Trump's national security strategy takes a harder line on Russia — with some soft words

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security speech and the White House’s official National Security Strategy document appeared to be on the same page. That is, until it came to Russia.

Some expert observers found a jarring incongruity between the president’s remarks Monday and the 68-page strategy paper released just an hour earlier.

‘Why should the bureaucracy be reading this document when the president speaks so differently?’–  Jim Goldgeier, Council on Foreign Relations

“It reinforces the story that this is like a tale of two administrations,” said Tom Wright, of the Brookings Institution. “There is the bureaucracy and the staff pushing in one direction, and the president has a totally different understanding of the policy.”

The National Security Strategy marked a sharp break from decades of American statecraft that previously prioritized the promotion of democratic values abroad. The president’s “America First” brand of assertive nationalism rejects multilateral partnerships that don’t clearly benefit U.S. interests. 

But in Trump’s 30-minute speech, gone was the unusually tough language Wright saw in the security blueprint that referred to Russia and China as “attempting to erode American security and democracy.” Gone, too, was the reference in the paper to the Kremlin interfering in the U.S. election.

Document is tougher on Russia

On paper, the strategy confronts the Kremlin directly, in statements like: “Actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.”

Reading the document, Jim Goldgeier, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said “you might think Russia is a major challenge” to the U.S. and its allies.

“There’s tough rhetoric on Russia. Tougher than the way the president speaks.”

But in Trump’s speech on Monday, Russia only got a passing mention as a competitor before the president spoke about an aspirational partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin, of whom he has spoken admiringly. Trump related that Putin just this weekend thanked him for a CIA tip that helped foil a terrorist attack in Russia.

Trump makes fleeting mention of Russia and China in speech0:59

Trump suggested last month that he was inclined to believe Putin’s denials about hacking and election tampering.

While Goldgeier found the document to be a sober-minded statement — with the requisite tough talk on Russia, China and a focus on containing the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea — he said the problem is that bureaucrats looking at the document as a policy blueprint are likely left confused by the president’s words.


Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin take part in a photo at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam, last month. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

“The speech didn’t really have much to do with the document at all,” he said. “So why should the bureaucracy be reading this document when the president speaks so differently? How do they know what the priorities of the administration are when the document says one thing and he says something so different?”

At first blush, he said, the content actually aligns with previous Republican administrations’ national security strategies regarding the importance of democracy and the importance of U.S. values and trying to promote them.

‘Extraordinary dissonance’

Tarun Chhabra, a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings, said that while there’s “extraordinary dissonance” between what the document says about competition with Russia versus “the president’s rhetoric about aspiring for a better relationship” with the country, the inconsistencies don’t end there.

A line in the paper specifically condemns “governments that routinely abuse the rights of their citizens.” And yet, Chhabra noted, “you have to reconcile that statement with the president’s reluctance to criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin and Philippines president [Rodrigo] Duterte for human rights abuses in their countries.”


Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte take part in the group ‘ASEAN handshake’ in the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The paper also recognizes that an engaged citizenry and a “free press” make a resilient nation, yet the president has denounced some peaceful protests and attacked the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people.”

‘It’s an open question whether the president has read this 68-page National Security Strategy.’Tarun Chhabra, Brookings Institution

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who left the administration earlier in the year, told Fox News on Monday that the new thinking prioritizes national sovereignty over the kinds of multinational agreements that previous presidents emphasized.

Trump’s document, he said, makes clear that “invading other people’s countries and occupying them, that neoconservative kind of policy, is un-American.”

That’s one area where the document aligns with the president’s stated views, though Chhabra notes that the differences between the president’s statements and official policy have been a source of confusion since the election.

“There’s been a lot of reporting on the president’s reading habits, and, to be fair, it’s an open question whether the president has read this 68-page National Security Strategy,” he said.

“Given the way he tends to make decisions and acts on his own, I don’t know the answer. I’ll just say Russia’s not the only place where there is some dissonance.”

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