Trump’s Doctrine: ‘Principled Realism’ Comes to the Fore

Congress requires every administration to submit an outline of its national security strategy. This is usually a behind-the-scenes exercise, carried out by the national security team. But with his speech at the Reagan Building today, Donald Trump put his administration’s ideas about foreign policy and national security under klieg lights at center stage. The lodestar: “principled realism.” More fully: Putting America First is the best strategy not only for the United States but also for the civilized world.

President Trump’s speech, and the nearly 60-page document that lays out his administration’s strategy in detail, is a model of moral clarity and forthright Realpolitik. It is appropriate that the speech was delivered in the Reagan building. Just as Reagan had the courage to describe the Soviet Union accurately, as an “evil empire,” so President Trump’s America First strategy distinguishes sharply between “those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” He explicitly places China, Russia, and North Korea, along with jihadi terrorists and “transnational criminal organizations” in the latter category.

Leading, Period
Pragmatism is a signature element of President Trump’s approach to solving problems, foreign and domestic. As his chief of staff John Kelly noted in an October press conference, Trump’s agenda is simply “what’s good for America.” His approach is governed not by ideology but by “outcomes,” by what works to advance America’s interests.

Barack Obama famously sought to “lead from behind.” Donald Trump seeks to lead, period. Undergirding that ambition is the clear-sighted recognition that American principles are based on a respect for individual rights, economic dynamism, and limited, accountable government.

Again, where Obama sought to let a little air out of the idea of “American exceptionalism,” Trump offers a full-throated endorsement of the idea. “Our founding principles,” he said, “have made the United States among the greatest forces for good in the world.”

As in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly this fall, President Trump’s national security strategy begins from the principle that peace and international prosperity are more surely guaranteed by strong, sovereign nations honestly pursuing their own national self-interest. The ambition to dissolve national sovereignty in a hazy bath of world citizenship is both naÏve and counter-productive. Trump’s foreign policy motto thus echoes Ronald Reagan’s: “Peace through strength.”

On this view, complacency is the enemy of security. In the aftermath of America’s bloodless triumph in the Cold War, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. But that status was not inevitable nor automatically sustainable. It depended on America’s determined prosecution of its own interests. In recent years, America has more and more abandoned that pursuit as other countries sought to capitalize on our bureaucratic paralysis and regulatory suffocation.

Four Key Ambitions
In an increasingly competitive world, America must exploit its unmatched natural resources and human ingenuity. But competition does not necessarily entail hostility. On the contrary, history has shown time and again that weakness is provocative and tends to spark conflict.

Trump’s “America First National Security Strategy” is organized around four key ambitions:

  • To protect the American people, homeland, and the American way of life by securing our borders, protecting our critical infrastructure—cyber as well as material—and developing and deploying a “layered missile defense system.”
  • To promote American prosperity by insisting on fair and reciprocal economic relationships with our trading partners, by advancing and protecting from theft our technological innovation and intellectual property, and by exploiting our enormous energy resources.
  • To promote security by rebuilding and upgrading our military, including our space and cyberspace capabilities and by encouraging our allies to shoulder their fair portion of the costs of their defense.
  • To promote American influence abroad by supporting the rule of law and private-sector-led economic growth among our allies and trading partners, acting generously while also avoiding policies that encourage dependency.

In recent years, many political actors in America have understood their primary task as managing America’s supposedly “inevitable” decline. Trump’s “America First National Security Strategy” understands the challenges that face the United States as so many opportunities for advancement, not energy- and prestige-sapping liabilities. It assumes the possibility of America’s continued preeminence even as it coolly and realistically assesses the competitive challenges we face.

The president’s speech outlined a national security vision that eschews the limp pieties of transnational progressivism. Absent were the reflexive genuflections to political correctness that have been such a conspicuous feature of recent American foreign policy statements. Trump’s national security strategy is manly, red-blooded, and realistic. It affirms the distinctive roots of America’s strength in the American Founders’ deep understanding of the link between individual liberty and limited, accountable government and the separation of powers.

No short speech on strategy can lay out a comprehensive and particularized roadmap for its implementation. Accordingly, the president’s speech articulated a number of general principles and ambitions without detailing exactly how they are to be realized. It established a tone, issued a warning, proclaimed an overall approach.

Most Ambitious Since Reagan
The details of his plan are contained in the long national security document, also released Monday. Here interested parties can find an extensive list of priority actions that the administration will take on issues from border security and immigration to missile defense, addressing the threat of terrorism, cyber warfare, and weapons of mass destruction.

On the economic front, the document outlines the Trump Administration’s plans to reduce counterproductive regulatory interference, reform the tax code, exploit our energy resources, support education, and promote trade relations that are reciprocal as well as fair. The document also details how America can best deal with different regions by tailoring its diplomatic and economic advances to the needs of particular locales.

One would have to go back more than 30 years, to the administration of Ronald Reagan, to find an articulation of American foreign policy and national security strategy that was as self-confident and unashamedly pro-American as this magnificent speech and supporting document. It’s as if a window were opened, letting in sunshine and brisk, salubrious breezes.

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