America’s new national defence strategy; what does it mean?

‘The world…is awash in change…Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.’[1] On 19 January, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis confirmed that American strategic attention was shifting.

The attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 established terrorism as the supreme threat to the United States, a threat to the safety of its citizens and the very ideals for which their country stands for. The successes, failures and honesty of President Bush’s foreign policy aside, his doctrine established a clear vision of America’s role in the world. It would stand unilaterally in the pursuit of its defence and made no distinction between the terrorists and nations that harboured them.[2]

The waning presence of Islamic State makes Bush’s vision outdated. The threat of IS is now overshadowed by perhaps a more traditional antagonist; rogue or revisionist nation states seeking to disrupt the global order. Russia and China are the primary nations that now constitute the focus of American defense strategy and for good reason. China represents a significant economic threat to the U.S., particularly through its potential ambition to dethrone the U.S. dollar by pricing Oil in Yuan[3].  Russia’s military prowess has been demonstrated in Ukraine and its Middle East intervention has produced significant gains for the Syrian government. Both nations clearly represent a significant threat to America’s global leadership which explains the U.S. shift in Defense policy, illustrated by Secretary Mattis’s recent remarks.  In a sense, this strategy represents a return to the Cold War model, pitting global superpowers against each other in a deadlocked competition.

President Trump’s National Defense Strategy makes sense and is perhaps a more up-to-date version than previous approaches that fixated upon international terrorism.  But is it inward looking as much as it is outward looking? Trump’s administration has more military commanders in top positions than any since Eisenhower’s[4]and this could illustrate bureaucratic pressure to secure a policy favourable to the military’s budget. Moreover, 2018 mid-term elections are fast approaching and the alleged Russian hacking still overshadows Trump to a greater or lesser extent. Tough talk on Russia could effectively shrug off Republican critics such as Senator McCain and help hold much needed seats in Congress for Trump to secure more legislative achievements such as tax reform. Whatever the motives behind this shift in outlook, President Trump is establishing a foreign policy vision of his own, distinct from Bush and Obama; a vision that recognises the threat to American supremacy abroad and clearly seeks to address this. There will be two things to watch for over the coming months. One, how much of this strategy is implemented and in what form it materialises. Two, how Russia and China respond to America’s policy shift and whether this will affect the dynamic of other areas such as dealing with North Korea.

[1] ‘Remarks by Secretary Mattis on the National Defense Strategy’.  www. Defense.gov https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1420042/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-on-the-national-defense-strategy/ [Accessed 25 January 2018]

[2] Jones, S. ‘Understanding the Bush Doctrine’ www.thoughtco.comhttps://www.thoughtco.com/the-bush-doctrine-3310291 [Accessed 25 January 2018]

[3] Jegarajah, S. ‘China has grand ambitions to dethrone the dollar. It may make a powerful move this year’. www.cnbc.com https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/24/petro-yuan-china-wants-to-dethrone-dollar-rmb-denominated-oil-contracts.html [Accessed 25 January 2018]

[4] Wallace, C. ‘Trump’s generals: President turns to military men for counsel, order’ www.foxnews.com http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/08/08/trumps-generals-president-turns-to-military-men-for-counsel-order.html [Accessed 25 January 2018]

Article by Anthony Hayes

Photograph – The Financial Express

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