Donald Trump’s national security strategy is an attempt to bring some coherence to his world view.
It doesn’t always succeed.
Released on Monday, the 68-page document is meant to set out the security challenges facing the U.S. president and explain how he intends to meet them.
It continues a tradition that goes back to the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president.
This particular document appears to reflect the foreign affairs logic of one wing of the Republican Party. But it doesn’t always reflect the stated views of Trump.
Whether it ends up guiding the foreign affairs policy of the U.S. administration remains an open question.
The strategy begins with Trump’s dystopian view of America as a nation that has fallen behind. The reason (and again this is pure Trump) is that feckless U.S. presidents, such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush, allowed other nations to take advantage of Washington.
The fundamental mistake these presidents made was to forget that, although the Cold War was over, America still faced rivals.
Who are these rivals? When campaigning for president, Trump liked to blast Iran and China. The anonymous authors of his security strategy add in Russia and North Korea.
Iran and North Korea are treated in the document as dangerous rogue states that must be dealt with harshly. But at some level, Russia and China are even more dangerous since, as “revisionist” competitors, they threaten U.S. primacy worldwide.
The document suggests that Russia and China pose a greater threat to the U.S. than even terrorism.
But all are involved in “fundamental contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce unanimity.”
This is language reminiscent of the Cold War. It is also language that Trump does not usually apply to Russia and China.
Indeed, at times Trump has actively praised both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
His beef with China is more economic than political. And while Trump’s ministers routinely decry Russian intentions in eastern Europe, he himself usually does not.
The document does pick up on and expand Trump’s economic themes. It claims that the president is not a protectionist, who would destroy the post-1945 regime of international economic institutions.
Rather, it says, those institutions were “distorted and undermined” by the decision to expand the liberal trading system to countries that “did not share our values,” a thinly disguised reference to China.
Completely missing from the document is Trump’s campaign pledge to avoid unnecessary military adventures. In fact, the security strategy says that the dog-eat-dog nature of foreign relations requires America to be willing to confront China and Russia everywhere.
“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” it says.
Trump has been reluctant to accept allegations from his own spy agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The security strategy is not as shy.
While not naming the U.S. as a target, it flatly accuses “actors such as Russia” of using “information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies” and otherwise interfere in the domestic politics of “countries around the world.”
What does this all mean? In terms of the big decisions, the answer may be: not much. If Trump attacks North Korea, for instance, it will not be because of something written in the national security strategy.
Nor is the existence of this strategy likely to prevent Trump from issuing confusing and contradictory tweets about foreign affairs.
But on day-to-day issues, Trump’s underlings now have their new Cold War marching orders. In key areas, this document might not have much to do with the platform Trump was elected on – or even what he thinks now.
But it is the closest thing to a Trump doctrine that we have.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist.