Small Wars Journal

Making America Great Again: A Balanced National Security Approach

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 11:47am

Making America Great Again: A Balanced National Security Approach

Daniel H. McCauley

America First. There are many practitioners and academics in the national security community who are patiently awaiting President Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and how his ‘America First’ catchphrase will influence it. There’s no doubt the National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and the National Security Staff are knee-deep in the crafting of the document at this moment. As we impatiently await its release, perhaps a glimpse of what the strategy may contain can be gleaned from some of Trump’s issue papers. To gain a better understanding of the potential implications an ‘America First’ National Security Strategy based upon these papers, two other National Security Strategies provide needed contrast: President Ronald Reagan’s 1988 NSS and President Barack Obama’s 2015 NSS. 

Not since 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, has America’s national security focus encompassed such a domestic perspective. Almost three decades ago, President Reagan’s objective was to guide the nation out of an economic, social, and political depression while restoring America’s prestige internationally. To achieve these goals, Reagan focused on four broad objectives: restoring America’s military strength; restoring the nation’s economic strength while invigorating the world economic system; restoring America’s international prestige; and restoring pride among Americans while promoting individual freedoms intended to undermine communist regimes around the world.[1]

The purpose of a national security strategy is to protect and promote national values, which, in turn, must be developed into tangible national interests and objectives.[2] President Reagan understood that a nation’s power did not solely consist of its military power; but, rather, it was a composite of its economic, political, informational and military power. Although all instruments of power are integrated for maximum affect, it was a nation’s economic vitality that sustained the other elements of national power.

It was through a nation’s economic strength that military strength, public diplomacy, security assistance, development, science and technology, international organizations, diplomacy, and alliances became effective tools for the nation. In the context of the Cold War, President Reagan was committed to reversing a national security approach that relied upon defending the status quo from continuing communist encroachment to one that went on the offensive to challenge communist regimes at home.[3] To carry out this offensive strategy, President Reagan first had to revitalize the U.S. economy and recreate a pride in America and the values for which it stood. Once America was reinvigorated, President Reagan was able to go on the offensive promoting a new international order based upon American values and backed up by American military might. Through this consistent and relevant strategic approach, Reagan was able to achieve dramatic successes at home and abroad by choosing between priorities, embracing the unorthodox, leveraging the power of ideas and communicating them with conviction, and living the values and principles being espoused.[4] Reagan’s National Security Strategy provided a thoughtful balance between the domestic and international policy agendas.

President Barack Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy generally follows a series of national security policies that either neglected the domestic side (G. H. W. Bush, G. W. Bush, Obama) or the international side (Clinton) of national security.[5] On the heels of two major wars and a global economic recession, the 2015 NSS focused on the United States underwriting global security and maintaining international order with the premise that those two elements would facilitate global prosperity and the expansion of human rights and dignity. The combined outcome of these four elements—security, international order, prosperity, and human rights—supported and sustained by U.S. leadership and values, would enable global stability. America’s national security would be enhanced ultimately by global stability and through the benefits of a global prosperity that fueled the U.S. economy.[6]

One of the unrealized outcomes of this strategy, however, was that the U.S. economy did not benefit as much from the global economy as the global economy benefited from the U.S. economy. This imbalance resulted in continual annual deficits that contributed to an ever-increasing national debt exacerbated, in part, by the security umbrella provided by the U.S. to many of its allies and partners over the past several decades. As U.S. national security was addressed almost entirely through an international policy approach, many previously long-neglected domestic demands, such as health care, social security, education, and infrastructure renewal, finally forced their way to the political forefront. President Trump recognized this shortfall in policy and ran his ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign to redress this deficiency.

In an attempt to piece together a potential Trump national security strategy, I’ve reviewed and analyzed the six following current issue papers from the White House’s web page: America First Energy Plan; America First Foreign Policy; Bringing Back Jobs and Growth; Making Military Our Strong Again; Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community; Trade Deals That Work for All Americans.[7] Individually, these issue papers illustrate a concern for the domestic side of national security that has been ignored in previous Administrations’ security approaches. Taken in the aggregate, these papers form a potential approach to national security that is a marked departure from past strategies and will allow competitors and adversaries to potentially dominate the global security environment. Analyzing and assessing each issue and then aggregating them into a whole will provide a glimpse into what a possible Trump National Security Strategy for the United States may look like.

The first issue paper, the America First Energy Plan,[8] seeks to limit international or foreign influence through domestic energy self-sufficiency. By leveraging the vast amounts of U.S. energy resources, to include coal, America’s way of life can be secured, fuel costs for Americans reduced, and agricultural production increased. By tapping into America’s energy resources, U.S. Government revenues can be increased thereby providing the needed resources for rebuilding America’s roads, schools, bridges, and other public infrastructure. To realize the energy plan, current U.S. energy policies, such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S., must be eliminated and replaced by new policies that facilitate the exploitation of America’s energy resources while providing the environmental stewardship necessary for clean air and water, natural habitat preservation, and natural energy reserves preservation.

The second issue paper, the America First Foreign Policy,[9] states that any U.S. foreign policy must serve the specific interests of Americans. A foreign policy that serves the interests of Americans will enhance America’s national security. This foreign policy will be realized through America’s strength and by taking aggressive action around the globe when U.S. interests are threatened. America’s strength will lead to global prosperity and a more peaceful world. A more peaceful world will lead to greater global stability, more common ground among nation states and other actors, and less conflict. Through its strength, America will be respected more thereby increasing global peace and prosperity. The initial priorities for executing this policy are to defeat ISIS, rebuild America’s military, and by embracing diplomacy.          

Bringing Back Jobs and Growth,[10] the third issue paper, focuses on tax reform as the primary method to boost the economy and increase economic growth. Through lower tax rates, a simplified tax code, and decreased corporate taxes, American workers and businesses will realize an increase in available cash and capital creating millions of new jobs. In addition, by creating trade deals that benefit America, good paying jobs buttressed by an increase in the backbone of the U.S. economy, manufacturing, the U.S. economy will be further invigorated.

Making Our Military Strong Again,[11] is the fourth paper. The U.S. military underwrites America’s freedom as it has since the birth of our nation. To have a strong military, the DoD budget must be increased and the threat of sequestration eliminated. A strong military with increased focus on missile defense systems and offensive and defensive cyber capabilities will provide protection for U.S. secrets and systems. A strong military relies upon its military family members who must have the support, medical care, and education necessary to allow military members to be effective. America’s veterans must also have the appropriate care they deserve. Increasing the Defense budget will facilitate increased care, and modernizing the Veteran’s Administration (VA), firing incompetent VA executives, and empowering doctors and nurses will facilitate that care.

The fifth issue paper, Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community,[12] emphasizes the need for Americans to feel safe in their communities. To feel safe, our law enforcement officers must be supported and the Second Amendment must be protected. Safe communities are created by enforcing border laws, eliminating sanctuary cities, and decreasing lawlessness. In addition, the expansion of a border wall with Mexico will decrease drugs, gangs and violence, and illegal immigrants in our communities. All of these efforts will decrease lawlessness and provide safe communities.

The final issue paper, Trade Deals That Work for All Americans,[13] posits that through better international trade agreements, U.S. communities will be revitalized, the U.S. economy will be enhanced, and millions of new jobs created. By eliminating unfair trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and by eliminating Washington insiders who benefit from these trade deals, we can reduce or eliminate our trade deficit and revitalize our manufacturing base.

Looking at these issue papers as a whole, it’s easy to see that President Trump’s focus is almost entirely domestic and ignores much of the international focus that previous administrations emphasized. American values, which have been the foundation of every American national security strategy since Ronald Reagan, are nowhere to be found. As well, underwriting global security, providing global leadership, and alliances and partnerships, all cornerstones of the Obama Administration’s policy, are missing in action. President Trump’s policy, if it can be inferred from these issue papers, relies upon domestic strength, as expressed in a strong U.S. economy and military, and national domestic security, as expressed in jobs, energy security, economic growth, safe cities, and tax reform. The underlying premise of Trump’s approach is that through its economic strength and its willingness to aggressively defeat and destroy terrorist organizations, America will be more respected.  As America is more respected, the world will be more peaceful, and America’s domestic security, which is essentially its national security, will be greatly enhanced.

A world in which the U.S. does not seek to actively shape the strategic environment through the export of American values, however, represents a significant paradigm shift for America and the rest of the world. If no value other than that of protecting the U.S. homeland is promoted, this national security strategy will cede the international initiative to other actors, many of whom seek to change the international system that directly benefits the U.S. today. In fact, Trump’s emphasis on recreating an American manufacturing base that is the backbone of the U.S. economy and seeking to ‘Make America Great Again’ suggests his approach is based predominantly upon a nostalgic desire for an America that existed several decades ago. As history has shown, a purely defensive approach to national security that ignores the other global, trends, factors, and actors within the international security environment is, in the long run, a losing strategy. A strategic approach that seeks a return to the past is folly.

President Reagan’s 1988 National Security Strategy paid heed to both domestic and international components and serves as a great example of an effective, sustainable, comprehensive national security strategy. For the past several decades, research shows that U.S. national security strategies have ignored or neglected either the domestic or international component that ultimately generated undesirable outcomes. The Obama Administration over-emphasized the international component to the detriment of the domestic population. A Trump national security strategy, as is currently outlined in his issue papers, appears to be an overreaction to Obama’s largely international approach. A national security strategy that almost ignores the international component exclusively will have undesirable consequences for the security of the American people. As the new national security strategy is still being crafted, President Trump and his Administration must consider both the domestic demands that provide a the sense of well-being for the American people and the international demands that require the U.S. to actively manage its relative position vis-à-vis the other actors in the global environment. Anything less will undermine the very security it is designed to protect.

End Notes

[1] Martel, William C. (2015). Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice.  The Need for an Effective American Foreign Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[2] National Security Strategy of the United States, The White House, January 1988. Washington, DC. Available on-line at:

[3] Martel, 2015.

[4] Gaddis, John L. (2005). Strategies of Containment, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Martel, 2015.

[6] National Security Strategy, The White House, February 2015, Washington, DC. Available on-line at:

[7] The White House, (2017). Washington, DC. Available on-line at:

[8] America First Energy Plan (2017), The White House, Washington, DC.  Available at:

[9] America First Foreign Policy (2017), The White House, Washington, DC. Available at:

[10] Bringing Back Jobs and Growth (2017), The White House, Washington, DC. Available at:

[11] Making Our Military Strong Again (2017), The White House, Washington, DC. Available at:

[12] Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community (2017), The White House, Washington, DC. Available at:

[13]Trade Deals That Work for All Americans, (2017), The White House, Washington, DC. Available at:


About the Author(s)

Daniel H. McCauley is currently serving as a faculty member with National Defense University’s Joint and Combined Warfighting School (JCWS) in Norfolk, Virginia. In addition to teaching in the classroom, he has served in several course director and curriculum development capacities. Dr. McCauley has served on the military faculty at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and as adjunct faculty for the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College. Dr. McCauley has published numerous articles on topics such as strategic foresight, design, Joint leadership, and Joint professional military education, which are also current research efforts. He currently serves as the Joint Forces Staff College’s Campaigning journal editor. Dr. McCauley is a recognized expert in strategic foresight, design, and strategy, and is a frequent presenter and guest panelist. Dr. McCauley spent 25 years in the United States Air Force flying various aircraft as well as serving in U.S. and NATO staff positions. Dr. McCauley’s email is:


Given that Nadia Schadlow is now the person that appears to be in charge of drafting the United States' new national security strategy for President Trump, might we benefit from her perspective -- her "New Competitive Environment"/"New Cold War" understanding of our world today?

First, from Nov 2012:


A competitive engagement approach is not entirely new: it is rooted in several American diplomatic traditions and approaches (particularly from the Cold War) such as political warfare and strategic communication. The new aspect of competitive engagement is that even absent overt conflict or hostilities it accounts for the fact that contests are taking place at the local level. U.S. civilian agencies must become adept at defining our political objectives, identifying obstacles and opportunities that either obstruct or accelerate progress toward achieving those objectives, and then take action to overcome obstacles and exploit opportunities. This new mindset would acknowledge that America’s “softer” objectives are shaped by competitions. The playing field is not, and has never been, neutral. America has tremendous, innate advantages in its political, economic and cultural instruments of power. But just as the military consistently hones its skills and constantly seeks to improve its instruments, so too must we improve our ability to use America’s non-military power, smartly.


(Google: Small Wars Journal -- "Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America's Influence" by Nadia Schadlow -- and look for the PDF document.)

Next, from Jan 2017:


Russia’s cyber attacks should be teaching Americans something that those situated in the orbits of China, Iran, and Russia have long known: There are serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance. These extend beyond military battlefields and are a fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural. Is the United States finally ready to compete?

President Donald Trump understands that America’s competitive spirit is one of the country’s strongest features. It is time for the new administration to inject that culture of competition into America’s diplomatic and development agencies.

Competitiveness is inherent in the way that military and intelligence agencies think and act, but it is virtually absent in most other government organizations. Typically, those organizations focus on administering systems, running programs, and maintaining relationships as ends in themselves. Yet in virtually every theater of the world, local and regional competitions over ideas, economic systems, and societies affect America’s ability to protect and advance its interests. The new team has an opportunity to ensure that agencies focused on external actors have the operational concepts and drive to contest determined and capable adversaries.


Thus to suggest that (a) in President Trump's new Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director of National Security's eyes (thus, in Nadia Schadlow's eyes) at least, (b) "Making America Great Again" means making America competitive again as to the attractiveness and appeal of our ideas, our political, economic, social and value systems, our culture, etc.

(All or some of which were seriously neglected/were thought to be unnecessary to actively and aggressively promote and pursue; this, in the heady days of "universal western values,""the overwhelming appeal of our way of life and governance" and "the end of history" thinking. To wit: the -- erroneous -- "non-competitive"/"competition is no longer needed" thinking which emerged -- and came to shape our national security policies and approaches -- after the end of the Old Cold War?)

Bottom Line Thought/Question:

As in the Old Cold War, and in this New Cold War also, the "battlefield" upon which our great nation and small and state and non-state opponents operate; this is the battlefield/the arena of ideas -- and associated political, economic, social, cultural and value institutions and norms.

Thus, in this familiar battlefield/in this familiar arena, we cannot continue to be complacent (continue to be criminally negligent?), etc., by (a) continuing to simply rest on our laurels and by (b) continuing to pretend that serious competition does not, in fact, exist.

Thus, re: "Making American Great Again," it is exactly this such non-competitiveness/this exact such criminal negligence -- re: failing to actively and aggressively promote our way of life, our way of governance, our values, etc. -- that our new national security strategy must address/must get after. Yes?

J Harlan

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 8:51pm

Making America Great Again! Great campaign line but total nonsense in reality. The US never stopped being great. What's changed - from 1989- is that China has caught up a bit while Russia/ USSR has fallen back. The overall balance sheet is still in the US's favour by a lot.

Could the US be improved? Sure. Less debt. Less military adventurism. A professional media. Fewer government supported or enabled rackets like the war on drugs, the welfare state and higher education. Draconian punishments for white collar crime....

Trump's presidency will have no effect on America's place in the world. In 2020 it'll still have the largest economy. The dominant culture. The most powerful military. IS will be largely rounded up and the entire national security apparatus will find another "existential threat" to fret about. Nothing will change on the international scene. Domestically appointing SCOTUS judges is what the game is really about. There might be big shifts there.