Trump Doesn't Seem to Buy His Own National Security Strategy

The notion of “principled realism” may please foreign-policy advisers, but it’s not clear the president knows what it is.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

If you oppose Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy, take heart. Apparently, he does too.

Fifteen minutes into his speech unveiling the strategy on Tuesday, Trump butchered it in a revealing way. In its fourth paragraph, the strategy declares that the Trump administration will pursue a “strategy of principled realism.” But Trump mangled the phrase, declaring instead that, “Our new strategy is based on a principle, realism.”

Although likely unintentional, Trump’s goof was telling. “Principled realism” probably appeals to Trump’s establishment-minded foreign-policy advisers because it adds a moral patina to America First. That ethical gloss is necessary because one of the National Security Strategy’s main themes is that Trump—unlike his predecessors—recognizes that the United States faces a new era of great-power rivalry with Russia and China. It paints this looming competition in intensely moralistic terms. America’s battles with China and Russia, the strategy announces, are “contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” Thus the importance of the adjective “principled.” It suggests that Trump’s sovereignty-obsessed nationalism—unlike the versions peddled by Moscow and Beijing—aims to create not simply a richer America, but a freer world.

This depiction of a globe divided along ideological lines—between white-hatted American democrats and black-hatted Russian and Chinese authoritarians—sounds more like John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Marco Rubio than Donald Trump. Which may be why Trump largely abandoned it in his speech.

The National Security Strategy declares that, “The United States distinguishes between economic competition with countries that follow fair and free market principles and competition with those that act with little regard for those principles.” In other words, mercantilist regimes like China’s rip America off, not rule-of-law-respecting ones like Japan, South Korea, and Germany. But in his speech, Trump ignored that distinction. He declared that “leaders in Washington negotiated disastrous trade deals” and “failed to insist that our often very wealthy allies pay their fair share for defense.” As during the campaign, he described a world not of benign democratic allies and menacing authoritarian adversaries but a world in which every major government—irrespective of political system—screws the United States.

While insisting that America’s NATO allies pay more for their defense, the National Security Strategy urged American and European unity against the common threat from Moscow. “Russia,” it declared, “is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments.” To combat that, “The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression,” including by reaffirming that “the United States remains committed to Article V of the Washington Treaty,” which obligates America to defend its NATO allies.

Trump’s discussion of NATO, by contrast, omitted any reference to a Russian threat and focused exclusively on the threat posed by America’s deadbeat allies. “I would not allow member states to be delinquent in the payment while we guarantee their safety and are willing to fight wars for them,” he boasted. “We have made clear that countries that are immensely wealthy should reimburse the United States for the cost of defending them. This is a major departure from the past, but a fair and necessary one: necessary for our country, necessary for our taxpayer, necessary for our own thought process.” Unlike the National Security Strategy, Trump said nothing in his speech about America’s obligation under Article 5.

Later, Trump did acknowledge that, “We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.” But he then declared that, “We will attempt to build a great partnership” with them—hardly the language of someone girding for a new cold war. And he cited America’s assistance in foiling a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg as an example of how that partnership might work.

Rather than showcasing his National Security Strategy’s central theme, Trump’s speech buried it. National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may want Trump to rally the free world against the tyrants in Moscow and Beijing, but Trump likes strongmen and he likes flattery, and thus, he likes Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. For him, the important global schisms are not ideological but civilizational, national, and personal: The West versus Islam, America versus the countries that swindle it, and above all, Trump versus those who doubt his greatness. McMaster may consider himself a realist when it comes to global affairs but he could use a bit more realism about his boss.