A Polished “America First” National Security Strategy

Brad Patty

5 year ago

December 18, 2017

The new National Security Strategy runs to nearly seventy pages but the most important are the first three. Those three pages give the groundwork for understanding the rest. In only a page-and-a-half it sketches the basic principles it intends to follow. It does so using well-known touchstones in American rhetoric. It asserts ideas that have been foremost in the American vision of liberty by law, a liberty defended as much by limiting the power of the Federal government at home as by asserting its might abroad.

Already by the second page it is ready to move from philosophy to history, drawing in broad strokes the way in which these principles made American success “neither inevitable nor accidental.” To say it was not inevitable is to reinforce the claim that America overcame significant hurdles: the document mentions the Civil War, the struggle for human equality, the slaughter of the two world wars, and the Cold War. To say that American success was not accidental is to say that the principles laid out at the beginning of the document are what drove America’s ability to overcome its challenges. American success is thus essential to America, and not an accident: it follows from what America is all about.

My guess is that members of the Foreign Policy elite will encounter these first pages as a kind of boilerplate, even trite. Notice, though, that those two pages lead directly to a third page that repudiates the whole living body of American foreign policy thought. Everything since Ronald Reagan is rejected in two short paragraphs which explain exactly what four successive administrations got wrong.

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.

We stood by while countries exploited the institutions we helped to build. They subsidized their industries, forced technology transfers, and distorted markets. These and other actions challenged America’s economic security. At home, excessive regulations and high taxes stifled growth and weakened free enterprise—history’s greatest antidote to poverty. Each time government encroached on the productive activities of private commerce, it threatened not only our prosperity but also the spirit of creation and innovation that has been key to our national greatness.

If an ordinary member of the Foreign Policy elite had taken the first two pages to be boilerplate, they would find themselves suddenly defenseless against the first half of page three. Whether they are a liberal internationalist, a neoconservative, or even an international socialist, their worldview has been rejected. Its rejection is shown as a natural consequence of America’s founding principles and her history. What follows in the next sixty-plus pages is supposed to be an approach that is more coherent with American principles and history.

We will examine the document in detail. The point I want to make initially is simply that this is a document of significant intellectual polish. It is quite difficult to spell out a coherent philosophy in a few brush strokes, let alone to show in just a few more how the history is informed by the philosophy that you painted.

This polish should be encouraging to all Americans. The document’s main author is one Dr. Nadia Schadlow, brought on to the National Security Council originally to write it. If you are a Trump critic, you should be encouraged by her resume. The Trump administration has sometimes been criticized for favoring the ideas of wild-eyed radicals, enemies of the elite yet lacking the education or experience to replace the elite. Dr. Schadlow is not among these. She has an elite education and career, from Cornell to Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. She is widely published, and has had a career of incrementally-ascending positions of responsibility. She was trained in the elite’s way, and then embarked on a career in which she proceeded at each step to show herself capable of her duties. She has exposed her ideas to public criticism throughout her career. In this way she has earned the trust of National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Her polish shows off the skills that she has developed in the course of her education and career. She has earned her position, and she is exactly the right person to be writing this document. That should matter to you even if you disagree with her ideas.

If you are, on the other hand, a Trump supporter you should also be encouraged by her polish. No one could explain the ideas as smoothly or as confidently as she does if they did not understand them. Her elite education and background has not divided her from the best ideas that brought Trump’s team to Washington. Nor, clearly, does she disdain them. She has undertaken to be their advocate at the highest levels. She is a valuable ally in translating those concepts into a working strategy.

The National Security Strategy is only the first part of a long process in realizing a President’s vision. As we all know who have been there, too, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Having a good plan is nevertheless a solid first step. In the coming days the Security Studies Group will be working through the details with you, our readers.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on tribal affairs and information operations over more than a decade. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. He is the author, most recently, of Free Americans: Essays Towards a Rebirth of Liberty. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.