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Rebuilding America First

eye on the news

Rebuilding America First

President Trump lays out a strong national security vision, but it is shadowed by decay at home. December 19, 2017
Infrastructure and energy

It says much about the state of America that the fatal train derailment in Tacoma, Washington virtually overshadowed the unveiling of President Donald Trump’s “America First” national security strategy in Washington, D.C. Trump opened his speech with condolences to the families of the three people killed and dozens wounded in the Amtrak crash. “It is all the more reason why we must first start by repairing the infrastructure of the United States,” Trump said, referring to the devastating crash.

Indeed, a “complete rebuilding of America’s infrastructure” is a key ingredient of one of his new strategy’s four pillars—“promoting American prosperity.” As Trump spoke, firefighters in California were battling blazes in Ventura and Santa Barbara. In Atlanta, at the world’s busiest airport, hundreds of stranded passengers were struggling to reschedule flights after a total power outage grounded flights and plunged the airport into darkness for hours. Large sections of Puerto Rico remained without reliable power months after a deadly hurricane. And federal officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to Tacoma to investigate the cause of the crash of the Amtrak train on its inaugural trip.

President Trump’s remarks contained few specifics about how he intends to pay for his total infrastructure rebuilding, or implement his other three national security pillars—protecting the American people and homeland (by building a wall and restricting immigration); preserving peace through strength (by rebuilding the military and constructing a missile defense system); and advancing American influence abroad (through economic growth via creative diplomacy, using “all tools of statecraft”).  But the president’s 55-page national strategy document, at least ten pages longer than President Obama’s 2010 opus, reads in many ways like a document that most of his predecessors could have written.

That came as a relief to foreign policy guru Peter Feaver, among others. “One of the major concerns about President Trump is that he has at times seemed so bent on breaking with establishment precedent that he has failed to appreciate just how much of what has made American great has been the produce of these core establishment ideas and institutions,” wrote Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke and coeditor of Foreign Policy’s “Elephants in the Room” blog.

In some ways, Trump’s speech, and especially the administration’s first strategy document, seem to backpedal from some of his earlier, more abrasive policies and utterances. The policy statement and especially the speech introducing it reflect the Trump foreign policy’s inward, sometimes isolationist focus and the importance it places on projecting power by rebuilding economic strength at home and defending the nation’s physical, intellectual, and cyber property and borders. The document calls Russia and China “rival nations” that “seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth.” While neither Trump’s speech nor his national security plan mentions alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the strategy document accuses Russia of “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.” This criticism was only partially undercut by Trump’s reference to a call that he received Sunday from Russian president Vladimir Putin to thank him for having shared CIA intelligence that Trump said helped Russia foil a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. “That’s a great thing,” the president said, “and the way it’s supposed to work.”

Neither the speech nor the strategy document mentions climate change as a strategic threat or challenge, but unlike Obama’s version, both address the importance of alliances and diplomacy as tools of statecraft to advance American national interests. As part of what Trump called “principled realism,” the speech and the strategy acknowledge “the invaluable advantages that our strong relationships with allies and partners deliver.” This is not what some critics expected from Trump, who criticized allies during the presidential campaign as economic shirkers unwilling to pay their fair share, and long-standing alliances as “outdated.” Both the document and mission statement call Iran and North Korea “rogue nations” that must be aggressively countered. And the president stressess repeatedly his determination to end or renegotiate trade deals that he says have shipped American jobs abroad and undermined the economic standing of the American worker.

The speech and the official policy document also occasionally contradict not only each other, but also Trump’s earlier statements. For instance, while the document salutes the importance of diplomacy in advancing American interests, it seems at odds with the administration’s lack of interest in filling key ambassador and senior policy slots and his proposed 30 percent State Department budget cut. Also of note is the absence of references to “radical Islamic terror.” The term never appears in the document or Trump’s speech. The closest reference is the document’s assertion that America’s effort to defeat “jihadists”—the administration’s preferred new term, one less offensive to American Muslims and regional partners such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia—must include the defeat of “radical Islamist ideology.”

Several students of national strategy statements were struck more by the similarities with previous efforts than by the now-familiar Trumpian departures from foreign policy orthodoxy. Feaver and other analysts attribute this first to the firing of former national security adviser Michael Flynn (who pled guilty weeks ago to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia), a subsequent shakeup in the national security apparatus, and, more recently, to the apparent victory of foreign policy traditionalists (National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) over the foreign policy radicals (Trump advisors led by Steve Bannon, who left the White House in August.)

Of course, President Trump, a man given to swings of view and pronouncement, may not act in accordance with the strategy he has now endorsed. How a Republican president, in particular, will finance the ambitious military and foreign policy agenda that this official national security strategy outlines is another challenge. Consider Trump’s pledge to rebuild completely America’s infrastructure. While the president has spoken of spending a trillion dollars, and proposed $200 billion, for rebuilding America’s bridges, tunnels, ports, roads, and water pipes, the American Society of Civil Engineers in a 2013 report estimated that replacing and repairing substandard infrastructure would cost at least $3.6 trillion. Just replacing water pipes, which suffer some 240,000 breaks a year, would cost $1 trillion, the ASCE estimates. The administration would like to see private-sector partnerships with the public sector to make up the difference, but if infrastructure rebuilding is left entirely up to the government, that would not leave much money for rebuilding the military, ending the sequestration of Pentagon funds that Congress imposed under President Obama, building an air-defense system to counter a potential nuclear attack by North Korea, or the other lofty goals in Trump’s National Security Statement. Even a Republican-majority Congress might well balk at the price of “Making America Great Again.”  

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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