December 18, 2017

The Irrelevance of Trump’s National Security Strategy

The Trump administration is poised to release its first National Security Strategy (NSS) today. For months, there has been speculation about what the document would contain given the president’s views and the more conventional outlook of leading national security officials in his administration. And in the lead up to its release today, there has been disagreement over what the strategy will contain.

A recent story by Kate Brannen at Just Security points to how “non-Trumpian” the 70-page NSS will be. That administration officials might ignore Trump’s professed foreign policy inclinations would be a good thing given how dangerous his worldview, if implemented, would likely prove. However, others have reported that the document will emphasize themes the president has repeated—such as sovereignty and nation-states in “perpetual competition”—both on the campaign trail and since taking office.

There are two reasons why this speculation is likely to be all for naught though. On the one hand, the NSS has rarely—if ever—mattered. And on the other, Trump’s National Security Strategy is even less likely to matter because of Trump himself.

First, on the general lack of relevancy of the NSS as a strategy document, it is unclear it actually serves its intended purpose. The purpose of any strategy is to set priorities. However, the process by which the strategy is made prizes consensus over prioritization. As I wrote earlier this year when speculation was ramping up about Trump’s National Security Strategy,

Part of the reason for the vacuity of the NSS is that the process that produces the myriad documents that are supposed to guide American strategy is more likely to inhibit creative thinking than facilitate it. The NSS is supposed to set the terms for the National Defense Strategy, produced by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Myriad programmatic guidance is supposed to flow from there.


The NSS is supposed to be produced annually. It is not. And it never has been. So what’s the point? The Pentagon continues to operate in its own flawed and inefficient manner. There is no evidence to suggest that the formal planning process has led to a more efficient national defense enterprise. The process is supposed to produce tradeoffs. Instead, the need for consensus leads to watered-down “plans” that reflect the preferences of the bureaucracy.

At best, the National Security Strategy—like the plethora of other such reports that are intended to guide America’s foreign policy and national security decision-making—is a marketing document. Marketing is important in certain respects. It sends signals to allies and adversaries alike. As political scientist Daniel Drezner wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2011:

[I]n times of deep uncertainty, a strategy can be important as a signal device. In these moment, such as the present a clearly articulated strategy, matched by consistent actions is useful because it can drive home messages about a country’s intentions to domestic and foreign audiences.

But that marketing function raises the second reason Trump’s National Security Strategy will be irrelevant. Even if the NSS contains elements reflecting his foreign policy advisors’ more conventional preferences, Trump has proven himself too undisciplined to stick to the script. Moreover, the president’s domestic policy advisors—namely, Stephen Miller—often represent a countervailing force against those who would impose message discipline on the president. For example, a lengthy Washington Post report on Trump’s relationship with Russia also describes the efforts of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to ensure the president finally reaffirmed America’s Article 5 commitment to its NATO allies after Miller had stripped it from a previous speech in Brussels.

But Trump’s tendency to cut against McMaster’s preferences remained evident just a few weeks before the National Security Strategy’s release. At a rally in Pensacola, Florida where most of the attention focused on the president’s endorsement of Roy Moore’s candidacy for Alabama’s Senate seat, Trump threw in a number of jabs at America’s allies—once again implying that he views NATO as something akin to a protection racket.

Kori Schake, a scholar of American civil-military relations and former official in the Bush administration, noted the passage on Twitter: “This is the stuff that will make all the temporizing wording of the forthcoming nationals security strategy irrelevant: the President clearly doesn’t believe it.”

Whether the National Security Strategy is “Trumpian” or not will be decided after its release today. But at its best, the National Security Strategy can serve as a marketing document. Yet as a marketing document, Trump’s National Security Strategy will likely fail given Trump’s own inconsistencies. The president will most likely fail to stick to McMaster and company present to him because it either clashes with his worldview or because he is simply too undisciplined. Either way, it will render a document of already tenuous relevancy completely irrelevant.