The Trump administration, in a series of required national security documents, has signaled a dramatic departure from the Bush and Obama administrations' visions of the U.S. role in the international order.
The National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) describe the United States as coming to terms with an emerging new world order, one fraught with great power competition, populism and terrorism. While there is much room for criticism of these documents, the description of the security environment goes far in recognizing the international order with its rising actors who no longer concede the primacy of the United States. Arguably, it was the Obama administration's unfortunate responsibility to break the news that the United States could no longer arbitrarily do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted.
Required by law, the NSS is prepared by the executive branch for Congress to describe the current and emerging security environment, how that environment affects core U.S. security interests, and how the administration plans to address those concerns.
The 2015 NSS of the Obama administration described a threat environment still heavily focused on terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) but also acknowledged the rising challenges posed by Russia and China. What was most significant in the 2015 NSS was its unwavering assertion that "the question is never whether America should lead, but how it should lead."
The document went on to assert that the United States must lead with purpose, strength, example, capable partners, all instruments of national power, and a long-term perspective. While the current administration's NSS speaks initially about the need for U.S. leadership, it diverts substantively from the unquestioning leadership of and support for the international order envisioned by the Obama and Bush administrations.
President Donald Trump's NSS purportedly follows through on his campaign promise to place America First. In contrast to the repeated theme of leadership in the 2015 NSS, the new NSS's four key pillars are:
• Protect the homeland,
• Promote American prosperity,
• Preserve peace through strength, and
• Advance America's influence.
The administration fully acknowledges that the document reflects a realist view of the international order that stresses competition among individual states, in contrast to a more liberal approach that sees a growing and more integrated world as the natural progression of the international order.
The debate over whether the role of the United States in the international order should be one of pushing for greater integration or a more bilateral, competition-based order is a legitimate one. But, by most accounts, the world of 2018 does not appear to be moving toward greater integration.
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Europe is in the throes of an immigration crisis and all the political instability inherent in the mass migration of people and the changing social dynamics that accompany it. As a member of the Russian Embassy in Washington told me while I was working at the White House, "the United States wants the world to be a melting pot. We just want to stay Russian."
The National Defense Strategy, which follows the overarching guidance of the NSS, should reflect the changing security environment described in the NSS and offer a national-level military strategy to confront it and protect the United states. The new strategy acknowledges the state of affairs in the NSS, confirming the "re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition," but seems to fall back to an overarching military strategy reminiscent of military dominance over adversaries rather than the emerging near-peer competition with China and Russia.
The changing nature of the international order, toward greater competition, does not signal the end of U.S. leadership. What the United States must learn to do is lead in a multipolar world, something arguably more difficult than leading from a position of unquestioned dominance. This is peer leadership and anyone who has had to lead peers will tell you it is more difficult than, say, a military commander's leadership of his or her subordinates.
To lead peers they have to want your leadership. In international relations this is a form of soft power and is the "ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force." However, this type of leadership and persuasion requires leading by example and by some accounts, we are not doing so well.
Jeffrey Edmonds is an expert on Russia and Eurasia. His research focuses on the Russian military, foreign policy, Russian threat perceptions, and Russian information and cyber operations. Most recently, he served as the director for Russia on the National Security Council and acting senior director for Russia during the 2017 presidential transition.