The National Security Strategy Is Not a Strategy

Trump’s Incoherence Is a Reminder of Why a New Approach Is Needed

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks regarding the administration's National Security Strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington D.C., December 2017.  Joshua Roberts / REUTERS

As soon as it was released on December 18, U.S. President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) met with an expected wave of criticism. The document, an attempt to turn Trump’s “America First” instincts into a foreign policy doctrine, had failed to align ambitious ends with ways and means; to prioritize among objectives; and to convey actual presidential intent. Those criticisms are well-founded. But the flaws don’t just stem from the failures of the Trump administration; they also serve as an extreme reminder of what has gone wrong with the entire endeavor of the NSS—problems that predate the Trump era.

The NSS is supposed to map out a strategy, but over time, the project has devolved into a rhetorical exercise, characterized by grandiose ambitions and laundry lists of priorities. Rather than forcing the U.S. government to engage in serious strategic planning, it has become a case study in the failure to do so. This year’s NSS is unlikely to influence the Trump administration’s foreign policy in any meaningful way. But it should serve as a wake-up call, reminding Congress above all of the need to refashion the NSS so that it fulfills its intended purpose—instead of simply camouflaging a perennially ad hoc foreign policy. 


As part of a wide-ranging defense reform, the Goldwater- Nichols Act of 1986 mandated that the White House produce an annual report to Congress on the national security strategy of the United States. This document was supposed to review the United States’ “worldwide interests, goals, and objectives”; to lay out “proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power”; and to assess the capabilities required to enact the designated strategy. It could then help congressional appropriators align budget and strategy and guide other strategic reviews within the administration, particularly in the military and Department of Defense. 

In the three decades since, the NSS has become increasingly divorced from

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