Trump’s National Security Strategy and the Decline of U.S. Empire

This is the beginning of a collective conversation about imperialism, what it is, and how to fight it. It was prepared by R.L. Stephens, director of the DSA Anti-War Think Tank, in consultation with a range of DSA members.

You can send submissions to be part of this discussion by using the form below this document. The DSA Anti-War Think Tank will publish select responses and help cultivate a discussion inside Democratic Socialists of America.

United States Hegemony in Decline

An imperialist system characterized by multilateral global institutions facilitating capitalist hegemony, an arrangement backed by U.S. supremacy, is clearly in decline.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released a blueprint in 2000 titled “Joint Vision 2020,” in which it proclaimed that the United States was on course to achieve “full spectrum dominance,” or “the ability of U.S. forces, operating alone or with allies, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the range of military operations.”

Today, two years before the Pentagon’s 2020 projection, the hubris of full spectrum dominance has been abandoned.

In his speech announcing the December 2017 release of a new National Security Strategy, President Donald Trump conceded, “This strategy recognizes that, whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a new era of competition. We accept that vigorous military, economic, and political contests are now playing out all around the world.”

With the January 2018 release of a National Defense Strategy, the DoD likewise now states, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.”

U.S. hegemony is objectively in decline, and both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense are admissions of this reality.

Potential Question(s):

How can we make sense of a return to great power rivalry as the operating assumption of the U.S. state, and then organize against it?

What led to the failure of the U.S. mission for “full spectrum dominance”? Was there a particular historical moment or moments? Was it ever even possible?


Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy

President Trump’s National Security Strategy is significant for a number of reasons. Peter Feaver of Foreign Policy notes that the Trump administration is the first presidency to publish a National Security Strategy in its inaugural year. He observes, too, that while national security advisors usually announce the National Security Strategy, Trump is the first president to make a major speech rolling out the policy the day of its release.

Trump’s speech offers a brief summary of the document’s major points, with a particular emphasis on the nexus between domestic policy and international affairs. He goes to great lengths to stress that domestic economic strength — measured primarily by tax cuts and corporate profits — is a foundational element of national security power. Given the positioning of domestic economic hierarchy — capitalism — as foundational to national security, this rhetoric has severe national security implications for socialists who seek to challenge, or even overthrow, that hierarchy.

Perhaps the key theme in the National Security Strategy is its recognition of great power rivalry. The document argues:

“A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different. Three main sets of challengers – the revisionist powers of China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups – are actively competing against the United States and its allies and partners.”

The “War on Terror” rhetoric here is nothing new, but what is striking is the revitalization of great power rivalry rhetoric. In one sweeping passage, the National Security Strategy claims:

“These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

The emphasis on competition here should not be read as a rehashing of the Cold War, and the National Security Strategy document says as much, arguing, “Deterrence today is significantly more complex to achieve than during the Cold War.”

The National Security Strategy outlines region-specific analysis and objectives that reflect an international competition beyond “binary terms.” It has regional sub-sections titled Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, South and Central Asia, Western Hemisphere, and Africa.

Moreover, the National Security Strategy’s commentary on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is of particular importance, as it calls on NATO members to “assume greater responsibility for and pay their fair share to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty, and values.”

The NATO alliance has in recent years shown signs of fray. This is especially evident in Syria, where Kurdish forces backed by the United States have fought Islamist forces backed by fellow NATO member Turkey.

This internal discord also became clear in NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign, which overthrew the post-colonial nation’s government and turned the country into a failed state. This war was led by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Other NATO allies stepped up as well, such as Canada and Norway, the latter of which dropped nearly 600 tons of bombs on Libya in its biggest bombing campaign since World War II.

Other NATO members, however, rejected the Libya mission and refused to participate — most notably Germany and Poland. At the time, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the campaign an example of “European hypocrisy,” and justified his nation’s refusal to contribute military support by saying “we will take decisions on military involvement elsewhere only when we have a 100 percent conviction that it is absolutely necessary.”

Ultimately, only 14 of the 28 NATO nations participated in the Libya intervention. This contradiction among NATO allies, most notably in the wake of the Libya intervention, is the context for the 2017 National Security Strategy’s demand that the “United States fulfills our defense responsibilities and expects others to do the same. We expect our European allies to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024, with 20 percent of this spending devoted to increasing military capabilities.”

Potential Question(s):

How does the conflict among NATO countries (or even the E.U.) relate to European socialist forces?

What are the implications of the national securitization of the domestic U.S. economy?


The 2018 National Defense Strategy 

In recent years, the Department of Defense has supplemented the National Security Strategy with its own report, known as the National Defense Strategy. This establishes how the Pentagon plans to support the objectives laid out in the National Security Strategy.

In January 2018, a month after President Trump’s new National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense produced the first National Defense Strategy in a decade.

The DoD doubled-down on the National Security Strategy’s remarks. The first and perhaps most jarring statement in the Pentagon document is its declaration, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Arguably, this statement announces the end of the “War on Terror” as we know it.

Echoing the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy argues, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers.”

For the DoD, this shift in strategic orientation is all the more urgent given “a resilient, but weakening, post-WWII international order” which had been “a free and open international order to better safeguard [U.S. and allied] liberty and people from aggression and coercion.” This conclusion is an incredible admission, one that has major implications for both international and domestic politics.

The Pentagon strategy document named China as one of the “revisionist powers,” arguing the Asian nation “is a strategic competitor using predatory economics,” and accusing China of “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage.”

Failure to shift strategy towards neutralizing China (and other “revisionist powers”), the DoD claims, would result in “decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”

In the months since the Trump administration released the National Security Strategy, the U.S. has taken even harsher positions on China. In March, President Trump unilaterally raised tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese goods.

It is clear that the aggressive posturing contained within both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy are not idle words.

Potential Question(s):

If the “War on Terror” is no longer primary, does that mean it was/is lost? What was the so-called War on Terror in the first place?

How does a posture of economic nationalism abroad affect domestic socialist politics in the U.S.?


A Brief History of National Security

To understand why we should start with these national security documents, let’s take a moment to explore their history and evolution.

At the conclusion of World War II, the United States emerged along with the Soviet Union as preeminent powers on the global stage. More broadly, the international order set in motion by the end of the war was characterized by a global struggle between capitalism and socialism.

It was in this context that the concept “national security” made its way into the U.S. political lexicon. With the National Security Act of July 26, 1947, Congress created the National Security Council.

No formal mechanisms for coordinating national security strategy and programming existed at the time, so public discussions of national security were informal. The first example was in 1947, when former U.S. diplomat to the Soviet Union George Kennan, using the pseudonym Mr. X, published “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the journal Foreign Affairs.

The political assumptions and staunch commitment to anti-communism within Kennan’s document would be incorporated in principle into the then-top secret United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (NSC 68). This official strategic document, approved in 1951, set the U.S. government’s international posture and domestic spending priorities of the Cold War up through the fall of the USSR 40 years later. The NSC 68 would not be declassified until 1975.

The concepts, analysis, and political orientations offered in national security documents illuminate the foundational shape of our domestic and international political terrain. There would continue to be intermittent releases of national security strategy under various administrations, but it was no until the 1980s that the practice became required by law.

In 1986, the U.S. military was reorganized and the command structure was streamlined under the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. In part motivated by a desire “to increase attention to the formulation of strategy and to contingency planning,” the Goldwater-Nichols Act requires that the President submit written national security strategy documents to the U.S. Congress each year (including a classified and unclassified version).

There have been 17 National Security Strategy documents, beginning in 1987 with Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton submitted a National Security Strategy annually in seven of his eight years in office. However, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the executive branch has only produced five national security strategy documents: President Bush in 2002 and 2006, President Obama in 2010 and 2015, and now President Trump in 2017.

Trump’s National Security Strategy shares some similarities with those of previous administrations, but it marks a clear break with the assumption of an unchallenged U.S.-led hegemonic order in the post-Cold War period. It concedes a competitive international order, and exposes a new political reality — there is a crisis in the heart of empire; the emperor has no clothes.

Potential Question(s):

What patterns and relationships exist between the various National Security Strategy documents?

Just how different is Trump’s National Security Strategy from those of past presidents?

Submit Responses

Be part of the conversation. Below you can submit your analysis of the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy or answers to any of the questions posed above.

Please keep your responses brief. The DSA Anti-War Think Tank will publish a diverse selection of the submissions in order to conduct a conversation about these issues.