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Continuity and Change in United States National Security Strategy

07 Mar 2018

Continuity and Change in United States National Security Strategy

07 Mar 2018

Over the past three months, the United States government has published three important strategic security documents: the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Worldwide Threat Assessment.  The first two are published at irregular intervals, the first informing the second; the third is an annual collective intelligence assessment principally given to the U.S. congress.  These are the first three of the new Trump administration.  Connecting these three is a very old notion in international diplomacy: a powerful military force, even when held in reserve, allows diplomatic negotiations to proceed from a position of strength.

Collectively these three documents do not represent a radical change in strategy.  For sure, priorities are shuffled, external threats are used rhetorically to justify newly favored initiatives, and there are even some inconsistencies across these documents.  For example, the National Security Strategy has dropped mention of climate change as a threat to security; the Worldwide Threat Assessment still considers the effects of climate change, increasing air pollution, reduction in biodiversity, and damaged ocean resources as likely to contribute to international instability.  Taken together, these seminal strategic documents of the Trump administration represent less dramatic disruption and more conservative continuity in foreign policy.

Some themes can be developed to demonstrate this assertion.  First, though much is made of great-power rivalry, overtaking terrorism as the most important threat, countering terrorism remains a principle concern for U.S. national security.  Second, inter-state geopolitics has been a prominent feature throughout the post 9/11 U.S. security calculations, though the types of threats are evolving.

Yet unanswered is which threats the new administration considers existential—ignored only at great peril, and which can be reasonably managed at a lower intensity.  Also, do the differences in tone and emphasis that arise between the president himself and his senior security advisers matter, or are they just a distraction?  Finally, will differences in approach overshadow the observed continuity in security priorities—in other words will Trump’s unique form of rhetoric and general aggressiveness have greater effect than the more conservative core contained in these strategic documents?

Terrorism: Continuity and Change

With the recently published National Defense Strategy 2018, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made headlines by finding in the second paragraph of the unclassified summary that, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”  This stands in contrast from the 2008 version of the same document, which placed countering terrorism as the overarching mission of the U.S. Defense Department.  Rather than being locked in “strategic competition” in 2008 states were seen as fighting for their collective right to exist.  “For the foreseeable future,” the 2008 strategy predicted, “this environment will be defined by a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system.”  Four years later, under the new administration of Barak Obama, the focus was still on defeating threats from non-state actors, “for the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide … and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

The National Defense Strategy document is informed by the National Security Strategy, which is written periodically during the course of an administration.  President Trump’s first iteration of the National Security Strategy gives priority to domestic security, emphasizing border security: “First, our fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life.  We will strengthen control of our borders and reform our immigration system.”  Of the four “pillars” that constitute the strategy, the first two are dedicated to “Protecting the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life,” and “Promoting American Prosperity.”

Though priorities have shifted, as in previous strategy documents, terrorism still figures prominently in the 2017 document.  The context in which it is raised is almost always religious or ideological.  For example:

“jihadist terrorists such as ISIS [Daesh, Islamic State] and al-Qa’ida continue to spread a barbaric ideology that calls for the violent destruction of governments and innocents they consider to be apostates.  These jihadist terrorists attempt to force those under their influence to submit to Sharia law.”

Otherwise, terrorism is described as an external threat that needs to be stopped at the territorial frontiers of the United States.  As such, defeating terrorism means restricting legal immigration and erecting higher barriers to end illegal immigration.  Notably, Trump’s strategic vision carries forward the pre-emptive strike doctrine first described in George W. Bush’s first National Security Strategy, issued in 2002.  Understandably, in that document—published exactly one year after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks—terrorism is perceived as the most prominent threat, and it outlines an aggressive posture to defeat terrorist organizations abroad.

Trump’s strategy reinvigorates that aggressive posture, which stands in contrast to the final National Security Strategy issued under Barak Obama (2015), which assessed, “in the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield.”  Obama’s strategy was uniquely specific in describing this approach, “we will work to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequal­ity, and repression.”  For both Obama and Trump, ideology drives terrorism.  For Obama, ideology was something to be understood and countered rhetorically, and by removing conditions that foster violence.  Trump views violent ideologies as a disease that needs to be either eradicated through decisive military action or secured against by effective territorial controls.  Trump’s view of terrorism is more closely aligned with Bush’s, as is his favoring military activity over a law enforcement approach or addressing what are sometimes called the “root-causes” of terrorism.

Great Power Politics

The 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment—a collective product of the United States intelligence apparatus—opens with this dire conclusion: “The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War.”  Regional conflicts sparked by assertive governments in Iran and North Korea pose the greatest threat, according to the intelligence assessment.  Re-emergent threats from the “revisionist powers of China and Russia,” figure prominently in Trump administration strategic documents.  From the 2017 National Security Strategy:

“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

Trump’s National Defense Strategy clearly establishes that the greatest threats to U.S. security globally and at home come from, in order of severity: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.  China and Russia are viewed as revanchist states seeking to subvert the post World War II international order while North Korea and Iran, though their nuclear weapons programs, seek regional hegemony.  This could not be more starkly divergent from Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy:

“Today, the world’s great powers find ourselves on the same side—united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos.  The United States will build on these common interests to promote global security.  We are also increasingly united by common values.  Russia is in the midst of a hopeful transition, reaching for its democratic future and a partner in the war on terror.  Chinese leaders are discovering that economic freedom is the only source of national wealth.”

By 2008, the Bush administration’s view of Russia had evolved; from the National Defense Strategy published that year:

“Russia’s retreat from openness and democracy could have significant security implications for the United States, our European allies, and our partners in other regions…All of these actions suggest a Russia exploring renewed influence, and seeking a greater international role.”

As with Russia, Bush approached China with caution, but optimistic toward cooperation.

In Obama’s first National Security Strategy (2010), Russia was viewed with the same sort of cautious optimism heard in the final Bush strategy:

“We seek to build a stable, substantive, multidimensional relationship with Russia, based on mutual interests. The United States has an interest in a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia that respects international norms…We support efforts within Russia to promote the rule of law, accountable government, and universal values.”

In his final National Security Strategy, (2015), the Obama administration was developing the tone found in Trump’s strategy documents.  “Russia” or “Russian” was mentioned fourteen times; nine of those times the word was paired with the word “aggression” or “coercion.”  China, however, was almost always mentioned in a positive, cooperative manner.  North Korea was mentioned just three times and always associated with sanction or provocation.  Though always mentioned in relation to its incipient nuclear weapons program, Iran was described as an issue being handled through international efforts.

Whether viewed with optimism at new partnerships, or returning to an antagonistic posture, when taken together, these strategic documents suggest that great-power concerns have figured prominently throughout the post-9/11 U.S. security environment.

What is new are the types of threats posed: according to the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment, cyber warfare has the potential of crashing the global financial system, disabling vital national defense systems, undermining private commerce, theft of personal savings, and disrupting or destroying vital utility infrastructures.  Though inter-state competition ranks as the greatest threat to security, the threat assessment concludes that weakening international governance will allow non-state actors to also threaten global stability: “Forces for geopolitical order and stability will continue to fray, as will the rules-based international order,” according to the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment, “new alignments and informal networks—outside traditional power blocs and national governments—will increasingly strain international cooperation.”

Yet, these new threats are directed against well-established institutions.  Trump’s National Security Strategy highlights the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the target of revisionist powers and, “rogue regimes that violate all principles of free and civilized states.”  The 2018 National Defense Strategy drew attention to a, “resilient, but weakening, post-WWII international order.”  Undermining this order is done with a mix of new and old, from state actors and non-state groups.  From the 2018 defense strategy:

“Both revisionist powers and rogue regimes are competing across all dimensions of power. They have increased efforts short of armed conflict by expanding coercion to new fronts, violating principles of sovereignty, exploiting ambiguity, and deliberately blurring the lines between civil and military goals.”

The newest National Security Strategy argues that these latent threats have always existed, but that the terms used to describe the fight have changed.  Cyber-attacks, cheap drones, influence campaigns, unconventional, non-attributed military action, terrorism are emergent threats.  Even some of this is not entirely new.  For comparison, “cyber” did not appear in the 2002 National Security Strategy but appeared as early as the 2008 National Defense Strategy.

The 2018 defense strategy asserts that the dichotomous states of being “at war” and “at peace” are unhelpful descriptors; the U.S. is engaged in a conflict that is an “arena of continuous competition.”  The implication is that this continuum of operational intensity has always existed, at least since the end of the Second World War, an observation borne out by multitude indirect and direct crises confronted by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  So, Trump’s newest rounds of security documents introduce some new concepts, adjusted priorities a bit, and refocused attention on some threats and defensive postures that have been around since the middle of the 20th Century.


Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and his tenure in that office so far is often described as “chaotic” or at least “unprecedented.”  In spite of that image, what emerges from the three-part explication of the national security outlook for the United States is more conservative continuity than radical change.  U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made headlines briefly when he announced that terrorism was being replaced by great-power conflict as the greatest security threat for the United States.  Yet, counter-terrorism remains a crucial national security priority; in fact the Trump administration continues some Obama era policies and re-establishes some Bush administration priorities jettisoned by Obama.  Just as terror and counter-terror continue to figure prominently in the newest Trump strategic documents, great-power concerns have always been critically important in the strategic assessments and vision of previous administration.

Still, important differences cannot be ignored.  Trump’s nuclear doctrine diverges from both of his immediate predecessors.  The importance of asymmetric, non-traditional threats has been elevated.  Where the Obama administration acknowledged that seeking to address the underlying causes of terrorism is an important element of counter-terrorism, Trump’s strategic vision has given greater attention to a more aggressive military interdiction approach, which is more in line with Bush-era counter-terror efforts.

What remains unanswered is which priorities do Trump and his senior security advisors view as existential—things that cannot be ignored without grave danger—and what are taken as manageable threats?  Also, are public differences between the President and senior security officials important, or are they distractions?  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, will Trump’s unique style of bellicose rhetoric and aggressiveness overwhelm the generally conservative core of the strategic documents the new administration has released?

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