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Does the National Security Strategy Matter?

On August 7, War on the Rocks released a podcast where several national security experts discussed the importance of the National Security Strategy (NSS), a document required by Congress for each new administration to outline its objectives. While the overall consensus is that, yes, the NSS matters, the podcast participants have varying opinions towards the extent of the document’s importance. The discussion includes commentary from several individuals who have been involved in the creation of past Strategies, providing insights that could only be achieved through firsthand experience.
The experts agree that the importance of the NSS lies in its purpose, which is to provide a framework for the issues and goals that the administration would like to focus on. Dr. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution, who was part of the National Security Council during the creation of the 2002 NSS, believes that the document teaches the new administration what is important, provides a common purpose to be worked on, and allows congressional overseers, journalists, and the general public to hold the government accountable. Other podcast participants expand on the importance of the NSS, with Dr. Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies emphasizing that foreign governments pay closer attention to the document than Congress or any American entity; this forces the administration to address the entire world, rather than just the United States. Dr. Will Inboden of the Clements Center at the University of Texas, who worked on the NSS during the George W. Bush administration, provided an example of a foreign entity reading the NSS and harshly reacting to its content; following the release of the document, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement denouncing the Strategy, stating that the authors of the document should be fired. While it is crucial that the NSS be comprehensive and pertinent enough for its vast audience, it is important to note that it is quite common for one Strategy of an administration to read differently than the next. According to Dr. Colin Kahl of Georgetown University, the first NSS tends to be more idealistic and ambitious while making a clear distinction from the policies of the new president’s predecessor, whereas the following Strategies tend to retreat with more caveats. Although the NSS is a dynamic document with content that may or may not be appreciated by every reader, it is important that the objectives of the current administration are accessible to anyone who desires to read them.
The podcast participants then engage in predictions about what the NSS of the Trump administration will consist of, with everyone agreeing that doing so will be more difficult than during previous presidencies. However, the group concurs it is likely that the Strategy will be similar to the content addressed in the May 2017 article written for The Wall Street Journal by H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, President Trump’s National Security Advisor and National Economic Council Director, respectively. McMaster and Cohn emphasize Trump’s “America First” policy, yet also commit to strengthening cooperation between the United States and its allies. Their article adopts a more realist approach that describes the international arena as a competition between state and non-state actors for power rather than as a global community; they advocate for a focus on military, political, and economic strength in order to successfully compete. Dr. Kahl believes that not only will the NSS of the Trump administration define the United States as “being back”, but will also criticize the Obama administration and affirm that Trump’s presidency has more military might. Although the podcast participants accept that this will be the general tone of the Strategy, there remain many questions regarding specifics in the NSS, as well as how the Trump administration will go about implementing it. It is unclear whether the new NSS will make a commitment to an open global trading system, or how President Trump will grapple with advocating for a position of military might after he has publicly criticized American intervention in Iraq and Libya. Additionally, it remains ambiguous how his tumultuous relationships with Russia and China will manifest themselves in the NSS. The final concern expressed by those involved in the podcast was whether the NSS will have any bearing on the actions that President Trump will take throughout the remainder of his term, as he is notorious for being a “wild card” who changes his mind and contradicts previous statements and decisions. Although these concerns remain to be addressed, the consensus within the podcast participants was that, even with a “wild card” of a president, the National Security Strategy is a vital document for addressing the United States’ presence in the world.

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