Trump presenting NSS
President Trump unveiling the new national security strategy in Washington, D.C., Dec. 18, 2017.

New US Security Strategy Is a Clear Bureaucratic Victory for the ‘Russia Skeptics.’ Has the President Read It?

December 21, 2017
Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The new U.S. National Security Strategy, or NSS, unveiled by President Donald Trump on Dec. 18, seems to reject any possibility for rapprochement between Moscow and Washington. Given the positive statements made by Trump both as a candidate and then as chief executive about the possibility for finding common ground with Russia, the Kremlin was taken aback at the negative tone. Ostensibly, this document is meant to guide the formulation of U.S. foreign and defense policies by establishing the fundamental premises and setting priorities. Does the release of the strategy put a final nail in the coffin and end any chance of substantive improvements in the U.S.-Russia relationship for the near future?

Before we can answer that question, we must first understand the purpose of the NSS. Traditionally, the final text is a carefully negotiated compromise between different interests and perspectives and among the various agencies and departments that make up the national security apparatus. An important subtext is that different parts of the U.S. government seek to have their core missions and interests mentioned in the document so as to provide a critical hook for their budgetary requests, and to have language in the strategy that reflects their organizational interests. However, because the NSS is issued in the name of the president, the document is supposed to emerge as a result of a consensus between the president's personal thinking and beliefs, those of his immediate team and the professional custodians of American foreign and defense policy.

This year, there were added challenges. First, there was a push to get a new "operating system" in place as soon as possible to displace the strategic guidance left over from the Obama administration that was still operative for the U.S. government, notwithstanding Trump's speeches and tweets. The second was to reconcile, as far as possible, the President's rhetoric and mindset with the task of preserving as much continuity with the existing bipartisan consensus about what constitutes American interests and what best serves them. In some ways, the current document can be seen as an attempt to recast a traditional Republican national security strategy—in some cases, worked on by people who just as easily would have staffed a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio administration—in the more populist, nationalist language employed during the campaign by Donald Trump: How, in essence, to reconcile "America First" with "conservative internationalism"?

The new strategy identifies Russia as an ideological, military and economic competitor to the United States that is seeking to overturn or modify the post-Cold War order and to undermine U.S. global leadership. It maintains that Russia seeks regional hegemony in the Eurasian space and is using the tools of statecraft to divide the United States from its partners in Europe and Asia. In contrast to previous U.S. national security documents, where there was more of a balance between "Russia engagers" and "Russia skeptics"—where the Kremlin's challenges were enunciated but grounds for possible Russian-American cooperation were also listed—this NSS represents a clear bureaucratic victory for the "Russia skeptics" in that the U.S.-Russia relationship is described in adversarial terms and where the continued resurgence of Russian military, economic, political and informational power is seen as problematic for the United States. The core assumption of the strategy, therefore, is that Russia is prepared to contest U.S. preferences, and in only one location does the document even hint at the possibility of strategic partnership with Moscow, saying, “The intentions of both nations [Russia and China] are not necessarily fixed. The United States stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries.” In contrast, the last National Security Strategy produced by a Republican administration—that of George W. Bush in 2006—contained the same concerns about Russian behavior but reiterated: “The United States seeks to work closely with Russia on strategic issues of common interest and to manage issues on which we have differing interests.”

Despite Kremlin complaints about how Russia is described, the strategy's assessment of Russia is not wrong; Vladimir Putin himself, most notably in his 2014 address to the nation following the annexation of Crimea, has called for a revision of the post-Cold War order and for the United States to come to terms with a "multipolar" world. Nor should the Kremlin be surprised at those parts of the NSS that call for rebuilding America's abilities to project power and influence throughout the world. If we compare the current NSS with Trump's April 2016 foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., we see some continuity. In those remarks, Trump argued that while Russia (and China) were rapidly expanding their military capabilities, the U.S. was falling behind. He argued that the U.S. was losing ground to these powers economically. Finally, he did not sugarcoat the areas of divergence, stressing that "we have serious differences" with Russia and must regard its actions "with open eyes." Nothing in the current NSS contradicts those sentiments, and to the extent, as the drafters noted, that they relied on extracts from the president's own statements in developing language for the strategy, the current document is in fact in sync with Trump's stated preferences—with one clear exception.

What appears to be missing is the follow-up on the U.S.-Russia relationship: Trump's insistence that "we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests." It is difficult to discern within the current NSS where the different parts of the U.S. government are directed to search for this common ground; the assumption seems to be that no such basis exists, or at least cannot exist as long as the current team in charge in the Kremlin remains in power—a caveat that carries over from President Barack Obama’s last NSS, issued in 2015. The question, therefore, is whether, during his first year in office, Trump has answered his own implied rhetorical question from April 2016: "Some say the Russians won't be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can't make a deal under my administration, a deal that's great ... for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table." One can read the strategy to conclude that, in fact, the answer is no—that "we can't make a deal under my administration"—and therefore, the United States must shift its focus in the U.S.-Russia relationship away from engagement with Moscow to shoring up the resilience of its allies and partners to contain Russian power.

And yet, even if people around Trump, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, appear to have reached this conclusion, we cannot definitively say whether Trump personally yet concurs. As the strategy was being released, the president was still insisting, "I feel that having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability"—sentiments that are not clearly reflected in the NSS. Even in his remarks when unveiling the strategy, Trump took time to praise the intelligence sharing with Russia that reportedly averted a planned Islamic State assault in St. Petersburg and to stress again that this is “the way it’s supposed to work”—holding out the possibility of a “great partnership” between Russia and the United States.  

In fact, the continued expression by Trump of hopes for forging a more productive relationship with Russia has led some to question whether the president has perused the entire text of "his" NSS. Responding to such queries, the spokesman for the National Security Council, Michael Anton, responded that he could not say whether Trump had read "every line and every word" of the strategy. This, by the way, is often par for the course for senior U.S. leaders. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once candidly admitted that he did not read strategy documents like the NSS and did not feel that his failure to parse the lines of such documents led to any particular policy failures or missteps. But it may also mean that the president does not necessarily feel that his continued statements and remarks must now be brought into conformity with the NSS. Thus, no one can expect that his thinking will adjust to reflect the language of the strategy—and he may just as easily ignore the NSS when it suits him.

So what value, then, does the NSS have? For one thing, organizations within the U.S. government will use the text, as they did with previous strategies, to find ways to justify what they are already doing and to ensure that their claims on their proper share of the national security budget are respected, reverse-engineering the strategy to conform to pre-existing policy preferences. More critically, however, the text sets down the areas in which Trump's national security team hopes that the president's thinking will continue to evolve. The president is, in many ways, the only prominent member of his administration who sees the possibility of engaging Russia, a position that is not reflected either in his appointments or among many of the career military and civilian professionals in the national security system. The NSS suggests that, as long as the president is not prepared to spend significant political capital, he will not alter the current trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations, assuming that he even has a concrete vision of his own. But the release of this document now starkly makes clear that there is a chasm between what the president is saying on Russia and what his national security team—and the establishment of which he is the overseer—believe. How long this dissonance can last—and what might be the fallout--is now the critical question. 


Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; Professor, Harvard Extension School; Contributing Editor, The National Interest

Photo by: Joyce N. Boghosian

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.