Image The Trump Doctrine: Flexible Engagement Under Unbalanced Multipolarity [Image: Lima Charlie News]
The Trump Doctrine: Flexible Engagement Under Unbalanced Multipolarity [Image: Lima Charlie News]

The Trump Doctrine: Flexible Engagement Under Unbalanced Multipolarity

January 3, 2018
21 mins read

One of the privileges of writing for Lima Charlie News is that as veterans we are given the opportunity to write about matters without fear of editorial tyranny. Sometimes, we agree with each other. Sometimes we don’t. In the end, so long as our thoughtful disagreements don’t devolve into ad hominem attacks, our respect for each other remains intact.

What follows is a different take on the nature and implications of the Trump administration’s recently revealed National Security Strategy (NSS),[1] than that provided by my esteemed colleagues.

Introduction – The Trump Doctrine

The NSS 2017 provides an overarching view of the Trump Doctrine. It will inevitably be interpreted by the never-Trump camp as something other than good policy. Concomitantly, there is ample fodder for the president’s supporters to counter the strategy’s detractors.

In what follows, I first pose a question about the nature of placing America first. Then, I dispel a couple of common myths, along with what I consider to be a misguided application in critiquing the NSS. Next, I consider the changing global power landscape, while drawing on others’ analyses of past doctrines to tease out the similarities and differences among them, with respect to this latest iteration. Finally, I offer some concluding remarks with an eye toward the NSS’s implications in the near-future.

Does an “America First” Doctrine Intimate Malign Primacy?

When a superpower makes it clear that the interests of their own people shall be their “true North Star,” it tends to ruffle a few feathers.

America First. Is such a policy inherently indicative of a negative world view, deserving of scorn and the (mis)attribution of antagonistic tendencies? I argue it isn’t.

To begin with, every leader of every country must prioritize their nation’s interests. This is the norm, not a departure from it. Simply removing the qualifying noun, America, and replacing it with that of any nation-state (e.g., China First, Russia First, etc.), should make it clear that self-regarding behavior is not only normal, but rational.

All states pursue their national self-interest, which sometimes coincides or conflicts with one’s enemies and friends. This has been known as far back as the Peloponnesian War,[2] although the zero-sum nature of such older iterations of pure realism resulted in the complete subjugation or eradication of whole peoples. As we have come some distance since then, a more modern consideration of realpolitik takes into account that there can be areas in which positive sum outcomes are possible, even though they are not always probable.

As an enduring feature of international relations, the recent NSS espouses such core realist assumptions.[3] Indeed, throughout its fifty-five pages of text,[4] one can easily see that a healthy respect for fair competition buttresses the Trump Doctrine’s logic.

Sometimes, by expressing the prioritization of one’s own interests, other states (and people) are led to the conclusion that such sentiments evince a selfish quality that automatically conflicts with the interests (or well-being) of other states. Occasionally this is true, as all states (and people) can’t hold identical interests all the time. However, such a knee-jerk reaction is tantamount to instinct overtaking deliberation, which adversely impacts thoughtfully detached analysis. It also reflects an unwarranted, but understandable, disdain for what amounts to another actor’s rational goal maximizing proclivities.

This is unwarranted, because it elides truthful self-reflection. If one were being honest, they might admit this is precisely the course they should take, even if they fail to do so. It is also understandable, because humans tend to view others’ gains as somehow raising their own costs, despite the possibility that their assumption may (often) be wrong.

The typical adverse reaction to another state’s explication of objectives that limit the inclusion of others is to assume it represents malign exclusivity. That sort of thinking is unnecessarily self-serving and unrealistic. Despite its use as a coping mechanism, it is also a basis for the construction of accusatory language that depicts the rational self-maximizer as ill-disposed toward others.

States, like individual actors in the marketplace, can pursue their own ends, while simultaneously enhancing the prospect of achieving shared goals.[5] Nonetheless, when a superpower makes it clear that the interests of their own people shall be their “true North Star,”[6] it tends to ruffle a few feathers. Reactions can be harsh, but they can also be misguided.

To that end, I turn now to an exposition of two myths that seem to be inappropriately proffered by critics and the facts that undermine their alleged truthful qualities.

Myth One: America is Returning to Isolationism

Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world, where information and commerce flow freely.

-NSS 2017, p. 7

Calling one’s political opponent an “isolationist” has been a standard practice at least since the FDR presidency.[7] Historically, while it seems popular to refer to the vast majority of America’s initial existence as “isolationist,” it is only accurate insofar as one considers long-term military alliances with major powers. As Robert Kagan notes, “Tokugawa Japan and Ming China were isolationist,”[8] not the U.S. Our isolation, if one existed, was premised on the sentiment that military alliances with major European powers was unwise, given the distance between the continents and the costly history of European power-balancing. Indeed, this sentiment was best encapsulated by George Washington’s cautionary farewell address.[9]

During the 19th Century, when it became necessary to engage foreign adversaries with force abroad, the U.S. did so; albeit with varying results. Two examples, were the use of force to protect commercial interests against the Barbary Pirates (a clear success), and its use against the British, which led to the (literal) conflagration that became known as the War of 1812 (a near-disaster turned success).[10]

During the 20th Century, when the threat of a hostile entity dominating the Eurasian landmass appeared likely, the U.S. entered the fray on distant battlefields (twice).[11] This geopolitical logic produced the conditions under which a global re-configuration of power gave rise to an eventual bipolar stability[12] (more on this later).

Aside from military engagements, the U.S. was always engaged on a commercial level with foreign powers (big, medium and small). Trade was essential both to the vitality of a nascent state and the superpower it would become.[13] In non-military terms, trade was a currency that helped to attain, maintain, or retain relative power. The NSS 2017 not only discusses increasing American exports, but expanding trade and “oppos[ing] closed mercantilist trading blocks [sic].”[14] Indeed, inculcating fairness with regard to trade (and other economic relations) is a central theme of the Trump Doctrine’s re-balancing aims.

If one were to make the case that isolationism was afoot,[15] they would have to do so despite the oft-repeated terms “allies” and “partners,” which received extraordinary attention throughout the document. Indeed, there were forty-two instances in which the combined terms “allies and partners” appeared. That’s an average of nearly once per page. Additionally, on eight occasions, the document referred to “like-minded” “states,” “partners,” and “nations.”

The NSS is not even remotely “isolationist” by any sensible understanding of the term.

Myth Two: Competition is Equivalent to Acrimony

Maintaining a relationship with both China and Russia doesn’t necessarily mean that a binary choice between animosity and endearment are required.

One of my colleagues, noted “the strategy shows how the U.S. rejects emerging competitors by highlighting Russia and China as revisionist powers.”[16] I’d like to clarify a conceptual distinction, so as to disabuse my readers of the relationship between seemingly commingled ideas.

For the record, the new NSS doesn’t use the terms “emerging competitors.” Competition is not new, so attaching the participle “emerging” is misleading, which is why the NSS doesn’t do that. Regional powers have been competing with the U.S. (and each other) for quite some time, as noted throughout the NSS and this author’s analysis. The NSS only once discusses “revisionist powers” in reference to China and Russia. Indeed, the reference is accurate in the context of states that would like to “revise” the status quo.[17]

Others have stated that a Trump official describing the NSS claimed it “… refers to China as a strategic competitor.”[18] Although “strategic competitor” appears only once in the NSS, and not in direct reference to China, it would be an accurate depiction, unworthy of opprobrium. Thus, drawing attention to this patent fact serves little purpose, other than to attempt to denigrate what seems unpalatable.

Maintaining a relationship with both China and Russia doesn’t necessarily mean that a binary choice between animosity and endearment are required. Rather, a little straight talk and the public airing of grievances could go a long way toward delineating where the lines are for each state. Witness the somewhat cooperative relationship we’ve had with Russia in defeating the Islamic State hybrid regional terrorist army. We each had a shared interest, for different reasons and with different prevailing victors in mind, in seeing to IS’s destruction.[19]

Tempting Comparisons: Reagan Redux or Neocon Norm-setting?

The NSS 2017 is somewhat Reaganesque to the degree that the notion of promoting American principles, grounded in democracy, is essential to shaping the future of the world in ways that reflect American values. Many presidents since Reagan have said similar things.

When the NSS states “A layered missile defense system will defend our homeland against missile attacks,”[20] one might say that it is reminiscent of both Reagan’s Star Wars and Bush’s Strategic Defense Initiative programs for a missile shield. The next sentence has a little more Bush-like quality, however, when it states, “… we will pursue threats to their source, so that Jihadist terrorists are stopped before they ever reach our borders.”[21] The most obvious Reaganism is the core “peace through strength” pillar.

It might become a popular narrative to claim that the latest NSS is imbued with a familiar neoconservative hue. I’m not so certain it is there. After all, “principled realism,” as President Trump describes the strategy, has more in common with Charles Krauthammer’s depiction of “democratic realism,” which is “…often lazily and invidiously called neoconservatism…”[22] Yet what separates Trump’s strategy from that of George W. Bush is that transporting democracy to countries that seem unable to water its seeds isn’t touted as the prescription for American success.

Addressing the (Im)Balance of Power through a National Security Strategy

By manipulating the balance of power through a variety of means, rival states have operated below the traditional raw-power threshold.

Throughout the NSS 2017, one can see the recognition that rival powers have been working to adjust the balance of power in their favor, at America’s expense. They have been slowly chipping away[23] at the status quo, in favor of a revision that suits their security needs. Much of this is being done on a regional basis.

Sometimes, rising powers such as China and Russia have acted in more conventional ways, via raw power displays used in expansionist shows of force.[24] Other times, and perhaps more frequently, they have sought to revise the status quo in less conventional ways. In short, by manipulating the balance of power through a variety of means,[25] rival states have operated below the traditional raw-power threshold.[26] The NSS not only calls attention to this reality, but it addresses the need to re-balance power in ways that counter our rivals’ overt, as well as surreptitious, balancing behavior.

What a National Security Strategy is meant to do is to combine the president’s worldview, ensconced in a doctrinal formula, with propositions on how to link a variety of means to desired policy ends. The durability of the Cold War “containment”[27] consensus rested firmly on the stasis of the threat milieu. Bipolar nuclear deterrence worked, because the resultant condition of mutually assured destruction was grounded in rational mirror-imaging.[28] Under conditions of a nuclear triad (land, air and sea), each superpower could credibly convey its ability to deliver a devastating second-strike.[29] Therefore, a first-strike was thought to be “subrationally unthinkable.”[30]

Following the Cold War, for about a decade, many struggled with the essence of an American foreign policy that had no longer faced an existential threat from the Eastern Bloc (Warsaw Pact).[31] During the 1991 – 2001 “interregnum,”[32] given what amounted to a power vacuum in the former Soviet sphere, aggressors like Saddam Hussein[33] and terrorists like Osama bin Laden[34] sought to capitalize on this uncertainty. America’s enemies, as well as a few of her friends, resented[35] what amounted to a “unipolar moment.”[36] Such was the inheritance of the George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton presidencies.

By September 11th, 2001, it became clear that the legacy of Cold War containment could not be aptly applied to every emerging threat.[37] Some scholars, however, argued that, at least in the case of Iraq, containment through deterrence could have worked.[38]

In light of the uncertainty posed by terrorism and rogue actors whose WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) could not be fully accounted for, the George W. Bush Doctrine reluctantly emerged. It was called the “War on Terror,” but its essence was predicated on preventive war.[39] As Bush pointed out, for all of the previous focus on superpowers coming to terminal blows with nuclear weapons, the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 did so at “much less than the cost of a single tank.”[40]

During the Obama years, it seemed the doctrine was one that considered the past exercise of American power to have been wielded imprudently.[41] Indeed, the Obama Doctrine, derived in large part from like-minded liberal academics, had as its organizing principle a multilateral institutionalist (collectivist) theme. Designed as a means to repent for American power,[42] it was more like “self-containment,” or “constrainment.”[43]

To parry the (accurate) depiction of President Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy, some tried to absolve him by pointing to his shift from “multilateral retrenchment” to “counterpunching.”[44] President Obama shunned the notion of “American exceptionalism,”[45] although when Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed an identical sentiment in a New York Times Op-Ed,[46] Obama decided to don the “American exceptionalism” garb.[47]

Conclusion: Re-Calibrating American Priorities in the Trump Era

President Trump’s “Make America Great Again”[48] campaign slogan flows smoothly into an “America First” doctrine. His long litany of complaints before the election are coherently laid out in the NSS.

For instance, the NSS calls out Pakistan specifically for having played both sides in the war against Jihadists, while it establishes a clear tilt toward India.[49] Overall, it is a sober assessment of reality, even though the utterance of truth may sometimes harm others’ senses.

Some will be deeply offended by what is not said; what is not prioritized. For instance, dropping “climate change” from the calculus shouldn’t be so offensive, unless of course one subscribes to the left-leaning collectivist idea that we can band together to stop allegedly anthropomorphic misdeeds, while conveniently setting aside the fact that the science isn’t quite settled. When the Obama administration incorporated “climate change” into the national security apparatus, he effectively stamped it with a degree of legitimacy for its centrality among the many competing threats the U.S. faces. The Trump administration merely removed this erroneous placement and relegated it to its proper, and more balanced, position among energy considerations.[50]

International relations and foreign policy theorists have been debating the proper manner in which to convey the distribution of power among the major powers since the end of the Cold War. As was mentioned, some subscribed to the notion that bipolarity yielded to unipolarity, as there was only one remaining superpower: the U.S.

Others, however, have argued that given the rise of major powers such as China and Russia, the configuration is more similar to multipolarity,[51] or even nonpolarity.[52] I argue that what we really see is an unbalanced multipolarity. It is unbalanced for the simple reason that the U.S. still maintains a degree of primacy, but it is multipolar in the sense that other rising major powers are able to leverage aspiring regional hegemons (e.g. Iran) in an effort to diminish at least some features of America’s superpower position.[53]

It seems reasonable for people to debate whether the U.S. is engaging or retrenching. Yet it looks to me like we are bound for not selective engagement, but flexible engagement. That is to say that where agreements can be reached with friends and adversaries (each of which might be competitors under certain conditions), the Trump administration will consider the range of possibilities. However, no matter the degree of conflict or cooperation that might ensue, it seems the first and last question will always be: are we putting America first?

David Firester, Lima Charlie News

David Firester is the founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence, LLC. He is also a combat veteran, who held three Military Occupational Specialties in the U.S. Army and has served in a variety of domestic law enforcement roles. He holds advanced degrees in political science and serves as an adjunct instructor at Baruch College in New York City. Contact David by Email |

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

For up-to-date news, please follow us on twitter at @LimaCharlieNews

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[1] Hereinafter, I will refer to the recent National Security Strategy as NSS 2017.

[2] Although many strains of realist thought in international relations make this point quite clear, there are a few which stand out. See one of the many translated versions, in this case Rex Warner’s. Thucydides – A History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books, 1972. Among regularly cited older works is Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Antonio Blado d’Asola, 1532 and Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651. A more modern work, depicting the competitive nature of states and classical realist thought are Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The struggle for power and peace. Alfred Kopf, 1948. For the European balance-of-power dynamics of the 19th & 20th Centuries see Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. Simon and Schuster, 1994. The dominant, (structural) neo-realist paradigm owes its lineage to Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Kenneth N. Waltz, 1979.

[3] NSS 2017; pp. 1-2, 26 & 55.

[4] Note that the document consists of 68 total pages, which includes a header page, an introduction, a table of contents, a number of empty section-break pages (fifteen to be exact) and a “notes” section at the end. Although there are fifty-five numbered pages within, there are actually only forty-nine pages on which policy is laid out.

[5] Here, I draw partly on the following: Smith, Adam. “An inquiry into the wealth of nations.” Strahan and Cadell, London (1776).

[6] NSS 2017; p.2.

[7] See May, Ernest R. “Who Are We?” Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994.

[8] See Kagan, Robert. “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What our Tired Country Still Owes the World.” The New Republic, May 26, 2014; the quote was drawn from the online edition’s page 3.

[9] He noted the commercial nature of the republic and warned against establishing “permanent alliances,” although he clarified that temporary ones might be required for “extraordinary emergencies.” See Washington, George. “Farewell Address.” Accessible online through Yale University’s Avalon Project at

[10] For an overview of each of these episodes, see Herring, George C. From colony to superpower: US foreign relations since 1776. Oxford University Press, 2008. Specifically, see pp. 97 – 101 and 125 – 133.

[11] See Hook, Steven W., and John Spanier. American foreign policy since World War II. CQ Press, 2015; 17th Edition: pp. 1-22.

[12] At least one scholar has argued that bipolarity is less stable than multipolarity. See Copeland, Dale C. “Neorealism and the Myth of Bipolar Stability: Toward a New Dynamic Realist Theory of Major War.” Security Studies 5 (spring 1996): 29-89.

[13] For an account of American commercial engagement and a few minor military skirmishes throughout pre-WWI history see Mead, Russell Walter. “The American Foreign Policy Legacy.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002, Vol. 81, No. 1: 163-176.

[14] See NSS 2017, p. 19.

[15] My colleague John Sjoholm has done so in his recent piece, “President Trump’s National Security Strategy- The New Cold War.” Lima Charlie News, December 22, 2017. Accessible online at

[16] See Castleberry, Asha. “What We Can Expect from Trump’s National Security Strategy?” Lima Charlie News, December 23, 2017; accessible online at

[17] For a distinction between revisionist and status quo states see Glaser, Charles L. Rational theory of international politics: the logic of competition and cooperation. Princeton University Press, 2010.

[18] See Malloy, Allie. “New Security Strategy to Call China ‘strategic competitor,’ Lay out Strategic Aims.” CNN, December 18, 2017; accessible online at

[19] I had previously analyzed this subject a year ago. See Firester, David. “The Challenge of Looking Beyond the Islamic State: Trump’s Foreign Policy Inheritance.” Security Forum. December 21, 2016. Accessible online at

[20] NSS 2017; p. 4.

[21] Ibid. Also see p. 7 in which the NSS states, “We must also deter, disrupt, and defeat potential threats before they reach the United States.” In specific reference to Jihadist threats, on p. 11, the NSS states, “… we will act against sanctuaries and prevent their reemergence, before they can threaten the homeland.”

[22] Krauthammer, Charles. “Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World.” 2004 Irving Kristol Lecture AEI Dinner, February 10, 2004. The concept of “democratic realism” is also referred to as “democratic globalism,” or “liberal realism” elsewhere.

[23] In arguing against retrenchment, due to a number of elements that serve to reduce American power, “The rise of China is chipping away at that United States’ preponderance of power…” See Brooks, Stephen G., John G. Ikenberry and William C. Wohlforth. “Lean Forward.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013, Vol. 92, Issue 1. In that very same issue of Foreign Affairs, Barry Posen issued his call for restraint through off-shore balancing in “Pull Back.”

[24] China has continued to build bases in an effort to extend its own sphere of influence, commensurate with what it sees as its rightful backyard. Russia has regained portions of its former buffer zone in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as advocating for an outcome to the Syrian civil war that bodes well for its strategic vision. For a consideration of China’s regional hegemonic aspirations, in the context of a “modified defensive realist” paradigm, see Layne, Christopher. “The Influence of Theory on Grand Strategy: The United States and a Rising China.” In Annette Freyberg-Inana, Ewan Harrison and Patrick James, eds., Rethinking realism in International Relations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[25] Here I’m talking about somewhat unconventional power balancing in areas such as trade, monetary policy, cyber warfare, intellectual property theft, or the assumption of large portions of foreign debt. Indeed, the NSS makes mention of many of these means on pp. 19 & 21.

[26] At least one scholar has delineated two ways in which a state can balance. Either they can do so through coalition formation, or internal mobilization. See Posen, Barry, The Sources of Military Doctrine (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984): p. 61 distinguishes these two forms of balancing.

[27] For what amounts to the seminal work on the need for such a grand strategy, see Kennan, George F. (“X”). “The Soviet Sources of Conduct.” Foreign Affairs. 25, July 1947.

[28] This is not to say that the wisest approach to one’s adversary is to assume that they think in the same way. They may not, but the assumption seems to have worked for some time. See Wolf, Charles, Jr. “Extended Containment” in Wildavsky, Aaron editor, Beyond Containment: Alternative American Policies Toward the Soviet Union. Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1983: 147-168.

[29] For a discussion of the mutual second-strike capability and its implications see Jervis, Rober. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); especially the first chapter and particularly pp. 14-15.

[30] This phrase was used by those who predicted the end of major power war in general, and is attributed to Mueller, John E. Retreat from doomsday: The obsolescence of major war. Vol. 21. New York: Basic Books, 1989.

[31] For the many debates see Spiegel, Steven L. and David J. Pervin eds. At Issue: Politics in the World Arena. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994, 7th Edition) and Wittkopf, Eugene R. and Christopher M. Jones eds. The Future of American Foreign Policy. (New York: St. Martin’s/Worth Publishers, 1999).

[32] See Bertram, Christoph. “What Comes after the ‘Post-Cold War.’” Foreign Policy, Summer 2000; pp. 44-46 addresses the less than useful concept of an interregnum.

[33] Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf conflict, 1990-1991: Diplomacy and war in the new world order. Princeton University Press, 1995.

[34] Wright, Lawrence. The looming tower: Al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated, 2006.

[35] This point was made in retrospect by Kagan, Robert. “The September 12 Paradigm: America, the World, and George W. Bush.” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008. He reiterated his point more forcefully four years later in “Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline.” The New Republic, January 11, 2012.

[36] Krauthammer, Charles. “The unipolar moment.” Foreign affairs 70.1 (1990): 23-33.

[37] Lieber, Robert F. “The Folly of Containment.” Commentary, April 2003: 15-21. Also see Gaddis, John Lewis. “The Legacy of George Kennan in the Age of Terrorism after Containment.” The New Republic, April 25, 2005.

[38] See Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen M. Walt. “Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes.” Foreign Policy Bulletin 14.1 (2003): 219-224. I must express that I find Mearsheimer and Walt to be less than persuasive, particularly because they misattributed Saddam’s nuclear aspirations to have been geared toward deterring the U.S. when he was actually seeking to convince Iran that he had a nuclear capacity. Saddam’s strategic blunder was that in working so hard to fool Iran, he actually fooled most intelligence services around the world into believing that he had such a program. Arguing in a similar fashion to Mearsheimer and Walt, but from a defensive realist tradition, is Jervis, Robert. L. “The Confrontation between Iraq and the US: Implications for the Theory and Practice of Deterrence.” European Journal of International Relations, 2003, Vol. 9(2): 315-337. Jervis himself notes in fn. 3 that most believed Iraq to have had WMDs for some time.

[39] Toppling the regime in Iraq was, contrary to popular opinion, consistent with previous administrations’ sentiments, even if it not acted upon in reality. See Leffler, Melvyn P. “9/11 in Retrospect.” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011, Vol. 90, Issue 5. One point to distinguish here is that preventive war is different than preemptive war in the sense that in the case of the former a stronger actor attacks a weaker actor before it reaches power parity. In the latter case, a weaker actor attacks a stronger actor, so as to overcome its own relative disadvantageous power disparity. In terms of the Bush Doctrine being more preventive than preemptive see Jervis, Robert. “The Remaking of a Unipolar World.” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2006: 7-19. He makes the distinction on p. 9.

[40] He noted this in his speech to graduating cadets at West Point in June, 2002. These precise words appeared in the NSS 2002 that his administration laid out three months later.

[41] Indeed, prior to his election to the presidency, Mr. Obama spoke of Amerca’s “bullying” nature and the need to exercise “humility.” Obama, Barack. “Renewing American leadership.” Foreign Affairs (2007): 2-16. His article was also laced with fanciful notions that the key to peace in the Middle East was resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attributing terrorism to poverty and a lack of “dignity and opportunity.” To wit, the murder of Jews by Arabs long-preceded the birth of a Jewish State, before any “Palestinian” identity was contrived by the Arabs. Anyone looking at long history of political Islam must be honest in noting that violence in that part of the world has little to do with Israel. In terms of the false connection between poor economic conditions and terrorism, see Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. “Education, poverty and terrorism: Is there a causal connection?.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 17.4 (2003): 119-144. Nonetheless, Obama surrogates continued to promote the false connection, which stands in stark contrast to the reality that more than half of the world experiences serious poverty, but only in certain communities is terrorism prominent (and most terrorists are not poor). See the pro-Obama “dignity promotion” narrative on full display in Ackerman, Spencer. “The Obama Doctrine.” The American Prospect (March 24, 2008).

[42] Even an author analyzing Obama in a left-leaning, high-brow, magazine noted that “…Obama came of age politically during the post-Cold War era, a time when America’s unmatched power created widespread resentment.” See Lizza, Ryan. “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy.” The New Yorker. May 2, 2011. The core of liberal ideology, to which Obama subscribes, is a disdain for the powerful (real or imagined, malign or benign) and a constant drive to find “underdogs” whose cause is believed to automatically be just. See Prell, Michael. Underdogma: How America’s enemies use our love for the underdog to trash American power. BenBella Books, Inc., 2011.

[43] Feith, Douglas J., and Seth Cropsey. “The Obama doctrine defined.” Commentary 132.1 (2011): 11-18. This quote was drawn from p. 3.

[44] Drezner, Daniel W. “Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy?” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2011, Vol. 90, Issue 4.

[45] For a criticism of the Obama Doctrine and its implications for the emboldening of America’s rivals, see Krauthammer, Charles. “Decline is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy.” The Weekly Standard, October 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 5. Indeed, if one pays close attention to the NSS 2017, Krauthammer’s words appear extraordinarily relevant.

[46] Putin, Vladimir. “A Plea for Caution from Russia.” The New York Times, September 11, 2013.

[47] Obama, Barack H. “Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly.” The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, September 24, 2013, accessible online at

[48] For the record, the slogan was used first by President Ronald Reagan in 1980. One can easily look up some of the campaign paraphernalia online for evidence. A short clip of Reagan’s statement can be seen here:

[49] See NSS 2017, p. 50. For a pre-9/11 look at Pakistan’s double-dealing (particularly the Inter-Service Intelligence branch) and how it facilitated the rise of the neo-Deobandi Wahabi Taliban, see Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press, 2001.

[50] NSS 2017; p. 22.

[51] See Layne, Christopher. “This Time It’s Real: The End of Unipolarity and the Pax Americana.” International Studies Quarterly 56.1 (2012): 203-213.

[52] For a consideration of non-state actors pulling at the power distribution, see Haass, Richard N. “The Age of Nonpolarity.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008, Vol. 87, Issue 3. Although I understand why his argument flows naturally from a sense of American decline, an argument offered many times since the end of the Cold War, I find his characterization of a nonpolar world to be incorrect. Namely, my criticism centers on his underplaying the role of rival actors. He states, “… no great-power rival or set of rivals has emerged to challenge the United States.” I feel he was wrong when he wrote that and is even more so since his assertion was made. However, I do agree with his later statement that “It is easier than ever before for individuals and groups to accumulate and project substantial power.” For so-called Third World powers, the choice for balancing might be more akin to “omini-balancing.” See David, Steven. “Explaining Third World Alignment,” World Politics 43 (1991), pp.233-256.

[53] I am not alone in this assessment by far. For a simple summary of my main argument (in under two pages) see “Rise of the Regional Hegemons.” The Wall Street Journal, Opinion | Review and Outlook, May 25, 2015.

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