Strengths of the Current National Security Strategy
The 2017 United States National Security Strategy (NSS) “is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.” The 2017 NSS 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 [U.S.] national interests.” The current national security strategy rejects the liberal worldview projected by the Bush administration in 2006 and the Obama administration in 2010. Compared to the 2006 and 2010 NSS, the strengths of the 2017 national security strategy are that it accounts for the goals of other nations in the international system and includes consideration of state-specific cultures into future solutions. The weakness in the current administration’s realist position compared to the previous two national security strategies is that it does not account for the deterrence of non-state actors.
NSS & International Relations Theory
The 2006 NSS claimed that “because democracies are the most responsible members of the international system, promoting democracy is the most effective long-term measure for strengthening international stability; reducing regional conflicts; countering terrorism and terror-supporting extremism; and extending peace and prosperity.” The Bush administration was very clear that the promotion and spread of democracy was a critical component to U.S. national security. The 2010 national security argued that the world was “no longer a zero-sum game” and that “international institutions must more effectively represent the world of the 21st century.” The Obama administration’s description of the international system as no longer a zero-sum completely rejected classical realism and argues for a Kantian international structure. Immanuel Kant contended that “there must be a special sort of league that can be called a league of peace, aiming to make an end to all wars forever, to be distinguished from a treaty of peace which only ends one war.” Kant further argued that:
For relations among states the only reasonable way out of the lawless condition that promises only war is for them to behave like individual men, that is give up their savage (lawless) freedom, get used to the constraints of public law, and in this way establish a continuously growing superstate to which, eventually, all the nations of the world will belong.
Kant’s argument about inclusion of multiple states creating a lasting peace is the foundation of liberalism which is “an analytical approach to international relations in which states function as part of a global society that sets the context for their interactions.” The national security strategies of the Bush and Obama administrations posited that spreading democracy and strengthening international institutions would create peace and security in the international system. The 2017 NSS completely rejects the liberal approach taken by the previous two administrations.
The current national security strategy argues that the current competitive landscape between states in the international system requires “the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” The Trump administration claimed that previous administrations “believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation” but that “for the most part, this premise [global inclusion] turned out to be false.”
The 2017 NSS argues that “a central continuity in history is the contest for power.” James Doughtery and Robert Pfalzgraff claim that “realism ranks as the most important attempt, thus far to isolate and focus on a key variable in political behavior – namely power – and to develop a theory of international relations.” The current national security strategy further says that “we will bring about the better future we seek for our people and the world, by confronting the challenges and dangers posed by those who seek to destabilize the world and threaten America’s people and interests.” The Trump administration’s policy of advancing American power relative to other states means the 2017 NSS not only adopts classical realism, but takes an offensive neorealist approach. Offensive neorealists “hold that that states seek to achieve maximum gains in their power relative to other states to maintain a margin of security” and that the “ultimate example of such a state, for offensive neorealists, is the hegemon, which has little to fear from other states.” Though rooted in realism and neorealism, the current national security strategy also adopts principles of constructivism when addressing how the United States will interact with different states and cultures.
The 2017 NSS says that “we are not going to impose our values on others. Our alliances, partnerships, and coalitions are built on free will and shared interests. When the United States partners with other states, we develop policies that enable us to achieve our goals while our partners achieve theirs.” Furthermore, the 2017 NSS states: “the United States will promote a development model that partners with countries that want progress, consistent with their culture.” Strategy that accounts for the culture and interests of other states accepts, at some level, the constructivist view of international relations (which is not incompatible with other international relations theories). Joseph Nye argues that “constructivists emphasize the importance of ideas and culture in shaping both the reality and the discourse of international politics.”
The current national security strategy accounts for constructivism in conjunction with realism because it espouses the need for strengthening U.S. power while simultaneously acknowledging that the United States must operate with an understanding of the culture and ideas that shape other states in the international system. The 2006 and 2010 NSS do account for culture-consistent development models of other states in the international system. The 2006 NSS said “the democratic revolution has embraced all cultures and all continents” and “the desire for freedom lives in every human heart and the imperative of human dignity transcends all nations and cultures.” The 2010 national security strategy stated: “America will not impose any system of government on another country” but that “Nations that embrace these [universal] values for their citizens are ultimately more successful—and friendly to the United States—than those that do not.” Neither the Bush nor Obama administration included a constructivist perspective regarding relationships in the international system and instead created strategies based on spreading the same values championed by the United States. The 2017 NSS recognizes that values are not necessarily universal which necessitates the United States work towards a more stable international system in which states develop solutions consistent with their respective cultures.
The current national security strategy adopts a realist position, rejects liberalism, and adds an element of constructivism. The adoption of the realist position makes the strategy stronger than that of the previous two administrations regarding its understanding of how the policy and goals of other state actors affect the structure of the international system.
Accounting for the Intentions of other Actors in the International System
Kenneth Waltz, advocate of neorealist structuralist theory, claimed that the key to a state’s survival is “its power in relation to other states.” Furthermore, Waltz argued that “the peace strategy of any one country must depend on the peace or war strategy of all other countries” which “is a reasoned response to the world around us.” The 2017 NSS says:
China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders. The intentions of both nations are not necessarily fixed.
The current national security strategy depends on the peace and war strategy of the other countries with which it is competing. China and Russia are just two examples of how the current national security strategy accounts for the goals of other state actors in the international system. In neorealist structuralist theory, “the structure of a system, notably the number of actors and their respective capabilities, shapes the patterns of interaction that will take place, including the number of states aligned with each other in opposing groupings as part of a balance of power.”
The 2017 NSS shows that the United States accounts for the structure of the international system and aims to understand the peace and war aims of actors within the system to develop its strategy. Neither the 2006 nor 2010 national security strategy discussed the aims of other countries in the international system. For example, the 2006 NSS said the United States wanted to “persuade Russia’s government that democratic progress in Russia in its region benefits the people who live there and improves relationships with us, other western governments, and among themselves.” Furthermore, the 2010 national security strategy stated: “we will support efforts within Russia to promote rule of law, accountable government, and universal values.” Russia is just one example of how the 2017 NSS discusses a state’s objectives and how it impacts U.S. strategy compared to the 2006 and 2010 NSS which focused on finding common ground and pushing competitors towards democracy. Unlike the Trump administration, the Bush and Obama administrations did not account for the peace and war aims of other actors in the international system and instead strived for peace through cooperation. Though it accounts for state’s peace and war aims, the 2017 NSS does not discuss how it will deter non-state actors which was a strength of the national security strategy of the previous two administrations.
Deterring Non-State Actors
The current national security strategy states: “jihadist terrorist organizations present the most dangerous terrorist threat to the Nation” but the strategy does not address deterrence of nonstate actors (jihadist terrorist organizations are nonstate actors). During a section describing how to maintain stable deterrence, the 2017 NSS says:
To avoid miscalculation, the United States will conduct discussions with other states to build predictable relationships and reduce nuclear risks. We will consider new arms control arrangements if they contribute to strategic stability and if they are verifiable. We will not allow adversaries to use threats of nuclear escalation or other irresponsible nuclear behaviors to coerce the United States, our allies, and our partners. Fear of escalation will not prevent the United States from defending our vital interests and those of our allies and partners.
The inherent assumption in the current national security strategy is that the United States can engage in discussions with state actors to maintain stable deterrence. But, if jihadist terrorist organizations are the most dangerous threat to the United States, then how should they be deterred from obtaining nuclear weapons? The 2017 NSS does not address this issue. Deterrence “becomes far more difficult when a network has no fixed address and can move easily and hide and can route its messaging around endangered nodes.” There is major issue in the current national security strategy with labeling jihadist terrorist organizations as the top threat facing the United States but not discussing how they will be deterred. Though not addressed in 2017, the 2006 and 2010 NSS both described ways in which the United States would deter non-state actors.
The 2010 NSS claimed that “nonstate actors can have a dramatic influence on the world around them” and the 2006 national security recognized that “terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized. They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure.” The 2010 national security strategy posited that “both offenses and defenses are necessary to deter state and non-state actors.” Furthermore, the 2010 NSS elaborated on how to prevent and deter attacks from non-state actors “by identifying and interdicting threats, denying hostile actors the ability to operate within our borders, protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure and key resources, and securing cyberspace.” The 2006 NSS also discussed how it would deter non-state actors “through denial of the objectives of their attacks and, if necessary, responding with overwhelming force.” Both the 2006 and 2010 NSS discussed ways in which they would deter non-state actors: deterrence by denial, and deterrence by threat of retaliation. The 2017 NSS identifies jihadist terrorists as the top threat to the U.S., but unlike the previous two administrations does not discuss the ways in which it will deter such a threatening group of non-state actors. Drawing lessons from the 2006 and 2010 NSS, the 2017 national security strategy can expand upon how it plans to deter non-state actors from attacking the United States across multiple domains of warfare.
Recommendation for Improving the 2017 NSS
In a Cold War construct with state actors and nuclear weapons, it is much easier for states to communicate threats with other states. In the current international structure, states can still communicate threats to other state actors. But, there is no guarantee that a state can communicate threats to nonstate actors contemplating malicious activity. If a state does not have the ability to communicate a threat to a potential attacker, then a potential malicious actor will not know the threat exists. If a potential attacker does not know a threat exists, threat-based deterrence is ineffective. No official channels of communication exist between state and nonstate actors. An inability to communicate threats to a potential attacker means that a state must employ other methods of deterrence to ensure an attacker weights the potential gains of an action against the expected risks. Any general deterrence theory based on state-on-state case studies is incomplete because it does not account for nonstate actors. Limited resources coupled with a global operating environment necessitate that the United States identify and prioritize infrastructure critical to its national security. Once identified and prioritized, the United States can focus on denying critical infrastructure to potential nonstate attackers (in multiple domains) thereby canalizing them to other potential targets or forcing them to mount a resource-intensive attack on critical infrastructure through other methods thus increasing their chance of attribution (e.g., espionage).
The current U.S. national security strategy takes a realist approach to international relations. The 2017 NSS argues that “a strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations.” Along with realism, the current national security strategy includes elements of constructivism to ensure the United States accounts for the cultures of other nations in the international system. The strengths of the current national security strategy in comparison to its two predecessors are: the comprehensive understanding of how the United States fits into the structure of the international system and the recognition that developing culture-specific solutions for state actors in the international system is better than forcing systems to conform to U.S. standards and values. The 2017 NSS does not rely on the hope of strong international institutions but recognizes that the actions of other actors in the international system impact the U.S. approach to security. Improvements to the 2017 NSS must be made to clarify how the administration intends to deter nonstate actors across all domains of conflict. The Trump administration can learn from the Bush and Obama administration approaches to deterring non-state actors and include the ways in which the United States will deter by denial and deter by retaliation of threat.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, accessed December 30, 2017, , 1.
 Ibid., 55.
 United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, accessed April 24, 2018, , 3.
 United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, accessed April 23, 2018, , 3.
 Immanuel Kant, Towards Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, retrieved from , 10.
 Ibid., 11
 Joseph Nye Jr., Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (6th Edition) (New York: Pearson Longman, 2001), 288.
 United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 3; United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, 8.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, 3.
 Ibid., 27 and 3.
 Ibid., 25.
 James Doughtery, and Robert Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations: A
Comprehensive Survey (New York: Longman, 2001), 97.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, II.
 James Doughtery, and Robert Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations: A
Comprehensive Survey, 90.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Joseph Nye Jr., Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (6th Edition) (New York: Pearson Longman, 2001), 7.
 United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1 and 3.
 United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, 36 and 35.
 Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1959), 210.
 Ibid., 222 and 238.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, 25.
 James Doughtery, J & Robert Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations: A
Comprehensive Survey, 82.
 United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 39.
 United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, 44.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, 31.
 T.V. Paul, Patrick M. Morgan, & James J. Wirtz, eds., Complex Deterrence: Strategy in the Global Age (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 73.
 United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, 7; United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 9.
 Ibid., 9
 Ibid., 7; United States, and Barrack Obama, National Security Strategy of the United States, 7.
 Ibid., 18
 United States, and George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 22.
 Deterrence by denial described in the previous two national security strategies.
 With attribution increased, deterrence by threat of retaliation then becomes possible.
 United States, and Donald Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1.