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. 

ENDS WITHOUT MEANS

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 these crucial elements of implementation. Rather than having a strategy to accompany each annual budget request, the last two administrations have produced one per term, with little connection to other policy reviews. The Obama administration, for example, rolled out the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review in February 2010, three months before releasing an NSS in May. This year, the Trump administration submitted its budget request to Congress months before finalizing the NSS. 

Good strategy involves balancing means and ends, and the cumulative result of these changes has been to overemphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Each NSS has come to feature soaring rhetorical flourishes and extravagant goals unconstrained by material and political realities. In perhaps the most extreme contemporary example, President George W. Bush’s 2006 NSS defined “ending tyranny in our world” as the objective of U.S. foreign policy. Even as the Obama administration’s 2015 NSS insisted that “policy tradeoffs and hard choices will need to be made,” it went on to highlight eight separate priorities, ranging from combating climate change and infectious disease to addressing WMD proliferation and failed states.

WHAT IS STRATEGY?

An effective U.S. grand strategy requires a coherent theory of national security, one that defines the purpose of American power and balances the means and ends required to achieve it. Yet for all the upheavals and changes of the past seven decades, there has been little change in establishment visions of the United States’ proper role in the world: the notes vary, but the song remains the same. From the Cold War to the present day, presidents of both parties have called for the United States to lead the liberal international order that Washington and its allies built in the wake of World War II. Today, strategists face the same question that has emerged periodically throughout the postwar era: Can and should the United States continue in this tradition—and, if not, what would a new approach look like? 

An effective U.S. grand strategy requires a coherent theory of national security, one that defines the purpose of American power and balances the means and ends required to achieve it.

If the answer is yes, strategy must then account for the international threats that could undermine the order, along with opportunities that could strengthen it, and then align objectives and resources. No matter how intellectually compelling, strategic goals have little meaning unless married with the military, economic, and diplomatic means required to achieve them. Although some measure of aspiration is inevitable, even over-the-horizon planning must proceed from realistic assessments of capabilities, as well as plausible interim steps toward long-term objectives. 

The most effective U.S. grand strategies have combined bold strategic vision with careful attention to resources. Acknowledging the limits of U.S. power in the wake of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, sought to revitalize U.S. leadership at a sustainable cost. The “Nixon Doctrine” addressed constraints by emphasizing the devolution of responsibility for regional security to U.S. partners overseas, the preservation of nuclear forces necessary to deter attack on the United States and its allies, and the pursuit of détente with China and the Soviet Union. Thirteen years later, the Reagan administration reversed course with a grand strategy predicated on the assumption that the United States had both the economic capacity and the political will to compete more aggressively with the Soviet Union. By expanding U.S. military power, the Reagan strategy, as outlined by National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, embraced U.S.-Soviet competition and advocated aggressive steps to push Moscow toward greater openness at home. 

THE COST OF INCOHERENCE

The extraordinary nature of the Trump presidency renders the NSS’s traditional incoherence especially acute. The dissonance between the language of the NSS and Trump’s own stated views undermines any value the document might have as a guide to the actual conduct of foreign policy. And Trump’s impulsivity raises the question of whether this administration could implement any strategy at all. 

Take, for example, the role of alliances in U.S. strategy. Trump’s antipathy toward the United States’ allies is well established: since the 1980s, he has contended that “our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us,” a message he returned to repeatedly in his presidential campaign. Even once in office, he repeatedly declined to affirm Article 5 of the NATO charter, which commits members of the alliance to a mutual defense pledge (he eventually reversed that stance). Consequently, when an NSS written in Trump’s name affirms the “invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver,” the words ring hollow. 

Trump’s NSS seeks to distinguish itself with a realpolitik—or “principled realist”—recognition that international politics is an inherently competitive enterprise. One of the United States’ principal security competitors, the document argues, is a revisionist Russia, which, alongside China, “challenge[s] American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” The NSS not only notes that Russia threatens U.S. interests in Europe; it also highlights Russia’s use of “information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,” a less-than-subtle allusion to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. But here, too, the language is belied by the president’s oft stated views on the subject. Trump has complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly and, in turn, gleefully accepts Putin’s praise while downplaying U.S. intelligence agencies’ consensus finding that Russia interfered in last year’s election.

There are many such contradictions. Having criticized American exceptionalism as “dangerous,” does Trump really believe that the United States is a “lasting force for good in the world,” as the NSS states? With his transactional approach to foreign policy, how much space is there for shared “values and aspirations” as a basis for cooperation? And if diplomats are “indispensable to identify and implement solutions to conflicts in unstable regions of world,” why is his administration gutting the State Department?  More fundamentally, the NSS faces the impossible task of charting a strategic course for an impulsive decision-maker. Most of his significant foreign policy actions to date—withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, rejecting the Paris climate agreement, decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—were not the result of careful geopolitical assessments so much as the fulfillment of campaign commitments. Given a choice, Trump is likely to choose short-term, tactical wins over incremental execution of the long-term priorities articulated in the NSS. 

THE PLANNING, NOT THE PLANS

President Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” If anything justifies the NSS in its current form, it is the process more than the final product. That process forces senior decision-makers, too often lashed to the daily demands of their positions, to broaden their analytic apertures. It also gives lower levels of the bureaucracy insight into the White House’s top priorities.

But to fulfill its original strategic mandate, the NSS needs to be rethought—and the extreme example of the Trump administration’s particularly risible effort should prod the legislative branch to take the lead in that rethinking. Rather than allowing the White House to ignore the statutory requirements for a yearly NSS transmitted alongside the budget request, Congress should insist on the original schedule, but with tempered expectations for what each document will contain. Although an administration’s first NSS ought to include a bold vision statement, subsequent National Security Strategies need not emphasize novelty; they should serve as an opportunity to refine strategic assumptions on the basis of world events, evaluate progress toward implementation, and, if necessary, course-correct. These interim documents can be short and classified, so as to facilitate frank assessment. 

Congress need not wait until the next administration to enact these changes. Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees could immediately inform the Trump White House of the new procedure. With an NSS process tethered more closely to reality, the resulting documents may become more modest in their ambitions. But dull headlines are a small price to pay for sounder strategy.