Trump foreign policy a year in

January was a month that promised insights on Trump administration foreign policy. The President and his team have had a year to settle in and sort out their priorities. Two pieces of evidence on where they are now appeared mid-month with the publication of the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. That was followed at the end of the month by the President’s State of the Union address.

I have to confess that surveying this material is no fun. The products that came out of the National Security Council and the Department of Defense are built from bureaucratic boiler plate. They are numbing to read. The President’s address is flaccid and clich√©-ridden but more entertaining for its invocation of nationalist tropes that delight historians with their familiar sounds. Thus we get: “Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans. If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.”

Having suffered through the three documents, I have one overall impression: Donald Trump and his team need to talk to each other. In approach at least they are all over the map.

The National Security Strategy, prepared by the President’s National Security Council headed by H. R. McMaster and released on 18 January, offers a conception of U.S. strategy that involves doing everything imaginable. It marches the reader through a long, unremarkable, and (for this reader at least) stultifying list of every topic remotely related to U.S. external relations from regional rivals to cyber warfare to energy production. This encyclopedic approach is inherently unconvincing as a strategy, and the idea of a full court press on a multitude of fronts seems especially dubious coming from administration short on skill, with many senior posts unfilled, and facing a rapidly rising federal debt and a partisan Congress.

While professing in conclusion to take its guidance from a “principled realism,” this creation of the National Security Council seems anything but. It is as ambiguous on its ends as it is inattentive to means.

The National Defense Strategy, announced by the Department of Defense on 19 January and bearing the imprimatur of Secretary James Mattis, was as focused as the NSC approach was diffuse. It pointed to two revisionist powers (Russia and China) and a pair of rogue regimes (Iran and North Korea) in making the case for regional powers as the prime U.S. security concern. Almost as an afterthought the Pentagon announced it resolve to “defeat terrorist threats” and “consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

How exactly the U.S. was to clip the wings of revisionists, rogues, and terrorists (except of course by ever larger military budgets) was not clear. Nor did the document spell out the likely consequence of going after this terrible trio: endless tension at points all around the world that would in turn continue to drain U.S. resources and damage U.S. international standing.

The State of the Union Address, delivered on 30 January as the capstone of the month-long campaign to clarify the administration’s approach to world affairs, hewed closely to the agenda Trump had staked out during his 2016 presidential campaign. In a speech dominated by domestic problems and achievements, Trump first brought international affairs into the picture by taking up trade and immigration and giving them the aspirational gloss that buoys his base. Beyond those issues he gave a brief nod to the Defense Department’s preoccupation by pointing to “rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” He paid only perfunctory attention to North Korea, brushed the UN aside as an annoyance, and threw in a word of praise for nuclear deterrence.

What did stand out was his concern with the Middle East. There that he paid more attention, focusing on familiar reference points. He was determined to combat ISIS. He was going to pacify Afghanistan. He was determined to support Israel. He was intent on undermining the government in Iran.

Lining up Trump’s State of the Union presentation with the executive summary of the National Security Strategy that bears his signature gives a good idea of the President’s chief preoccupations. Foremost is his view of the world as “extraordinarily dangerous.” Rogue regimes were “developing nuclear weapons and missiles to threaten the entire planet.” Terrorists “had taken control of vast swaths of the Middle East.” Criminals were taking advantage of “porous borders and unenforced immigration laws.” Rivals were guilty of “unfair trade practices” and “aggressively undermining American interests around the globe.” Even allies were a problem with their penchant for “unfair burden-sharing.” It’s a wonder Trump can go to sleep at night.

At the end of this executive summary though not in the State of the Union, Trump claimed for the administration “a strategic vision” that has as its ultimate goal “a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom, and peace.” This goal is far removed from the dangerous world he imagines himself living in, and it is not at all clear how he hopes to get from the current grim reality to what he calls “this beautiful vision.”

Conclusion: To judge from the results of a month of heavy intellectual lifting, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at something that could be deemed a grand strategy. It’s pulled in multiple directions without an evident sense of priority or focus.

What the documents do have in common is a grim view of the world. The Pentagon neatly encapsulated the “dangerous world” thesis: “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order — creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”

This alarmist vision of the world provides the foundation for an all too familiar policy of global entanglement. That approach was forged during the Cold War; it led to costly and frustrated commitments; and it has helped make the world a dangerous place (though not in the way the administration imagines). This globalist commitment has become so ingrained in the thinking of Washington strategists that it now seems to constitute dogma and thus defines the default position even for an ostensibly populist, insurgent administration insistent on the failures of its predecessors.

Nowhere is there a forthright recognition of the dimensions of overall U.S. decline since the 1970s, the forces in play that have produced that decline, or the steps needed to slow if not reverse it. The Trump administration, not to mention the President, has no overall conception of globalization as a process in which the U.S. is enveloped and to which it needs to respond. If there was any intelligent design behind these conceptually anemic and predictable articulations of U.S. policy, it was carefully hidden. We are left with slogans — not least the President’s call to put America First and Make America Great Again — but no discernible road map that indicates either our precise destination or our likely route.