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A Strategic Perspective on the US National Security Strategy 2017: Report on an IDSA Panel Discussion

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  • December 22, 2017
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    The Trump administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS) document on December 18, 2017. The document was released in the very first year of President Trump’s tenure, cataloguing the themes in US strategic thinking and issues impacting both domestic and foreign policy. In comparison with previous iterations, the latest NSS appears more direct and assertive, hints at a sense of decline in American power in the wake of the rise of powers that have been termed revisionist and as posing a direct threat to the US position in the world. The language is harsh, polarising and counterproductive for a superpower.

    The Trump administration’s national security strategy comprises of four pillars – Protect the American people, the homeland and the American way of life; Promote American prosperity; Preserve peace through strength; and Advance American influence. Further, the NSS 2017 also highlights America’s interests in various regions and its relations with individual countries.

    Since the end of the Cold War, the US viewed practically all countries of the world as a de facto partner in pushing globalization forward and in its crusade against terrorism. However, with the changing security environment, the outlook of the majority of nations has also changed. And from the latest NSS, so has the outlook of the United States itself.

    The document remarks that the current global order is characterised by great power competition. In the doctrine, both Russia and China are named ‘competitors’, while Iran and North Korea are called “rogue” states threatening the American way of life. They all are termed challengers to “American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”. The NSS asserts that the assumption that drove previous US administrations to engage and seek to integrate these rival powers, namely, that they will emerge as benign and trustworthy partners, has failed. Further, the NSS highlights Trump’s America first policy throughout, but also states that America will cooperate with its allies and partners on the basis of reciprocity – sharing the responsibility and burdens. This is in contrast to previous US administrations, which followed a high degree of unilateralism in security affairs but resorted to multilateralism in the economic domain. In addition, the latest NSS also gives high priority to technological innovation and the protection of intellectual property.

    The NSS signals the official recognition that the grand strategy of liberal hegemony pursued since the early 1990s has only contributed to the weakening of America, led to wasted expenditure of blood and treasure, and not helped promote and preserve the American national interest; and hence is no longer viable. Further, the previous grand strategy has neither succeeded in entrenching America's global leadership nor in integrating China and Russia as obedient junior partners in the US-led liberal international order. The NSS clearly acknowledges and echoes the realist view that international politics is characterised by competition and contest for power and influence.

    On China

    Part of the great power game brewing at the international level is an emerging competition between a progressive America and regressive China in the Indo-Pacific. The US pull out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its war of words with North Korea has enhanced China’s room for manoeuvre especially in the wake of the Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

    In previous NSS documents, China’s rise was welcomed and its active participation in international institutions and forums was moderately appreciated. But the latest NSS portrays China negatively, without offering even a slight token of appreciation. It also questions China’s growing presence in Asia, Africa and Europe, indirectly accuses China of engaging in the theft of intellectual property and views its hold over critical infrastructure, growing nuclear capabilities, unfair trade practices, military modernisation and military outreach in South Asia and Southeast Asia as threatening the sovereignty of neighbours. Hence the promise of help held out to Asian nations to maintain their sovereignty.

    On West Asia

    The document also talks about putting an end to the hitherto undue importance accorded to the Israeli-Palestinian issue by focusing more on the immediate and dire problems facing West Asia like jihadism, the growing influence of the Iranian “rogue regime” and the Syrian crisis. It talks of providing US allies with missile defence systems to ward off threats from Iran and the continuation of US military presence in the region.

    In effect, Trump’s approach to West Asia is marked by continuity with the long-term US foreign policy trajectory. It seeks to strengthen bonds with tested allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and takes a belligerent stance against Iran. Trump’s approach is in contrast to Obama’s who reached out to Tehran and democratic Islamists at the supposed expense of US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Trump’s subsequent declaration of shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem has inadvertently brought the Israel-Palestinian issue back to the front burner, contradicting his implied aim of underplaying it in the NSS document.

    The importance Trump gave to issuing the NSS in the very first year of his presidency, releasing it personally through a televised address, appears to be in apparent response to criticisms about the lack of clarity in his foreign policy. However, the document itself is riddled with contradictions and arguably adds to the confusion.

    By referring to the word 'competition' about 75 times in the document, the US is inadvertently conceding that it is no longer the unrivalled hegemon of the world, but is facing stiff competition from Russia and China, in particular. Thus, the US is acknowledging that it is a power in decline and needs to get its house in order, as implied in the slogan ‘Putting America First’.

    On India

    NSS 2017 highlights India quite positively. The document states that “we welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India”. The most recent National Defence Authorisation Act allows US allies to cooperate with it in advancing India’s defence capabilities. While it is clear that the US has initiated a zero-sum game, whereas India only desires a balancing approach, the association with America might have negative consequences for India.

    The characterisation of Russia as well as of Iran as challengers of the current international order is inconvenient from the Indian perspective, and is likely to complicate India's relationships with these countries and make these relationships issues in India's ties with America. But the mutual need for a stronger strategic partnership is also likely to ensure that these issues do not derail the current trajectory of India-US relations. The starting point for India's foreign and security policy formulation and recalibration should not be how America or China or Russia view the world and who they respectively view as adversaries, but the threats and challenges India perceives, especially from China and Pakistan and terrorism, as well as India's enduring interests in preserving its predominance in the sub-continent, acquiring a high degree of influence and an important role in the extended neighbourhood stretching from Suez to Shanghai, and ensuring that both Asia and the world at large remain multipolar.

    Contradictions

    The 3rd Viscount Palmerston had noted: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual”. The Trump administration’s NSS brings that clear distinction to the fore. However, there remain discontinuities on climate change, China, Russia and Iran. The threats presented by China and Russia to US interests differ: while Russia has military technology and nuclear weapons, it is beatable; but even though China cannot destroy the US, it is not beatable.

    The NSS mentions how the US had helped to create a network of states to advance a common interest, and engaged both economically and militarily to ensure peace and stability. But the current administration has pulled out of various multilateral forums like the TPP and on crucial issues such as climate change. Not to mention the stir created by President Trump when he recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which isolated America even more – the majority of US allies and partners (including India) voted against the US proposal in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The move, however, did bring the Arab and Muslim world together on this issue.

    The NSS states that in order to advance American interests the country must employ forward diplomacy, articulating American interests. But it is not clear if those interests are to be articulated historically. Nor is this administration’s understanding of US national interests clear. Moreover, the announcement of cuts to the state department budget and possible reduction of funds to the UN along with the rejection of economic multilateral forums appears counter-productive in advancing American influence. In the document, several strong statements are used (such as against cyberattacks), which all require international cooperation, but no framework is provided for any such cooperation. In the given framework, the foundation of trade and security cooperation with other states relies on consonance with the terms and conditions proposed by the US. America has moved away from free trade to ‘free, fair and reciprocal’ trade. It doesn’t want to continue with the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The document speaks of taking direct action against terrorist networks, sanctuaries and supply chains, but falls short of taking stern action against states such as Pakistan.

    The Strategy in the Regional Context

    The NSS establishes a fault line implying that if a state is weak and non-democratic, it makes for an aspiring partner. And a strong but non-democratic nation is an enemy, and a danger to world peace. The document does not clearly differentiate between states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Pakistan and Iraq. It appears to be coddling authoritarian powers (Saudi Arabia) in the ranks, while condemning and criminalising the geopolitical ‘other side’ (Iran).

    According to the observations and policies provided in the document, conflict remains a high possibility. Neither the US nor China is working for international cooperation but only for self-interest, thus creating conditions for a zero-sum game. The NSS encourages joining the US ‘block’ if a state believes in the principles of democracy, rule of law, free and open Indo-Pacific and working towards American interest which is in turn claimed to be in the interest of world peace.

    President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has promoted the Chinese model for economic prosperity and governance for domestic development, essentially bifurcating Asia between an Economic Asia and a Security Asia. This can be noticed in his speech at the 19th National Congress of the CPC and in his proposition of a new Security Concept during the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and the ‘New Type of Great Power’ relations approach that China seeks to forge with the US. The NSS articulates the same and repeatedly refers to great-power competition. But what Asia needs is sustained US leadership as well as continuing Chinese economic support.

    This report is based on a panel discussion on the US National Security Strategy 2017 held at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). Speakers on the panel were Maj. Gen. Alok Deb (Retd.), Dr. G. Balachandran, Prof. P. Stobdan, Dr. Jagannath Panda and Dr. Adil Rasheed. Comments from Dr. S. Kalyanaraman and Director General Jayant Prasad have also been included.

    The report has been compiled by Swati Arun.

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