National Security Strategies: Trump vs. Obama

State Arrival at White House – Germany

U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard personnel march in front of the White House. Photo by MUC Stephen Hassay.

From released internal memos and after-action reports to detailed doctrine manuals to capstone strategy papers, a deluge of written material emanates from the American defense establishment. While many of these obscure documents are of little importance to everyday operations, they can provide a valuable insight into current trends among the security intelligentsia. For example, during the zenith of the Global War on Terror, one could sense a shift in the military’s priorities by noting how asymmetric warfare and stability operations featured heavily in strategy documents. In contrast, during the height of the Cold War, high-end operations and conflict with the USSR were the primary obsession.

In many cases, struggles within the bureaucracy manifest in formal publications — producing a high-level document on behalf of a whole branch or presidential administration forces leaders to distill their message and spell out their priorities. Oftentimes there will be disagreement as to what those priorities actually are. In addition, strategic documents (especially unclassified ones) send important signals to civilian leadership, foreign governments, and private industry alike. For those interested, Towards a New Maritime Strategy, an excellent book by Peter D. Haynes, provides a rare look at these dynamics and the surprising amount of behind-the-scenes jockeying that goes into seemingly-routine strategy publications.

This article will consider the differences between Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) and Trump’s 2017 NSS. These are the first NSS documents produced by each administration — the goal here is to compare their initial visions (and how they chose to articulate them). Trump’s NSS comes almost eight years after Obama’s and is thus responding to a different security environment. Nevertheless, there are numerous differences between the two which cannot reasonably be attributed to the passage of time.

The most immediately apparent of these is the stark contrast in tone. The 2017 NSS opens with the words “The American people elected me to make America great again,” whereas Obama’s begins with “Time and time again, Americans have risen to meet — and to shape — moments of transition.” On balance, Trump’s NSS is more self-absorbed and concrete, whereas Obama’s tends towards the esoteric and frequently employs sweeping statements. Though aides undoubtedly handle much of the heavy lifting involved with producing the lengthy NSS, the presidents’ own rhetorical inclinations invariably permeate the document.

Differing threat perceptions are immediately apparent as well. In the first paragraph of the 2010 NSS, globalization and climate change are identified as challenges to American security. The inclusion of these two phenomena so early serves to emphasize their importance even though they are not within the panacea of “traditional” military threats. In contrast, the 2017 NSS identifies “defending borders” and “protecting our sovereignty,” two aims Trump has repeatedly cited during the campaign season and his tenure as president. This can be interpreted as a retreat from the expansive, holistic view of security and the American national interest that found favor with Obama. Rather than focusing on long-term, global destabilizing trends, the 2017 NSS starts by identifying immediate threats and proposing immediate defensive actions.

Though differences in tone and message are evident from the very first page, there are notable similarities as well. For instance, both documents mention “rebuilding” American power and influence. This is unsurprising given both presidents inherited a national security strategy that had sustained heavy criticism (as most do). Differentiating the “new” strategy from the failings of the “old” is a similarity that can be found in both documents, although it is decisively more pronounced in the 2017 NSS — whereas Obama’s strategy makes relatively subdued overtures to regaining the initiative after Bush-era missteps, Trump’s dedicates a lengthy introduction paragraph to expounding upon the perceived shortcomings of his predecessor.

With regards to structure, Obama’s 2010 NSS has two main sections, “Strategic Approach” and “Advancing our Interests.” The former serves to provide context and an overarching framework, whereas the latter describes specific approaches to a variety of issues. In contrast, the 2017 NSS is built on four pillars — “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life,” “Promote American prosperity,” “Preserve Peace through Strength,” and “Advance American Influence.” The topic of each roughly corresponds to its title: the first pillar focuses on domestic security, the second on domestic prosperity, the third on military/diplomatic power, and the fourth on alliances, soft power, etc. Of course, analogous sections exist in the 2010 NSS as well; most are placed within “Advancing our Interests.” The 2017 NSS also has a segment at the end concerning each major region of the world; this discussion is more diffuse in the 2010 document.

Though the use of markedly different organizational structures complicates direct comparison, it is clear that Trump’s NSS devotes far more weight to improving military capabilities than does Obama’s. The majority of the lengthy “Preserve Peace through Strength” pillar concerns a quantitative and qualitative expansion of the armed forces, addressing issues such as nuclear modernization, exo-atmospheric capabilities, and industrial base development. Supporters of missile defense have particular cause for celebration: the phrase is used six times (and identified as a priority) in the 2017 NSS, where the 2010 strategy mentions it only once in passing. The motivation behind this buildup is clear: both Russia and China are discussed far more often in Trump’s NSS, especially in adversarial terms. The 2010 NSS, in contrast, has only a single bullet point under the “Strengthening National Capacity—A Whole of Government Approach” heading concerned primarily with improving military capability. This reflects the Obama administration’s goal of shrinking the military from its Global War on Terror-era surge and emphasizing other manifestations of American power.

Sharp distinctions exist in other respects as well. Take, for example, the issue of education — one which is certainly related to national security but is not directly under the purview of the DoD or DHS. Trump’s 2017 NSS uses the word “education” three times but does not interface with the topic for more than a few sentences. There is no concrete plan in the 2017 NSS to alter educational practices in a way that would benefit national security (vagaries such as “nurturing a healthy innovation economy” by “improv[ing] STEM education” notwithstanding). In contrast, Obama’s 2010 NSS mentions “education” 31 times and includes a whole section on the topic, complete with multiple recommendations including “Increasing International Education and Exchange.” Though many of the 2010 NSS’s statements regarding education could also be considered platitudes, it is abundantly clear that the issue was a higher priority for the 2010 NSS team.

Another important dichotomy is between the two documents’ assessments of international institutions. Overall, the 2010 NSS places a great deal of faith in multilateral treaties and bodies, framing them as a way to maintain the global order and spread American influence. It recommends “strengthen[ing] enforcement of international law” and increasing engagement with the international community. As one might expect, the 2017 NSS is not nearly as optimistic when it comes to institutions such as the UN. It warns, for example, that “authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests.” Though the 2017 NSS does concede that America should maintain a leadership position in these bodies or else influence will be lost, it then goes on to state that The United States “will prioritize its efforts in those organizations that serve American interests” — this statement carries the implication that adherence to multilateral obligations will be based on expediency, not an underlying commitment to international law and norms. Obama would probably agree with the aforementioned complaints, but to place them in an unrestricted strategy document suggests an unprecedented willingness to openly air such grievances.

Though the security environment has undeniably changed since 2010, these differences in outlook (and many others not discussed here) are simply too stark to be explained by temporal separation. Rather, they should be understood as a fundamental, top-down shift in strategic thought. Two years into the Trump presidency, it is readily apparent that America’s approach to diplomacy and security has been profoundly altered by the change in administrations. Unsurprisingly, many of these shifts (tougher demands of allies, an increased focus on trade deficits, an expansion of the military, antagonism with major international bodies) were alluded to in the 2017 NSS. As such, the strategies are a valuable tool for understanding both how the Trump administration’s actions correspond to (or perhaps deviate from) its stated security goals and why Trump’s policies are seen as such a departure from the norms of the Obama era.

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