hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

NSS 2017: Making America Great Again?

“This strategy is guided by principled realism. It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interest”.

The United States National Security Strategy, December 18, 2017
A Happy New US Year?

Alphen, Netherlands. 3 January. A Happy New Year to you all! Look, being something of a sad bastard I spent part of my Christmas reading the new US National Security Strategy (NSS 2017).  In part this was because I wanted to give it the full and proper consideration it deserves. This meant first allowing to die down the now usual Euro-Chicken Little response to anything with the name ‘Trump’ on it.  My considered reaction to NSS 2017? The United States seriously needs allies, and America’s allies really now need to get serious about the world, their place in it, and the continuing ability and willingness of the US to do their defending for them.

The document itself is a serious and concise piece of work written by very serious people. Indeed, it is a far stronger ‘strategy’ than some of the vacuous aspirational internationalism that was published during the Obama years, or its ‘mini-me’ British counterpart which lists all the threats Britain faces, many of which Britain is doing little or nothing about. London only recognises as much threat as the Treasury says it can afford…which is not a lot. As for the EU’s Global Strategy, I tend not to bother with junk mail.
NSS 2017
Fifty-five pages in length and divided into four pillars, NSS 2017 is an elegant statement of the American geopolitical dilemma; powerful enough to be the only global power, but no longer powerful enough to exert its interests or its influence globally everywhere, all of the time.  At a particularly sad moment, and infused with a large glass of Scotch, I read side-by-side both NSS 2017 and the December statement by the European Council on PESCO or permanent structured co-operation. Whereas the US NSS is an attempt to recognise and ultimately overcome US geopolitical over-stretch, PESCO is politics dressed up as strategy and can at best be described as strategic tinkering, at worst it is European defence as cold turkey avec frites.

The critical ‘pillar’ is entitled Preserve Peace through Strength and is where the rubber of NSS 2017 hits the hard road of realism. The analysis therein is spot on, particularly the section on the competitive nature of the world, and the need for the US to exert influence and generate effect. NSS 2017 is particularly effective describing the new balance Washington must strike between protection of people and projection of power in an age in which technology and Twitter merge security and defence…and undermines them at one and the same time.  The main threats are clearly identified: super-revisionists China and Russia; regional revisionists Iran and North Korea, as well medieval revisionists in the Middle East. 
The role of the US armed forces is also reaffirmed in NSS 2017 as central to the American strategic effort, even if the strategy recognises military power is but one facet of American ‘strength’ that stretches from the economic (the deficit?) to the inspirational.  Critically, and very unusually, NSS 2017 has the courage to recognise relative American decline by recommitting America to seek to “renew its competitive advantages”. 

Militant Turkey or American Decline?
Still, reading NSS 2017 I felt qualms of unease that were caused by more than an excess of militant Christmas turkey. You see, NSS 2017 is the ghost of British strategy past, albeit dressed up as Uncle Sam. Indeed, NSS 2017 is a little bit like that American rip-off of the famous World War One poster Your Country Needs You in which Lord Kitchener thrusts his four-digit in the faces of young men about to sign up for the trenches.

NSS 2017 is an exercise in managing relative American decline and, as such, would have been recognisable to a young Winston Churchill.  At the start of the twentieth century Britain still appeared to supremely powerful with the Royal Navy ensuring Britannia really did rule the waves. In 1889 Britain established the Two Power Standard and passed the Naval Defence Act in which London committed to “… a standard of strength equivalent to that of the combined forces of the next two biggest navies in the world”.  However, some thirteen years later, faced with the rise of Imperial Germany in Europe, and yet to conclude ententes, cordiale or otherwise, with either France or Tsarist Russia, in January 1902 Britain forged the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.  By so doing London recognised the beginning of its century long retreat from global power that continues today, albeit it exaggerated by its own numpty politicians.  In 1902 Britain faced strategic reality and abandoned the Two Power Standard and with it any fading delusions of splendid isolation or supreme power. NSS 2017 does much the same for contemporary America.  
Instead, NSS 2017 implicitly reinforces the importance of allies in the pursuit of US strategic ends, and clearly recognises the shifting balance of global power, America’s fading dominion over it, the revolutionary role of technology in security and defence, and the ability of other powers and actors to complicate US strategic choices.  NSS 2017 also reveals the sheer extent of the challenges America faces even if there are so many “Priority Actions” across so many domains that reading NSS 2017 one wonders if there can be anything can be a strategic priority if everything is a priority.

The End of American Exceptionalism?
It is the section entitled Strategy in a Regional Context, which Europeans should take very seriously indeed. The key phrase is a telling one for Europeans: “The NATO Alliance will become stronger when all members assume greater responsibility for and pay their fair share to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty and values”. One could read that statement and suggest it is the NATO-old American complaint about a lack of European burden-sharing.  However, to be properly understood the statement should rather be read against the back-drop of the new strategic context in which NSS 2017 is set and to which NSS 2017 responds. In a sense NSS 2017 is pleading with America’s European allies to finally get serious about defence.  The danger is that Europeans misread that message for America’s need for help is Europe’s new reality Trump or no Trump.  Sadly, experience suggests most Europeans will demur because President Trump too often provides an alibi for too many Europeans NOT to be serious about defence. Put simply, America needs ‘Europe’ to be serious about defence if America is to maintain the security guarantee it has afforded Europe since 1945.

America’s new strategic realism is reinforced by the use of the term Indo-Pacific in NSS 2017, rather than the more usual Asia-Pacific.  Read between the lines and it is self-evident that America also needs the support of all of its allies in Asia-Pacific if it is to maintain the power status quo and thus the security guarantee that Washington has ensured and assured since 1945.  The suggestion therein also implies a possible new strategic partnership with India. A latter day Anglo-Japanese Alliance?
It is Strategy, Stupid!

A clue to the real purpose and utility of NSS 2017 is in the name. It is a strategy. Not only is it a strategy, it is American grand strategy – the application of still immense US national means in pursuit of the highest of strategic ends via a host of considered ways.  As such NSS 2017 is meant to signal to those responsible for its implementation that the White House understands the challenge and will support them with the necessary tools to do the job.  NSS 2017 also sends a message to the allies about the scope, nature and limits of America’s commitment to them. Critically, NSS 2017 also implies a disciplined approach to the application of American power. However, NSS 2017 will only work as strategy if the Commander-in-Chief has the discipline, consistency and commitment to infuse its prescriptions and actions with political credibility. 
This is certainly not a moment for America to be a strategic flake.  Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff is not a man prone to exaggeration but he is worried.  In an interview on 2 January in This Week Mullen said two things that reveal American concerns and one of which should concern the European allies more than it does.  First, Mullen warned that, “We are actually closer…to a nuclear war with North Korea and in the region than we have ever been”.  Second, he said that President Trump’s first year has been “incredibly disruptive”. 

Making America Great Again?

Implicit in NSS 2017 is an American nightmare I have been warning of for some time: simultaneous crises in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe that places an already over-stretched American diplomatic and military instruments under unbearable pressure.  If Russian aggression is to be deterred, if Chinese expansionism prevented, and Islamist ideology countered then America will need help.  In other words, implicit in NSS 2017 is an end to the ‘Americans will always be there’ school of thought that has endured amongst allies the world over since 1945. NSS 2017 is thus in part an American call to arms to liberal democracies the world-over. Or, to put NSS 2017 a la mode, America will only be great again with the help of friends.

THAT is the real message of the US National Security Strategy of December 2017. Europe? It is time for delusional Europeans to wake up and smell America’s realist coffee!

Julian Lindley-French

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