Since 1986 US administrations have been required to issue a statement of their National Security Strategy . The savvy take is that these documents are strategic boilerplate. In the case of the Trump administration it is not even obvious that POTUS is capable of reading reliably from the script. In the speech introducing the Strategy Trump transposed the strategy of “principled realism” that his administration supposedly espouses as follows: “Our new strategy is based on a principle, realism.”

But there are three reasons that the NSS issued by the Trump administration in early December 2017 is more interesting than its immediate predecessors. Not only is it an unusually political document, but it is marked by three features that set it apart from its immediate predecessors since 2001:

  1. though it contains the usual self-congratulatory nods to American exceptional success story – “among the greatest forces for good in history” (2), “most just and prosperous nation in history” (4) – this is not a self-congratulatory document.
  2. the NSS analysis of the situation immediately facing the US is, if taken at face value, urgent and drastic.
  3. to bolster this dark vision NSS 2017 is studded with references to history. These include general references to America’s “national experience” as well as references to specific moments in history like World War II and the Cold War. But the new NSS also confirms the presence in the Trump administration – at least amongst some of its members – of a bleaker philosophy of history than we have been used to from similar documents issued since the 1990s.

All three of these points are visible in the opening statement of the NSS, which starts with the succinct but powerful statement:

“America’s achievements and standing in the world were neither inevitable nor accidental.”

“… neither inevitable nor accidental” – not merely by chance, but not inevitable – this is the essential frame – should one call it metaphysical? – within which Trump’s strategists make their call to arms.

“America’s achievements and standing in the world were neither inevitable nor accidental. On many occasions, Americans have had to compete with adversarial forces to preserve and advance our security, prosperity, and the principles we hold dear. At home, we fought the Civil War to end slavery and preserve our Union in the long struggle to extend equal rights for all Americans. In the course of the bloodiest century in human history, millions of Americans fought, and hundreds of thousands lost their lives, to defend liberty in two World Wars and the Cold War. America, with our allies and partners, defeated fascism, imperialism, and Soviet communism and eliminated any doubts about the power and durability of republican democracy when it is sustained by a free, proud, and unified people.” (2)

This is the standard West Point version of America’s military history. No equivocation about the confederacy here. And there follows the McMaster et al rendition of the “postwar”, “Marshall plan” moment:

“The United States consolidated its military victories with political and economic triumphs built on market economies and fair trade, democratic principles, and shared security partnerships. American political, business, and military leaders worked together with their counterparts in Europe and Asia to shape the post-war order through the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other institutions designed to advance our shared interests of security, freedom, and peace. We recognize the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.” (2)

All of this serves as a foil for what follows: a critique of the locust years. This is where the real punch is delivered:

“Following the remarkable victory of free nations in the Cold War, America emerged as the lone superpower with enormous advantages and momentum in the world. Success, however, bred complacency. A belief emerged, among many, that American power would be unchallenged and self–sustaining. The United States began to drift. We experienced a crisis of confidence and surrendered our advantages in key areas. As we took our political, economic, and military advantages for granted, other actors steadily implemented their long-term plans to challenge America and to advance agendas opposed to the United States, our allies, and our partners.” (2)

The memory of previous periods of activism – Civil War, World Wars, Cold War – highlights unflatteringly the period of complacency that followed since the 1990s. That sloth is what the Trump administration is determined to undo. America must rise to the challenge because it faces alarming new threats from actors who have “steadily” implement “long-term” plans to challenge US dominance. Not for nothing “competition”, “competitive”, “compete” are the key terms of the document. They appear 73 times across 56 pages.

A fuller statement of the historic narrative that underpins the view of security policy in the current Trump administration can be found in Section III entitled “Preserve Peace Through Strength” (25 and following). Once again this starts with a bold historico-philosophical claim: “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different.” (25)

Then the NSS distinguishes: “Three main sets of challengers— the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups—are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners.”

The NSS acknowledges that these threats are distinct but then seeks to weld them together into a single challenge: “Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor. These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.”

It is a characteristic sequence:

(1) postulate a general trans-historical principle of power struggle;

(2) itemize a washing list of threats;

(3) though they may differ in “nature and magnitude” assert technical similarities between them;

(4) subsume the entire heterogeneous collection under generic ideological oppositions i.e. repressive v. free.

The effect is dizzying. China is equated with ISS, Putin’s Russia with North Korea. They are all challengers. They use technology and information against us. They “favor” repression. We favor freedom. A plurality of differing threats is reduced to a simple self-affirming dichotomy bolstered by the dark certainty that there will always be struggle.

What gives NSS 2017 its political edge is that this strategic diagnosis is framed as a moment of illumination, as a return to essential strategic wisdom lost in the mists of liberal or neoconservative complacency: As the NSS December 2017 puts it:

“The United States must consider what is enduring about the problems we face, and what is new. The contests over influence are timeless. They have existed in varying degrees and levels of intensity, for millennia. Geopolitics is the interplay of these contests across the globe. But some conditions are new, and have changed how these competitions are unfolding. We face simultaneous threats from different actors across multiple arenas— all accelerated by technology. The United States must develop new concepts and capabilities to protect our homeland, advance our prosperity, and preserve peace.” (26) The timeless expanse of millennia (sic) sets the stage for technological futurism.

The United States must run to catch up because: “Since the 1990s, the United States displayed a great degree of strategic complacency. We assumed that our military superiority was guaranteed and that a democratic peace was inevitable. We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation.” (27)

This illusory liberal understanding of the likely development of international relations had its counterpart in domestic decline and decay:

“Instead of building military capacity, as threats to our national security increased, the United States dramatically cut the size of our military to the lowest levels since 1940. Instead of developing important capabilities, the Joint Force entered a nearly decade long “procurement holiday” during which the acquisition of new weapon systems was severely limited. The breakdown of the Nation’s annual Federal budgeting process, exemplified by sequestration and repeated continuing resolutions, further contributed to the erosion of America’s military dominance during a time of increasing threats.

Despite decades of efforts to reform the way that the United States develops and procures new weapons, our acquisition system remained sclerotic. The Joint Force did not keep pace with emerging threats or technologies. We got less for our defense dollars, shortchanging American taxpayers and warfighters.

We also incorrectly believed that technology could compensate for our reduced capacity —for the ability to field enough forces to prevail militarily, consolidate our gains, and achieve our desired political ends. We convinced ourselves that all wars would be fought and won quickly, from stand-off distances and with minimal casualties.” (27)

This is all very worrying and all the more so, because, “… after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.” (27)

Isis, Putin and North Korea are worrying no doubt. But the most remarkable and alarming passage in the NSS surely comes in the regional section on the “Indo-Pacific”.

As the NSS states “The U.S. interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific extends back to the earliest days of our republic.” (46) “The region which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world.” (45-46) And it offers the most dramatic example of America’s tendency to dangerous liberal optimism: “For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China.” But, “(c)ontrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.” (26)

As America’s trade policy hawks never tire of arguing, the gamble on the liberal incorporation of China was also a failure in economic terms. Chinese state capitalism is seen by the likes of Navarro and Lighthizer as a major threat to the US economy and US jobs.

Far from liberal convergence, according to NSS 2017, what the US now faces in the “Indo-Pacific” is a major grand strategic challenge: “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order Is taking place in the indo-pacific region.” (45)

Most analysts would be hard-pressed to identify where exactly India, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand align with the likes of Australia and New Zealand, Japan and the United States in this forcefield. Even at the height of the Cold War the dividing lines ran rather more crookedly in the Indo-Pacific region than NSS 2017 claims they do today. But the force of its alarmism is irresistible.

“Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo- Pacific. States throughout the region are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.” P. 46

This is a new type of competition against a new/old type of adversary:

“… adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law. Repressive, closed states and organizations, although brittle in many ways, are often more agile and faster at integrating economic, military, and especially informational means to achieve their goals. They are unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict. They employ sophisticated political, economic, and military campaigns that combine discrete actions. They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond. Such actions are calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the United States. And as these incremental gains are realized, over time, a new status quo emerges.” (27-28)

Seen from the vantage point of strategic competition, as NSS 2017 frames it, the contrast between those who favor freedom and those who favor repressions are rather less flattering. The US is constrained by law and by “thresholds”, by its openness and encumbrance of truth and personal rights, by its lack of patience and failure to think systemically about the shifting balance of power. International law is a particular encumbrance:

“The United States must prepare for this type of competition. China, Russia, and other state and nonstate actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either “at peace” or “at war,” when it is actually an arena of continuous competition. Our adversaries will not fight us on our terms. We will raise our competitive game to meet that challenge, to protect American interests, and to advance our values. Our diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic agencies have not kept pace with the changes in the character of competition. America’s military must be prepared to operate across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once. To meet these challenges we must also upgrade our political and economic instruments to operate across these environments.” (28)

As was true also in Trump’s speech in Warsaw, America’s own state apparatus, its own government machine is seen as a diminishing and undercutting its own power. Astonishingly, at the intersection of Trumpian domestic economics and security policy, bureaucracy is no longer associated with Communism, or Asiatic mandarins, but with the United States and its meddling liberalism. But there is hope.

“Bureaucratic inertia is powerful. But so is the talent, creativity, and dedication of Americans. By aligning our public and private sector efforts we can field a Joint Force that is unmatched. New advances in computing, autonomy, and manufacturing are already transforming the way we fight. When coupled with the strength of our allies and partners, this advantage grows. The future that we face is ours to win or lose. History suggests that Americans will rise to the occasion and that we can shift trends back in favor of the United States, our allies, and our partners.” (28)

This is the essential message. “The future that we face is ours to win or lose.” And then, rubbing salt in liberal wounds: “There is no arc of history that ensures that America’s free political and economic system will automatically prevail. Success or failure depends upon our actions. This Administration has the confidence to compete to protect our values and interests and the fundamental principles that underpin them.” (37)

The NSS 2017 is a highly political document. But this is its most pointed moment. It was of course Obama who in his victory speech in November 2008 called on his supporters to reject cynicism and fear and “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” It was his adaptation of a deathless phrase by Martin Luther King – “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”. It was borrowed by King from the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker who in 1853 invoked the arc of the moral universe. “…the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.”

The invocation of a right and wrong side of history was by no means original to Obama as President. By one calculation Bill Clinton referred to being on the “the right side of history” 21 times during his time in office, with hiss staff adding another 15 references.

But it was in fact the Bush administration that incorporated the notion of a historical arc into the NSS in 2006 in the following form: ‘Tyranny is not inevitable, and recent history reveals the arc of the tyrant’s fate. The 20th century has been called the “Democracy Century,” as tyrannies fell one by one and democracies rose in their stead. At mid-century about two dozen of the world’s governments were democratic; 50 years later this number was over 120. The democratic revolution has embraced all cultures and all continents.” (National Security Strategy 2006, 4)

A decade on from 2006 we are in a very different place. It is not just the Trumpists who have lost their confidence that “things refuse to be mismanaged long”.