Climate is mentioned in passing, along with energy, but a much heavier emphasis is placed on energy.

Then the whole economic section reflects the disaffection with globalization that Trump ran on as a candidate. It is kind of a dark summary of where we are in terms of trade, a lot of complaints about the trade imbalances that exist, the need to create a level playing field. But it almost sketches out a world that will not exist. It is almost as if it fails to acknowledge that the U.S. economy is completely intertwined with the world economy. I found that to be unrealistic and a bit dated. The whole economic section feels a little bit dated to me.

Then a very light touch, almost nothing at all, on values, on human rights. There is a little bit in there on the rule of law, but you do not hear a lot about promoting American values, promoting democracy, leading by example. Some of the themes that you have seen in past strategies are not present in this strategy either.

So, yes, parts of this seem familiar and other parts seem to be a radical departure from what has been laid out in prior strategies.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think there is some merit in describing China as a competitor rather than a strategic partner?

JULIANNE SMITH: Well, certainly there is truth to that, but I think the challenge for the United States has always been to get it just right. There are dangers in portraying China strictly in negative terms and in very threatening terms. There are many cases where we do have a positive relationship with China and we do want to collaborate with China. North Korea would be a good one. For President Obama it was also climate change and other global challenges, like global pandemics and other work we were able to do together.

So this discounts the areas where we are able to do some work together and, frankly, discounts what even Trump has praised the Chinese for in working with him on the North Korea threat. We have not solved it, but there has been some praise for how helpful China has been to date in coping with that challenge. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on the negative economic relationship or competition that we have with China.

Actually, what I found interesting is in the Europe section there are a few sentences about what China is doing in Europe. So, to the extent that China is mentioned, it is very much captured in the sense that they are out-competing us, they are running circles around us, that we are not paying enough attention to what China is doing. I would agree with some of that if you look at One Belt, One Road, and certainly there is truth to that. I am not denying it.

But I think what it does deny is the other side of the relationship where there are areas where we can cooperate. I guess the biggest fundamental question is, do you believe that engaging the Chinese and encouraging them to take a right path as they rise and emerge on the world stage is a better approach versus just taking a very aggressive posture and bumping up against them at every turn? The truth is, it has to be both. Every president struggles with this. There is no easy answer. I just thought that in this strategy it tilts definitively onto one side of the ledger.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that climate change has fallen out of the National Security Strategy and so has democracy promotion. There are two elements that have more of a prominent position in this new security strategy: one is a more central role of American nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and another one is what some people call disinformation or propaganda—I think it is referred to as "information statecraft."

JULIANNE SMITH: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you make of these two new or more prominent components?

JULIANNE SMITH: I was encouraged by the disinformation piece. I am discouraged by the fact that there is, as far as I can see, little or actually no mention at all of what Russia did in our own election, and yet, like Tillerson's speech on Europe in late November, it does acknowledge Russian tactics, hybrid tactics or asymmetric tactics, things like energy coercion, but also the disinformation piece, the strategic communications piece, and the need for us to develop capabilities and tools to tackle that.

I found that very encouraging because there have been some rumors that the State Department is downsizing the team or eliminating the team that is focusing on that. So again, I hope that the strategy reflects what is actually going on inside the State Department and other agencies that are tasked with dealing with that threat.

On the nuclear piece, it seems to signal that we are going to be investing heavily in modernization going forward. It does not seem to acknowledge some of the budgetary challenges and some of the other strategic debates surrounding our nuclear arsenal. But I know the world has been looking, and Washington and others have been looking, for clues as to where the administration sits on nuclear matters. I felt like it did provide some insight because it is featured so prominently in the strategy that it seems to indicate that this is going to be a priority for the administration going forward.

But, as I said earlier, the bottom line on all of this is whether or not their budgetary decisions and how they allocate resources will reflect the prioritization that is outlined in the document, and that remains to be seen.

DEVIN STEWART: As we know, the primary audience of this document is Congress, and so that will matter. Given the changes of the new document and the differences compared to previous ones, what has the reception been in Washington so far?

JULIANNE SMITH: Like on any issue with the Trump Administration there are mixed reviews. There are a couple of think tanks or analysts across town who have been supportive, and I have a couple of colleagues in my own institution who felt like it was a pretty sound strategy.

I would say most of the people I have talked to outside of government, including some people in Congress, have been a little taken aback, and a lot of people have been left scratching their heads because a lot of what appears in the strategy has actually been contradicted by the president himself in one or another of his tweet storms or single tweets that he has issued over the last year.

So, it is frustrating because people generally, including many of our allies that I have talked to, are not sure what to do with it. Do they assume that the strategy will prevail and that this will chart the course of the administration going forward, or should they kind of discount it by half and continue to rely on the president's tweets to indicate where the administration is headed? Experience to date shows that some of his tweets are a good indication of what is happening with the government and the administration. In other cases, he has been way off base and the actual policy has been a radical shift from what is presented in a few characters in a tweet.

So I think the world is still left wondering. There is a lot of skepticism about whether or not this will actually have any sustainability. Will it have some staying power with his team? Will it serve as a guiding light or not? Or is this just a couple of folks coming together and laying out their own vision separate from whatever the president may believe? That we do not know.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. Well, thank you so much, Julie.

Julie Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. Thanks so much, Julie.

JULIANNE SMITH: My pleasure.

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