On Monday, President Trump released his administration’s first National Security Strategy outlining the administration’s strategic goals in international affairs. This document codifies the administration’s foreign policy for the first time and aims to offer more clarity on the Trump administration’s frequently contradictory statements and actions. Because of the confusion around the administration’s foreign policy and the impact the administration’s actions can have, it is imperative that actors with global interests understand what impact the National Security Strategy will have on U.S. foreign policy. With this in mind, there are four key implications of the administration’s National Security Strategy:  

1. U.S. Foreign Policy will Be Highly Transactional

 The National Security Strategy adopts a distinctly zero-sum view of international relations. This is evident both in the strategy’s description of the administration’s foreign policy doctrine as one of “principled realism” and in the frequent mentions of competition, reciprocity, and sovereignty in the document. The Trump administration clearly views power competition as central to international relations, and because of this, favors very transactional relations with other countries to ensure that the United States is not disadvantaged relative to other powers. This will continue to manifest itself in the administration through the rejection of multilateral agreements in favor of bilateral agreements that the administration regards as more equitable and in a reluctance to empower international organizations. The Trump administration will hesitate to join any agreement where they perceive that the United States will not receive benefits commensurate with what it is offering. This applies both towards multilateral institutions, where the administration calls for a degree of influence commensurate with the United States support of it, and towards bilateral relations, where the administration has called for reciprocal trade agreements. We’ve already seen this in action with the administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords, and its decision to renegotiate NAFTA and KORUS.

2. Foreign Economic Policy will be Central to the Administration’s Foreign Policy

A second key takeaway is that foreign economic policy will occupy a central part of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. The National Security Strategy names the promotion of American prosperity as one of four vital national interests, forming one pillar of the strategy. While all national security strategies tend to discuss economic promotion to some degree, it occupies a much larger place in the Trump administration’s strategy. This pillar of the strategy most closely reflects the president’s own foreign policy beliefs as it calls for the reformation of the international economic order to address trade imbalances and improve enforcement. As part of this, the strategy states that the United States will oppose closed trading blocks, modernize/renegotiate existing trade agreements, and promote energy exports. The strong emphasis on economic statecraft in the strategy and the importance the strategy places on the link between international economics and national security suggest that foreign economic policy will continue to occupy a central role in the administration’s foreign policy.

3. Emphasis on Competition with China

 The National Security Strategy names “revisionist” powers such as China and Russia as one of the three main challenges the United States faces abroad. What is notable though, is not where the strategy explicitly details the challenge China poses, which generally uses language similar to strategies of previous administrations, but where and how often the National Security Strategy implicitly discusses China. The document notably states that the strategy of including more countries in the liberal economic trading system with the hope of liberalizing their economic and political systems has failed, an implicit rejection of the efforts of prior administrations to turn China into a “responsible stakeholder” by embedding it into international institutions such as the World Trade Organization. The strategy also lays blame at previous administrations for allowing unfair trade practices to distort markets, such as dumping, industrial subsidies, forced technology transfers, and support for state-owned enterprises, all practices that the Trump administration has accused China of employing. While President Trump struck a more subdued tone during his visit to China in November, the language in the National Security Strategy suggests that the administration still considers China a competitor and will continue to press China to address the perceived imbalance in the United States’ relationship with China.

4. Inconsistency and Incoherence will Continue

While distinct themes emerge in the administration’s National Security Strategy, the strategy also makes it clear that the administration will have a frequently inconsistent and incoherent foreign policy. The strategy attempts to reconcile the starkly different visions of foreign affairs held by the “internationalist” faction and the “nationalist” faction in the administration. Contradictory concepts such as “principled realism” and “competitive diplomacy” are clear attempts to reconcile the more conventional views of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster with the nationalist rhetoric and views that President Trump employed during his campaign and held by senior policy advisor Stephen Miller. The inherent contradiction between these worldviews has manifested itself in the many inconsistent statements the administration has offered on issues such as North Korea and Russia. Given that a presidential administration’s actions already normally deviate to some degree from their national security strategy, the ideas expressed in President Trump’s strategy suggest that incoherence and inconsistency will continue to be hallmarks of his foreign policy.

It remains unclear whether the administration’s policies and actions will reflect the ideas and goals outlined in its National Security Strategy. However, the strategy sheds light on how the administration and President Trump view the world and the United States’ role in it. While it is unlikely that the administration will consistently adhere to every word of the strategy, the four implications identified: a transactional foreign policy, a focus on foreign economic policy, an emphasis on China, and an inconsistent foreign policy, will continue to define the Trump administration’s approach to international affairs.

Gregory Kist
Gregory Kist

Gregory Kist is a project assistant in APCO Worldwide’s Washington-based public affairs practice and assists clients with a range of international and domestic policy challenges. Read More