Capstones: Trump Sketches America’s Place and Purpose in the World

By Alan W. Dowd, 1.18.18

We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation…We are not hiding from the challenges we face. We are confronting them head-on and pursuing opportunities to promote the security and prosperity of all Americans.” So begins President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS). The purpose of an NSS is to explain how each administration views the security challenges facing the United States—and how it plans to address them. Love it or hate it, President Donald Trump’s NSS does this with often-blunt language and an unapologetic defense of the “America First” approach that shaped his campaign and his first year in office.

Three themes run throughout Trump’s NSS: threats, sovereignty and competition. Trump’s NSS mentions some variant of threat or danger 129 times, competition 73 times and sovereignty 24 times.


Trump’s starting point is that the United States “faces an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats.” These include “rogue regimes…developing nuclear weapons and missiles to threaten the entire planet,” “radical Islamist terror groups,” “rival powers…aggressively undermining American interests,” and “criminal cartels…bringing drugs and danger into our communities.”

The document is unambiguous about the sources of these threats: “China and Russia challenge American power…the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.” “Jihadist terrorists” and “transnational criminal organizations are…trying to harm Americans.”

Reflecting the worldview of the document’s main author, National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s NSS explains that “While these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” This is undeniably true.

The document’s bluntness about the dangers and threats facing the nation is helpful. The “arc of history,” to borrow a phrase often used by President Barack Obama, is not bending inevitably toward some Kantian perpetual peace. If anything, the world seems to be careening toward chaos.

The Obama administration’s belief that it could magically “reset” relations with a revisionist Russia, cajole China into building “spheres of cooperation,” make deals with the likes of Iran, “turn the page on a decade of war” with a vicious enemy still in the field, and slash defense spending in a time of war did nothing to slow—let alone reverse—the slide toward chaos. But don’t take my word for it. During his December visit to Europe, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller ominously warned his men, “There’s a war coming.” On the very same week, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Army soldiers, “Storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean Peninsula.


Trump’s NSS doesn’t view competition—and the friction it often brings—as a cause of this chaos or even necessarily as a threat to the U.S.

With an echo of TR, Trump’s NSS explains, “Competition is healthy when nations share values and build fair and reciprocal relationships.” Indeed, the premise of Trump’s NSS is that nation-states are in constant competition—and that America should deal with this reality and the world as it is, not as we hope it to be.

“Contests over influence are timeless,” according to Trump’s NSS, which adds that America will for the foreseeable future, as it has in the past, “compete with adversarial forces to preserve and advance our security, prosperity and the principles we hold dear.”

Thus, Trump warns that America “will no longer tolerate economic aggression or unfair trading practices” and “will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression.” He vows torebuild our economic strength” and “restore confidence in the American economic model,” calls out “competitors such as China” that “steal U.S. intellectual property,” and promises to “defend our national security innovation base against competitors.”

Trump’s NSS bluntly argues that “We stood by while countries exploited the international institutions we helped to build,” that the international economic system “must be reformed to help American workers prosper, protect our innovation, and reflect the principles upon which that system was founded,” that America must “pursue an economic strategy” that “revitalizes the U.S. manufacturing base…and achieves energy dominance.”

In short, there’s no romanticism here about the promise of globalization. Gone are the days of bolstering a global economic system to lift the world (and Americans along the way); instead, Trump wants to fortify America’s economic strength in order to lift the American people (and perhaps the world along the way).


The Trump NSS suggests that a key solution to the threats America faces, the chaos roiling the world and the unhealthy brand of competition in which China and others engage is “a world of strong, sovereign and independent nations”—and most pointedly a strong, sovereign and independent America.

Trump is committed to “strengthening our sovereignty.” His NSS vows to defend “our sovereign right to determine who should enter our country and under what circumstances.” And it puts supranational organizations on notice: “It should be clear that the United States will not cede sovereignty to those that claim authority over American citizens and are in conflict with our constitutional framework.”    

Trump vows to resist states and nonstate actors that “undermine sovereign governments,” help “partner states…confront nonstate threats and strengthen their sovereignty,” “help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty,” collaborate with “the NATO alliance of free and sovereign states…to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty and values,” ensure that “sovereign African states…are integrated into the world economy,” and confront China, which has “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”

This recommitment to sovereignty is worthy of applause. Recent decades have seen a multi-pronged assault on the nation-state system and on the very notion of sovereignty—a worrisome development that represents a serious threat to U.S. interests and to the liberal international order the United States forged after World War II. As McMaster understands, the natural order of the world is not that orderly. The nation-state system has brought a measure of order, but it takes hard work to maintain it. Trump’s NSS commits America to this effort.

There is a danger, however, in overemphasizing sovereignty. An overemphasis on sovereignty abroad can lead to complacency in the face of barbaric behavior by governments against their own people. Assad, Qaddafi, Milosevic and Saddam all used sovereignty to rationalize their crimes. The idea that what happens within a nation-state is unimportant to other nation-states is as pernicious as the idea that borders are irrelevant. Consider an example from close to home: If my neighbor harms someone on his property, encroaches on my property, or through action or inaction negatively impacts me and my property, he is misusing his sphere of sovereignty. In the same way, what happens inside nation-states becomes a concern when governments brutalize their citizens, negatively impact neighboring nation-states or simply stop governing.

Here at home, an overemphasis on sovereignty could lead to a fortress mentality, which may be where Trump is headed. Consider some of the language and goals laid out in his NSS: The U.S. “will enhance vetting of prospective immigrants, refugees and other foreign visitors,” “secure our borders through the construction of a border wall,” and develop “multilayered defenses.” In addition, Trump has vowed to build up the military; embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label, with its isolationist connotations; threatened to “terminate” NAFTA; called NATO “obsolete”; and in a surprising echo of Obama’s “nation-building here at home” mantra, declared, “We have to build our own nation.”

Reinvesting in our military and controlling our borders are necessary. But if we put these two halves of Trump’s foreign-policy vision together—building up and pulling back—it looks like the blueprint for a 21st-century “Fortress America.” As history reminds us, the security payoffs of such an approach are fleeting. Both the national interest and international security suffer when America turns inward.


Like Obama’s first NSS, Trump uses his NSS to offer implicit and sometimes explicit critiques of his predecessors.

“When America does not lead,” Trump argues, “malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage

of the United States”—an obvious swipe at Obama’s “lead from behind” approach.

“There is no arc of history that ensures that America’s free political and economic system will automatically prevail,” Trump’s NSS adds—a blunt rejoinder to one of Obama’s favorite phrases.

“We convinced ourselves that all wars would be fought and won quickly,” Trump’s NSS observes, a swipe at President George W. Bush. And by noting that in the Middle East, “The United States has learned that neither aspirations for democratic transformation nor disengagement can insulate us from the region’s problems,” Trump’s NSS swipes at both Bush and Obama.

“Instead of building military capacity, as threats to our national security increased, the United States dramatically cut the size of our military to the lowest levels since 1940,” the Trump NSS observes. “We will preserve peace through strengthby rebuilding our military so that it remains preeminent,

deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win.”  Beyond Trump’s blunt from-the-gut rhetoric, which contrasts with Obama’s nuanced and cerebral approach, the most striking difference between Trump and Obama is this recommitment to peace through strength—the military strategy that undergirded President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Whatever the fiscal benefits of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, they came at an enormous cost to the U.S. military. Even before the sequester guillotine fell, the Pentagon had cut $487 billion from projected spending, which means the Pentagon would lose nearly $1 trillion in expected resources by the time sequestration had run its course. Readiness, training, modernization, maintenance, weapons development and acquisition, and deterrent military strength suffered because of sequestration.

Thanks in large part to sequestration, “Today’s Air Force is the smallest and oldest it has ever been,” an Air Force report grimly concludes.

In 2011, the Army’s active-duty force was 566,000; by 2016, it had fallen to 476,000. The Army’s active-duty force was 480,000 before 9/11, which means sequestration left America with a smaller Army in a time of war than it fielded in a time of peace.

Before sequestration, the Marine Corps fielded 202,100 active-duty personnel; by the end of 2016, there were only 184,000 Marines on active duty—and only 41 percent of Marine aircraft were able to fly. 

At the height of Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s Navy has only 277 active ships.

Congress passed and Trump signed a $700-billion defense budget in December—a 13.2-percent increase over the previous year. But one budget cycle is not enough to repair the self-inflicted wounds of sequestration.

In keeping with peace through strength, Trump’s NSS calls nuclear weapons “the foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression.” Obama’s first NSS, by contrast, promised that “a world without nuclear weapons…will increase global security.” Obama vowed “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and whittled the U.S. arsenal down to 1,393 strategic nuclear warheads

Obama’s was a noble goal. After all, these are hideous weapons. They can erase entire cities. And in the event of the unthinkable—a full-fledged nuclear war between two or more of the nuclear heavyweights—they could erase mankind. Of course, that’s precisely why they have been so effective at preventing great-power conflict. It’s no coincidence that before the advent of the Bomb, some 76 million people died in two global wars between 1914 and 1945—or that there have been no global wars in the 72 years since. In other words, nuclear weapons do indeed preserve peace and deter aggression.

Yet Trump’s NSS also finds common ground with his predecessors. The Trump NSS commits the U.S. to continuing Obama’s Pacific Pivot: “Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.” Thus, the U.S. “will deepen our strategic partnership with India” and “seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.”

Likewise, the Trump NSS vows to continue Obama’s reassurance initiative in response to Russian aggression in Europe: “On NATO’s eastern flank we will continue to strengthen deterrence and defense.”

Finally, Trump’s NSS embraces the broad outlines and objectives of the War on Terror, which began under Bush, was handed off to Obama and continues under Trump: “America, alongside our allies and partners, is fighting a long war against…fanatics who advance a totalitarian vision for a global Islamist caliphate.” In fact, there are echoes in Trump’s NSS of the Bush Doctrine. “We must prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological and biological attacks, block terrorists from reaching our homeland…pursue threats to their source, so that jihadist terrorists are stopped before they ever reach our borders…and prevent their reemergence before they can threaten the U.S. homeland.”


“An America that is safe, prosperous and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence and will to lead abroad,” the document concludes. This is undeniably true.

What’s debatable is if a modern-day Fortress America can be kept safe from the many threats this NSS identifies. If America doesn’t remain engaged in the world, concerned about the world and geographically postured to deal with the threats and dangers of the world, those threats will metastasize.

What’s debatable is if Trump’s zero-sum approach to trade can fuel the sort of prosperity that America has enjoyed since the end of World War II—a prosperity that depends on an international architecture of economic, political and trade arrangements built by and sustained by America.

What’s debatable is if an inward-looking America—an America focused on “nation building at home,” to use Obama’s phrase, an America focused on “build[ing] our own nation,” to use Trump’s—can protect its freedom and independence, let alone advance freedom, democratic government and liberal values overseas.

Obama’s stand-off foreign policy showed that America can’t “lead from behind”—and that no one likes a backseat driver. Trump’s first year suggests that allies aren’t eager to rally behind America First—and that America can’t simultaneously castigate and motivate the international community into action.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.