Last week, on the eve of a full year in office, Defense Secretary James Mattis stood behind a lectern at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, just off of Washington’s Dupont Circle, and explained how the Donald J. Trump administration plans to keep America safe. He explained how, and also against what. The latest National Defense Strategy (NDS), which Mattis announced on Friday, made news for identifying a rising China and a revanchist Russia as the gravest threats to America. “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security,” Mattis said.
I’ve read the declassified summary of the strategy and, overall, it strikes me as very sensible. It builds naturally on the National Security Strategy (NSS) released in December, which was spearheaded by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Nadia Schadlow, the incoming deputy national security adviser for strategy. Nonetheless, there are three aspects to note here to give the NDS — and what the administration hopes to achieve with it — its proper context.
First, it’s very much a strategy of continuity. In early 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter listed five challenges driving Pentagon planning: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups (such as ISIS and al-Qaeda). In hearings and speeches he listed all five, and stressed the order as important, especially the preeminence of the first two. Not everyone agreed. In fact, the New York Times editorial board asked in February 2016 if Carter was overselling Russia as an adversary compared with the Islamic State. Today, with ever more evidence to support wariness toward Moscow and Beijing, the Trump administration's NDS lists more or less the same concerns in more or less the same order.
Second, the reality of day-to-day defense policy, however, remains very concentrated on the greater Middle East and on counterterrorism. The Washington Post reported just two days after Mattis’s speech that as many as 1,000 more US troops could be headed for Afghanistan this spring. The day-to-day focus remains on counterterrorism, even if the long-term effort pointed to the need to bolster deterrence against Russia or China. Indeed, the president only really talks and tweets about terrorism, North Korea, and Iran. When he does mention Russia and China, it is more often than not in glowing terms. There is, to say the least, a disconnect.
Third, as Mattis noted, the key to the NDS is strong alliances. As the NSS makes clear, too, “Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States. . . . None of our adversaries have comparable coalitions.” While the Pentagon has done a lot to enhance the overall capabilities of allies in Europe and Asia, alliances require more than just materiel. They require investment and attention, day-in and day-out. Unfortunately, the last year has been notable for a lack of investment in alliances. The nominee for assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department remains unconfirmed, and assistant secretaries for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs have not even been nominated. Australia, Turkey, South Korea, Belgium, Hungary, and Iceland, all allies, have no US ambassadors. Looking a step down to historically strong partners of the United States reveals similar gaps. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Sweden each lack a US ambassador. It is, to say the least, not a recipe for strong alliances.
In short, I give Mattis full marks for getting the intentions of defense planning right. Yet much work remains to implement those intentions into day-to-day reality. As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.
Gerald F. Seib/Wall Street Journal
“Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” President Trump told the Wall Street Journal in April. Now, a year and change into Trump’s first term, that odd self-appraisal still sums up the administration's foreign policy fairly well, as Gerald F. Seib explains in this smart analysis. On the globalist side of the ledger, for example, the number of US troops overseas has increased under Trump. Yet on the nationalist side, Trump has spurned international agreements and punctured foreign faith in the United States as a credible and steadfast global actor, perhaps irrevocably.
Michael E. O’Hanlon/Brookings
Brookings scholar Michael O’Hanlon sees three things, if not wrong, then misguided with President Trump’s NDS. For one, both the NSS and NDS paint China and Russia with “more or less the same brush.” He’s right; Beijing and Moscow are very different. Russia is a deteriorating power while China is rising. Each poses a unique problem to US security, as O’Hanlon smartly points out. As for the other two problems, you will have to read his analysis.
Greg Ip/Wall Street Journal
“The global liberal order is holding up better than many feared a year ago,” writes Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal. This appraisal would be reassuring but that a year ago many feared its imminent and total demise, a casualty about to be swept away by the rise of nationalism. Instead, the battle between globalists and nationalists, perhaps in a temporary lull, nonetheless ploughs on. “The nationalist insurgency is both growing and metamorphosing,” Ip writes. “It is not just eating away at relations between countries on issues such as free trade; it is also eroding the institutions and norms that prevail within countries.”
Declan Walsh/The New York Times
Historians may very well remember Qatar as the first major diplomatic ruckus the Trump administration had to deal with. The Gulf nation’s conflict with neighbor Saudi Arabia flared up just as President Trump visited Riyadh four months into his first year. Yet if historians do remember Qatar as such, they will also note it was not quickly resolved. Today, Qatar remains at odds with its much more powerful Gulf neighbors, as Declan Walsh brilliantly explains in this essay in the New York Times.
Ross Douthat/The New York Times
“Is what we’re watching a tragedy or a farce?” Ross Douthat asks of the Trump administration in the New York Times. Douthat asks because he takes issue with fellow conservative writer David Frum’s new book, which makes a full-throated argument for the former. “I am not convinced,” Douthat writes, “by [Frum's] overarching theme of looming crisis, his hour-is-late tone and the frequent implication (however hedged and qualified) that Trump might be on his way to establishing a regime to rival the populist authoritarianisms of other unhappy countries.” In response, Douthat marshalls arguments that the Trump White House is in fact the latter, a farce. Most worrying from the standpoint of America’s future, however, is whether this simple question proposed by Douthat is in the end a distinction without a difference.
Adam Taylor/The Washington Post
The latest polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is highlighted in this feature analysis in the Washington Post. The results of a survey of Russians and Americans reveal a great deal of overlap, even as leaders in Moscow and Washington eye each other warily. Among the priorities in common are fighting international terrorism and limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Yet there remains disagreement between the populaces: North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling is seen as more of a threat by Americans than by Russians.
Wolfgang Munchau/Financial Times
Recent talks by Germany’s two main political parties toward a coalition government have produced a kind of Goldilocks outcome. Too small is what was actually decided last week, a preliminary agreement to hold future talks about talks about forming a government. Too big, perhaps, is what a coalition government, if achieved, would intend for the European Union. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats appear set to try, as Wolfgang Munchau puts it in the Financial Times, “the biggest push by Germany towards continental integration since the Maastricht treaty a quarter of a century ago.” In fact, they may end up merely strengthening parties on the political fringes. What’s missing, of course, is just right deal-making that will actually allow these two mainstream political parties to form a working government.
Anne Barnard/The New York Times
The Pentagon’s latest gambit in Syria is, as Anne Barnard explains in the New York Times, “vehemently opposed by Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian government.” Indeed, the US plan to stand up a 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led force in northern Syria is seen by many as trying to create a Kurdish enclave that could divide Syria just weeks after the destruction of ISIS. Of course, the United States is no stranger to being at odds with Russia, Iran, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But Turkey, a NATO ally and perhaps the strongest critic of the US plan, poses a special problem for the Trump administration. As Barnard expertly details in this report, it’s a problem with no easy answers.
Ray Takeyh/Wall Street Journal
This is the way the Islamic Republic of Iran ends. Not with a whimper, but with, as Ray Takeyh writes in the Wall Street Journal, “a prolonged period of internal strife, nationwide violence, and ethnic separatism . . . .” Recent protests — now pulling in the lower classes — are merely a prelude to the end, Takeyh explains. But Iran’s nuclear program, which Takeyh insists is continuing apace, poses a huge problem for the West in the event of the Iranian government losing its control. “In such circumstances,” he writes, “the command-and-control structure of the Iranian nuclear program may break down. Its enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges could go missing.” A revised nuclear deal with Iran could yet go a long way in ameliorating such issues, Takeyh concludes.
Jeff Himmelman/Literary Hub
In this excerpt from his book Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, Jeff Himmelman gives a smart, short history of the Pentagon Papers and the rivalry between the New York Times and the Washington Post that surged beneath their publication in the early 1970s. The documents have resurfaced in the news today with the new Steven Spielberg-directed movie The Post. At the center of Himmelman’s account is Ben Bradlee, then-editor of the Washington Post, who in this portrait is as strong and Shakespearian a presence as Nixon and the other larger-than-life characters of the time.