BY EDWARD J. BARSS, MONTE R. BULLARD AND JUDITH NORTON | IN-DEPTH PIECE
We are China specialists. We support the America First National Security Strategy (AFNSS), but in this case, we offer a constructive critique of the document. Our review of the strategy was to identify America’s view of China so we could adjust our examination of China policy and, most importantly, the potential for conflict with China. Unfortunately, the AFNSS didn’t offer us much help.
All italicized texts are exact quotes from the AFNSS 2017.
In the NSS 2017, The several mentions of China do indicate that the writers of the AFNSS document consider China to be averse to American interests. But whether it is because they view China as a competitor or threat is unclear. Further, their overall stance is muddled by the incorrect or inconsistent use of terms such as balance of power, confusion of ideology for principled realism, the mismatch of ‘threats’ with solutions, and a lack of clear examples.
IDEOLOGY OR OUTCOMES?
“This strategy is guided by principled realism. It 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 national interests. It is principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity around the globe. We are guided by our values and disciplined by our interests.”
The first paragraph of the introduction states: “It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.” However, when it comes to guidance by outcomes it is hard to find any description of the outcomes caused by China that are offensive to the United States. One example of an outcome provided is that of China’s theft of IP diminishes overall U.S. competitiveness, but this issue has been a point of tension in U.S.-China relations for decades. Despite the very thin evidence, China is still set up as the principle threat based on “outcomes”.
The reality is most of the document is couched in ideological terms. Specifically, there is a clear inclusion of two ideological notions throughout the entire document: socialism and authoritarianism. For example:
“China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
The description appears to be based on the U.S.’s opposition to both socialism and authoritarianism. This shows that the U.S.’s threat perception is based on ideology and not outcomes. It further indicates that the document is not value neutral but grounded in ideological terms. Moreover, it unquestionably indicates that China – which practices both socialism and authoritarianism – should be set up as the principle threat to the U.S. based on “ideology” and not outcomes.
A little farther down in the document we find another example: “Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy.” Once again evidence emerges that the document is based more on ideological threat perceptions than on outcomes. This yet again clearly shows that the primary driver guiding the national security strategy is ideology. The authors seemingly perceive that the main threat to the U.S. is posed by China (and Russia) and in particular represents a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism and capitalism and socialism. To be fair national security documents are inherently ideological because they selectively securitize concepts. However, the inability to keep a consistent stance by confusing ‘principled realism,’ as defined in the document, with ideology, shows a compelling lack of vision, consistency, and creates a vague frame of reference. A fault which can confuse allies, appear threatening to enemies, and undermine policy making efforts.
Adding to the ambiguity of the document, we find paragraphs such as this:
“In addition, many actors have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict—challenging the United States, our allies, and our partners with hostile actions cloaked in deniability. Our task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and in combination with other elements of national power, is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security.”
We assume that in this paragraph “many actors” include China, but we are unsure what the “hostile actions cloaked in deniability” are, as it does not provide any examples. This may be intentional so as to not be overly provocative, but the lack of any evidence still undermines their broad sweeping assertion. Regardless, this paragraph does provide insight into the direction of the document’s authors.
One of the most interesting comments in the AFNSS, has to do with a reaction to the North Korean missile launches. In the section on “Secure U.S. Borders and Territory”, the authors indicate that “enhanced missile defense” is one of the administration’s “priority actions”. Specifically:
“This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch. Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.”
The authors apparently accept a status of relatively stable “deterrence” with Russia and China, which is a part of classic Balance of Power theory. On the other hand, the authors also begin to recognize the changes in the calculus of strategic confrontation as a result of technological advances and again identify China and Russia as threats more than competitors. For instance:
“China and Russia are developing advanced weapons and capabilities that could threaten our critical infrastructure and our command and control architecture.”
But the new threat descriptions still seem ideological rather than based upon outcomes. For example:
“Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data.”
The AFNSS makes clear what they consider to be the greatest threats to America and suggests the basis for identifying threats is ideological, underscoring threats as part of “political contests”.
“Three main sets of challengers—the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups—are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners. Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor. These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.”
It is an example of another paragraph supporting the notion that “China as a threat” is based upon vague ideological beliefs without directly linking it to outcomes. We are not so sure of the idea that China has “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others”. The writers need to support that statement. In our view, the accusation that China’s increasing influence reduces the sovereignty of other states is not supported by any factual data or academic discussion.
“China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans. Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens. Both China and Russia support the dictatorship in Venezuela and are seeking to expand military linkages and arms sales across the region.”
“China is expanding its economic and military presence in Africa, growing from a small investor in the continent two decades ago into Africa’s largest trading partner today. Some Chinese practices undermine Africa’s long-term development by corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries, and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.”
“We will offer American goods and services, both because it is proﬁtable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent.”
“The National Security Strategy celebrates and protects what we hold dear—individual liberty, the rule of law, a democratic system of government, tolerance, and opportunity for all.”
The discussion of China’s modernization efforts and strategic moves clearly conflates activities that are normal international economic policies with policies that could be a strategic threat. The attempt to show China as a strategic military threat is very weak and not supported with “outcomes.” However the question whether the hegemon in South East Asia or the South China Sea should be China or the United States is worth debating.
“Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free ﬂow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific. States throughout the region are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.”
“We will work with partners to build a network of states dedicated to free markets and protected from forces that would subvert their sovereignty”
The last few sentences of concern again conflate China’s international economic activity with aggressive behavior that is deserving of a “strategic response.”
“China is gaining a strategic foothold in Europe by expanding its unfair trade practices and investing in key industries, sensitive technologies, and infrastructure.”
“We will work with our partners to contest China’s unfair trade and economic practices and restrict its acquisition of sensitive technologies.”
“United States can promote stability and a balance of power that favors U.S. interests.”
Apparently the AFNSS assumes that an American military presence in the region can counteract China as a threat even though the actions of concern are economic, informational, etc.
“We will retain the necessary American military presence in the region to protect the United States and our allies from terrorist attacks and preserve a favorable regional balance of power.
We will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.”
This is a clear example of mismatch between the identification of threats with the controls needed to mitigate against them. This seems to be a consistent refrain through the document where there is clear acknowledgement of the wide spectrum of activity which is threatening, but a lack of nuance in identifying solutions to resolve those threats.
BALANCE OF POWER?
The AFNSS uses the notion of balance of power, but the discussion is shallow and shows no understanding of the rationale for balance of power in strategic relationships. For example:
“Changes in a regional balance of power can have global consequences and threaten U.S. interests.”
“China and Russia aspire to project power worldwide, but they interact most with their neighbors.”
“The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Sustaining favorable balances of power will require a strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners because allies and partners magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. inﬂuence. They share our interests and responsibility for resisting authoritarian trends, contesting radical ideologies, and deterring aggression.”
If we only examine the sentence “Rival powers were aggressively undermining American interests around the globe” in paragraph 3 of the President’s cover letter, we find that we cannot identify what constitutes “undermining American interests,” what is healthy competition, and to what degree does that activity require an active response. This is a serious shortcoming in a document aimed at outlining national security concerns and how to deal with them.
The next to the last paragraph in the cover letter mentions that, “we will promote a balance of power that favors American interests.” That is the essence of the “America First National Security Strategy.” But, it is unclear how power can be in balance if it favors one side or the other. The document mentions “balance of power” four more times, and it is clear that the use of the term is not that which is used in traditional analyses of security strategies; the classic theory of Balance of Power in international relations literature. Rather it appears to be defined as power distribution, which can be substituted for the phrase balance of power at any point in the document. But this paragraph does indicate the direction of the document’s authors. Subsequently they assert that:
“The United States must preserve our lead in research and technology and protect our economy from competitors who unfairly acquire our intellectual property.”
We understand this concept because as we mention earlier the U.S. has been fighting with China over the theft of intellectual property for more than forty years. But here it is unclear whether the U.S. sees China as a principle economic threat or a fierce economic competitor.
The next point made is:
“We will compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.”
This sentence is also nebulous. In today’s interdependent world, it is unclear how the U.S. can be a dominant power and, more crucially, how do we define power? It is not expressed if the authors are talking about traditional military power, like the classic Morgenthau or Kissinger Balance of Power theory discusses (largely referring to nuclear power), or whether we must now consider all the new economic and technological means of competition… cyber power, information and data management, control of banking systems, etc. Further, given that the whole of the document is concerned with preventing the establishment of a world order antithetical to U.S. values, this sentence does indicate that the authors perceive the U.S. but no other power can dominate the regions of the world.
In a subsequent paragraph, the authors state that the U.S. perceives China as a potential military threat that poses challenges to not only the U.S.’s economic and national security interests but also its preponderant position in the international system. Specifically the authors say:
“China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.”
Two of the most confusing paragraphs in trying to identify whether China is a threat or a competitor are:
“They are unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict. They employ sophisticated political, economic, and military campaigns that combine discrete actions. They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond. Such actions are calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the United States. And as these incremental gains are realized, over time, a new status quo emerges.”
“The United States must prepare for this type of competition. China, Russia, and other state and non-state actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either “at peace” or “at war,” when it is actually an arena of continuous competition. Our adversaries will not ﬁght us on our terms. We will raise our competitive game to meet that challenge, to protect American interests, and to advance our values.”
We are unclear what it means to “fight us on our terms.” The phrase confuses the idea of competition versus threat and presents a muddled message. Does it mean the exclusion of economic, political, informational, cyber and other forms of warfare as opposed to a nuclear war? Is the U.S. adopting the same approach as its adversaries in order to ‘raise the U.S.’s competitive game’, ‘protect U.S. national interests’ or ‘advance U.S. values’? Furthermore, they assert that they will ‘raise [their] competitive game’ suggesting adherence to a model of ‘continuous competition’ rather than a non-binary one. However, they fail to adequately define different levels of competition and threat in a clear way undermining this statement. But there is some insight about their assertions in the next three sentences under scrutiny:
“Overmatch strengthens our diplomacy and permits us to shape the international environment to protect our interests.”
“This “democratization of space” has an impact on military operations and on America’s ability to prevail in conflict.”
“Malicious state and non-state actors use cyberattacks for extortion, information warfare, disinformation, and more.”
The authors go on to begin to recognize the new normal… the new nature of warfare between states. They highlight the importance of information warfare and that includes much more discussion based on ideology without the type of nuances the authors’ demand of themselves. For instance:
"America’s competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from out-side information. They exploit marketing techniques to target individuals based upon their activities, interest’s opinions, and values. They disseminate misinformation and propaganda."
"Risks to U.S. national security will grow as competitors integrate information derived from personal and commercial sources with intelligence collection and data analytic capabilities based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning."
"China, for example, combines data and the use of AI to rate the loyalty of its citizens to the state and uses these ratings to determine jobs and more.”
“U.S. efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and fragmented. State and non-state actors project influence and advance their objectives by exploiting information, democratic media freedoms, and international institutions.”
The authors also recognize the salience of economic warfare. That foreign investment, banking and other forms of financial institutions play a critical role:
“Today, the United States must compete for positive relationships around the world. China and Russia target their investments in the developing world to expand inﬂuence and gain competitive advantages against the United States. China is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure across the globe. Russia, too, projects its influence economically, through the control of key energy and other infra-structure throughout parts of Europe and Central Asia. The United States provides an alternative to state-directed investments, which often leave developing countries worse off."
“The United States will promote a development model that partners with countries that want progress, consistent with their culture, based on free market principles, fair and reciprocal trade, private sector activity, and rule of law.”
This last idea of promoting a development model is where the U.S. and China begin to clash seriously. The Chinese now believe they present a better modernization model for developing country than the Western industrial models. The writer’s attempt to show how the American investment model is better than models like China is pretty weak.
“American-led investments represent the most sustainable and responsible approach to development and offer a stark contrast to the corrupt, opaque, exploitive, and low-quality deals offered by authoritarian states.”
“In contrast, governments that routinely abuse the rights of their citizens do not play constructive roles in the world.”
It is difficult to reach the conclusion that our strategy, guided by principled realism, can in any way identify China as a strategic threat. It is, however, likely that China can become, as it desires, a new model for modernizing countries in Africa, the Middle East, as well as Central and Latin America, which could seriously undermine U.S. national interests around the world.
The AFNSS 2018 tends to fall short of providing a clear national security strategy that can produce effective foreign policies that bolster U.S. national interests and values, particularly in East Asia. The document provides no description of “outcomes”. In a strange twist, it seems to confuse the reality that the administration’s “strategy of principled realism” is guided by ideology, not outcomes. Its discussion on China offers negligible evidence on the “China as a threat” but still sets up China as the primary threat to the U.S. national interests. It is confused about whether China is a fierce competitor or a significant threat to U.S. national interests and values. The balance of power appears to be the essence of the “America First National Security Strategy”, but its application at times seems to be muddled, particularly as it attempts to address the issue of deterrence and China and Russia, as well as the emergence of new threats from technological advances and information statecraft.
Citation: Barss, Edward J., Monte R. Bullard and Judith Norton "The America First National Security Strategy: A Constructive Critique." East Asia Peace and Security Initiative. January 2018.
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