Eleven months after starting his presidency by swearing off global leadership in favor of “only America first” policies, Donald Trump is set to release a National Security Strategy that leans heavily on allies and international partners to address global threats such as Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and extremist organizations.
“These threats today threaten our liberty; they threaten our freedom,” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said today in Washington, D.C. “So what we have to do in response is to ensure that our political, military, financial, and cultural ties are as strong as ever.”
Speaking at a luncheon event with the U.K.’s national security adviser, McMaster said the president would officially unveil the much-anticipated strategy on Dec. 18.
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“President Trump has stressed that the best defense against today’s threats are coalitions and alliances of strong, independent and sovereign nation states,” he said.
That hasn’t always been the case. Just Security’s Kate Brannen and others have pointed out various disconnects between the previewed versions of the strategy and the president’s past statements and actions. Trump, after all, once called longstanding American alliances “obsolete.”
But the strategy’s emphasis on shared defense and the growth of U.S. influence abroad aligns with the rest of an administration that has worked to maintain partnerships since the Trump’s America-first inauguration speech. McMaster is just the latest in a long string of administration officials committing to international partnerships and reassuring allies.
Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, trotted around the globe in the early months of the administration, visiting allies and reassuring them of the U.S.’s continued commitment to international institutions and order. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson regularly praises allies when discussing North Korea’s nuclear program and other threats.
So some partner nations have started to turn to the Pentagon and State Department in lieu of the White House for indications about the direction of U.S. policy.
“What I often offer to foreign leaders and so forth is: certainly you have to read the tweets but don’t get mesmerized by the tweets,” said former CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus.
It’s worked, to an extent. Asked about their relations with the Trump administration, allies are quick to emphasize how smooth their interactions with the rest of the executive branch are. As one allied security official said recently, “From the Pentagon, they say and do all the right things."
But the president himself has also moderated some of his campaign-era stances — even if his tweets have occasionally undercut international diplomacy efforts and he has endangered international intelligence sharing efforts. In June, for example, Trump affirmed the U.S.’s commitment to Article 5, NATO’s common-defense clause.
Aspects of Trump’s criticism of allies endure. “Cooperation with reciprocity” — or, more bluntly, demanding allies boost their defense spending — “will be an important aspect of the president’s policy,” McMaster said. Previous administrations have exhorted allies to do exactly that, but experts have said Trump’s blunt rhetoric will help drive increased spending, particularly with NATO allies, as they draft budgets for 2018 and beyond.
The NSS’s focus on partnerships isn’t just about shared military commitments. The fourth pillar — advancing American influence — also drives at building ties that stretch outside the U.S.
“The president hopes to enhance American influence,” McMaster said, “because he recognizes that allies and partners who share our values and interests are essential to mutual security and prosperity.”