President Trump is so proud of his administration’s new National Security Strategy that he “wanted to present it himself, something that his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, did not do when their congressionally mandated strategies were published,” according to The New York Times. It’s difficult to see why. While the NSS contains a few authentically Trumpian elements (an emphasis on sovereignty, immigration, economic nationalism, etc.), Trump completely disagrees with a few of the core positions it outlines.
The most obvious example of this dissonance is Russia. How many times has Trump congratulated himself for trying to improve relations with Putin over the past year? Just over a month ago, he described critics of his soft approach to Russia as “haters and fools,” accused Democrats of erecting an “artificial barrier” between the U.S. and Russia by condemning Putin’s attempt to subvert the 2016 election, and said, “Having Russia in a friendly posture as opposed to always fighting them is an asset.”
One of the most consistent themes of Trump’s candidacy and presidency has been the pursuit of stronger relations with Russia. Since June 2016, he has promised to “get along” with Putin dozens of times, dismissed allegations that Putin regularly executes journalists and dissidents, boasted that he’ll “make deals” with Russia, assured the world that Russia had no plans to invade Ukraine (more than two years after the annexation of Crimea) and mindlessly accepted Putin’s lies about interfering in our election. Meanwhile, his praise for Putin has been unambiguous — “strong leader,” “‘A’ for leadership,” “far more” of a leader than Obama and so on.
Yet here’s what you’ll find in the NSS: “Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments.” Russia has also “demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region” and it continues to “intimidate its neighbors with threatening behavior, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities.” Moreover, Trump may think Putin deserves an “A” for leadership, but the authors of the NSS clearly aren’t quite as enthusiastic. They argue that Russia is still pursuing “its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies.”
The NSS explains that Russia is “attempting to erode American security and prosperity,” make economies “less free and fair” around the world and “control information” to repress its population and maintain its regional power.
And Russia is “developing advanced weapons and capabilities that could threaten our critical infrastructure and our command and control architecture.” The NSS recognizes that Russia’s military buildup also destabilizes the region: “The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.” The NSS also states that Russia has “military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime.”
Finally, the NSS contains a few very un-Trumpian comments about how Russia is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,” interfering in the “domestic political affairs of countries around the world” and using “information operations as part of its offensive cyber efforts to influence public opinion across the globe.” These are all tactics Russia has deployed against the United States, and Trump has repeatedly denied this fact.
The word “Russia” shows up in the NSS 17 times, and the country is described as a threat or a challenger 16 of those times. This is unsurprising in a document that heralds the return of “great power competition” and attacks the “false” assumption that “engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” Again, this language simply isn’t consistent with the things Trump has said about restoring the United States’ relationship with Russia.
Of course, when it comes to our most reliable allies — countries that haven’t invaded their neighbors or tried to sabotage an American election recently — this language of endless, zero-sum competition comes naturally to Trump. Here’s another word that appears frequently in the NSS: “Unfair.” From “unfair trade practices” to (bizarrely) “unfair industry trends,” the Trump administration makes the United States sound like an intensely aggrieved country. And we already know this overwhelming sense of grievance has led to major strategic errors, like Trump’s vacillations on Article 5 of the NATO Charter.
In case you were wondering, the NSS laments “unfair burden-sharing with our allies” and calls upon these allies to “shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” While there’s nothing wrong with encouraging larger military expenditures, you have to remember the context: Trump thinks NATO is “obsolete,” he’s convinced that our allies are trying to diminish and humiliate us, and he treats our closest relationships like transactional arrangements instead of emphasizing our shared values and goals.
These are just a few of the reasons why confidence in U.S. leadership has plummeted among our European allies. While the tough language directed at Russia in the NSS could have finally offered some reassurance, Trump’s long history of apologizing for Putin has made that impossible.
Contact Matt Johnson, The Capital-Journal opinion page editor, at (785) 295-1282 or @mattjj89 on Twitter.