COMMENTARY: „America First” – the new US National Security Strategy

COMMENTARY: „America First” – the new US National Security Strategy

December 29, 2017

On December 18th 2017 President Donald Trump unveiled the new National Security Strategy of the United States. The Strategy emphasized the threats and challenges stemming from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Although the document declares primacy of US interests, it also stresses the necessity of cooperation with America’s allies.

What is a National Security Strategy?

The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 obligated the executive branch to periodically deliver a National Security Strategy (NSS) to the US Congress. It is one of the most important documents, which presents threats and challenges to US security and necessary remedial actions to eliminate them or reduce their impact.

While the importance of particular Strategies varied under different administrations, some had a significant influence on US foreign policy. For example, the document created in September 2002 formulated the “Bush doctrine”, reserving US the right to launch a pre-emptive attack, and forming the basis for 2003 Iraqi invasion[i]. Under the Obama Administration two National Security Strategies were presented – in 2010 and 2015[ii].

Main Threats

Trump administration’s Strategy of 2017 starts with an analysis of the threats. Special emphasis is put on states such as the Russian Federation, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The document states: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity (…) At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people”. The Strategy also mentions terrorism and international crime groups as other main threats to the security of the US.

The document undermines the previously held assumption, that engaging potential rivals through international organizations and global trade can turn them into partners. This is a clear reference to the policy of the previous Administration towards e.g. China, which the US hoped to turn into a „responsible stakeholder”. According to the authors of the new Strategy, China is seeking to take the place currently held by the United States in Indo-Pacific region, popularize a centrally-controlled economy model and reshape the region according to own preferences. Russia, on the other hand, is attempting to regain its superpower status, and re-establish a sphere of influence along its borders. In turn Iran supports international terrorism and develops ballistic technologies, while North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction threaten the US and its allies.  The NSS also mentions the development of anti-access area denial systems and hybrid tactics by adversaries.

Four pillars of the US security

The new Strategy, puts the US interests in front of others and is based on four pillars: responsibility to protect the American people, the homeland and the American way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence.

The framework of the first pillar foresees completion of other tasks: Securing US Borders and Territory (Defend Against Weapons of Mass Destruction, Combat Biothreats and Pandemics, Strengthen Border Control and Immigration Policy), and Pursuing­ threats to­ their Source (Defeat Jihadist Terrorists, Dismantle Transnational Criminal Organizations), Keeping America Safe in the Cyber Era and Promoting American Resilience.

The second pillar encompasses the following tasks: Rejuvenating the Domestic Economy; Promoting Free, Fair, and Reciprocal Economic Relationships; Leading in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation; and Embracing Energy Dominance.

The third pillar, focuses on military issues: Renewing America’s Competitive Advantages; Renewing Capabilities (Military, Defense Industrial Base, Nuclear Forces, Space, Cyberspace, Intelligence); Diplomacy and Statecraft (Competitive Diplomacy, Tools of Economic Diplomacy, Information Statecraft).

Finally, the fourth pillar, which touches upon US values, emphasises elements such as Encouraging Aspiring Partners, Achieving Better Outcomes in Multilateral Forums and Championing American Values.

Next part of the Strategy refers to US policy approaches in particular regions of the world. In the Indo-Pacific, the US faces increasingly assertive China the North Korea and will need to focus on cooperation with allies like South Korea, Japan and Australia. The document also mentions cooperation with states like India, including quadrennial format (the US, Japan and Australia, India), New Zealand and the Southeast Asia states. The NSS also confirms US commitment to protecting the freedom of navigation in the region, which is a direct hint at the Chinese claims to the South China Sea. In Europe, where “Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments” the United States is to remain committed to its obligation towards NATO, including Article 5th of The North Atlantic Treaty. Concurrently, it will be expecting the European allies to share more of the burden of protecting the Old Continent (e.g. increase of defence spending by the NATO European members). In the Middle East the US wants to introduce stability, continues cooperation with Iraq and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Other important, covered regions include Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Venezuela.

International reactions

As one could expect, the Russian Federation responded to the Strategy with most criticism. As Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs put in a communique, the document is “confrontational” and “based on a vision that depicts the world from a position of strength”. “This document reveals the ambition to preserve at any cost the much weakened US dominance on the international stage (…) Washington clearly does not want our countries [Russia, China] to become major powers, fearing to lose the dominant status it once enjoyed”  communique stated. China presented a slightly softer position. As the China MFA spokesperson said: „As two major countries, it is not surprising for China and the United States to have some disagreements (…) We urge the US side to stop deliberately distorting China’s strategic intentions, and abandon such outdated concepts as the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game”.


The new National Security Strategy refers to several of the postulates formulated by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, such as border protection (including building a wall on the US southern border), combating unfair trade practices and a tax reform.  The Strategy, drawing from Political Realism, is based on the assumption that central continuity in history is the contest for power and emphasized primacy of national interest. This assertion is far from obvious in the current US political discourse. The Strategy of 2017 is much more accurate in pointing out the main threats than the previous documents created under the Obama Administration. nowadays, according to authors of the document, revisionist powers – China, Russia – and rouge states like North Korea and Iran want to undermine the US power. The Strategy seems to announce a more assertive US attitude to these states as well as US allies (e.g. in the context of trade agreements and defence spending). Nevertheless – what is important in the context of Poland – the document clearly states the necessity of fulfilling of the US international commitments.

Author: Tomasz Smura, the Head of the Research Office at Casimir Pulaski Foundation


[i] J. Kiwerska, Strategia Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego USA, „Biuletyn Instytutu Zachodniego” nr 40, 2010.

[ii] Zob. A. Quinn, Obama’s National Security Strategy Predicting US Policy in the Context of Changing Worldviews, Chatham House, January 2015.