foreign policy

Trump’s National Security Plan Only Makes Sense If You See the World As a Zero-Sum Game

In short, the plan is to make America great again. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Monday, President Donald Trump laid out a national security strategy for a world in which all Republican shibboleths are true: The U.S. economy is fueled by tax cuts for the wealthy, drilling in the Arctic will solve our energy problems forever, and building a 2,000-mile wall is a cost-effective and worthwhile solution to the problem of “bad people” entering the country. If you believe all this, you likely thought Monday’s speech was pretty good.

It also listed some grandiose firsts that Trump had no business claiming credit for, like “for the first time, American strategy recognizes that economic security is national security,” and “for the first time ever, American strategy now includes a serious plan to defend our homeland.” Again, this makes sense if you believe any plan to defend our homeland that does not include a massive border wall and an inhumane approach to immigration enforcement is fundamentally unserious. Trump also asserted that his Afghanistan strategy (refusing to communicate a plan and letting the generals handle it) is working, even though ISIS is now carrying out more terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, after its much-touted defeats in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, much of this strategy is merely a rehash of Trump’s core campaign promises: Get tough on immigration, crack down on Islamism, close the border. In Trump’s rhetoric, the failure of past administrations to do these supposedly simple things is the cause of most of our present ills, whereas Trump’s having the courage to finally do them will make us safe and prosperous — great again, as it were. And the only reason everything isn’t perfect yet is that his predecessors were so catastrophically wrong about everything that it’s taking a little time. That was the essence of Monday’s message.

Perhaps that’s why, like so many of Trump’s appearances, this felt at times more like a campaign speech than a policy address. There was more about the vision than there was about how we’re going to get there. The biggest national security challenges of the day — North Korea, Iran, Russia, China — merited only brief mentions. His invocation of “unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft” sounded like an oblique reference to China, but it was not clear what his actual policy response to those practices would be.

Resurrecting the Reaganesque motto “peace through strength,” Trump proposed a “total modernization” of the armed forces, and “massively building up our military, which has the fundamental side benefit of creating millions and millions of jobs,” while also “streamlining acquisition” and “eliminating bloated bureaucracy,” as though eliminating red tape could generate the trillions of dollars needed to achieve a “massive” buildup of the already massive U.S. military. Meanwhile, Trump seems to be calling for a kind of military expansion-as-stimulus/make-work program, the wisdom and effectiveness of which are debatable at best, especially compared to other forms of economic stimulus.

That’s all on top of the $1 trillion dollars Trump is proposing to spend on the “complete rebuilding of American infrastructure” that he called for on Monday — which admittedly, we could use, but not in the corrupt, privatized way his administration intends to go about it. Where on earth is Trump going to get the money for these things? (“By robbing Social Security and Medicare!” cries Paul Ryan from the wings.)

The strategy document itself, of course, gets into more detail, painting what foreign policy analyst Daniel DePetris describes at the American Conservative as “almost Hobbesian … a picture of a world in black-and-white, a sometimes harsh and unforgiving place where nations compete with one another for a bigger piece of the global pie.” Here is a recurring theme for Trump: The word “compete” or “competition” appears four times in the speech (73 times in the strategy); “China,” just once (23 times in the strategy). Yet again, Trump and his administration belie a strikingly zero-sum worldview, in which all deals have winners and losers, and everyone is looking out to screw over the other guy.

To some extent, they’re not wrong. The strategy characterizes China and Russia as “revisionist powers” seeking not to participate in the global order established by the neoliberal consensus after the Cold War but rather to undermine it for their own nationalist or ideological ends. This is a dark but not inaccurate description of these countries and their behavior. The strategy acknowledges that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,” but glides over the fact that one of these democracies is our own. At least in its diagnosis of the world’s ills today, the strategy is not as bonkers as it might be.

The trouble is in its solutions. Part of the administration’s approach to the world as the White House sees it is to negotiate with our rivals, but only from a position of overwhelming military superiority. Its military strategy is rooted in “overmatch” — i.e., overkill: “We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them — not just punish them if they attack the United States.” This is the solution to terrorism — but were we not “overmatched” against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001? — as well as to getting our adversaries to behave as we’d like. Also, as anyone who bought an F-35 knows, sometimes pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into a military expense is a bridge to nowhere.

Over and over again, the picture emerges of a strategy that makes perfect sense in a world of right-wing assumptions: Russia and China only respond to demonstrations of strength, international terrorism requires an overwhelming military response abroad and a curtailing of civil liberties at home, immigration is bad, etc.

On issues of supposedly existential importance, such as North Korea, there’s not much new. At least for now, the strategy does not entertain anything more muscular than bulking up missile defenses in East Asia and remaining ready to respond with overwhelming force to any military provocation. Iran is subject to extensive abuse, with the strategy referring repeatedly to its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East, but little detail is given on how the administration intends to respond to it, beyond, “We will work with partners to neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.”

Coming from this administration, that kind of bland, boilerplate language is almost reassuring — except of course, that we don’t know exactly what “working with partners” means, especially when things don’t go according to plan. DePetris’s conclusion is that we should expect the strategy “to remain relevant up to and until an actual crisis strikes.” That sounds about right.

Trump Plan Sees National Security As a Zero-Sum Game