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Kissinger’s Fingerprints on the Trump Security Doctrine, 2017


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Those who believe that Donald Trump is witless, a “moron” to quote Rex Tillerson, were proven wrong on December 18 when the President released his National Security Strategy (NSS).  Those who believe that the Deep State operates entirely on its own, without taking any cues from incoming presidents were also proven wrong.

Going through this 68 page document issued in keeping with tradition by each administration at regular intervals, I find very important changes in language from where official America has been operating these past 25 years suggesting that, after all, Henry Kissinger has made a come-back and may well be this president’s mentor on international affairs, as seemed to be the case during the electoral campaign and into the first months following his inauguration, before the removal of Flynn and the running aground of Trump’s foreign policy initiative in March.

In saying that, I am speaking not about the Henry Kissinger who was the implementer of Nixon’s détente with Russia or of Nixon’s great rapprochement with China that led to an informal partnership in managing world affairs of mutual interest. Nor am I speaking about Kissinger Unbound:  the strident exponent of Realism and critic of Idealism who authored the master work Diplomacy in 1994, when there was still no road map to post-Cold War American foreign policy and he hoped pragmatism would finally prevail over ideology, when he hoped that he would return to a position of influence from the decades in the wilderness that began with the Reagan presidency and Neocon ascendancy.


What we have here is the contrite Kissinger who made his peace with the unavoidable political prejudices of our day and made certain that every appeal to national interest was accompanied by due genuflection before the altar of national values, Kissinger, the author of World Order (2015).

 We are told the following at the very first page of the Introduction: “[This] is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology."

Kissinger’s concepts as leading exponent of the Realist School of International  Relations permeate the document. We find here mention of “balance of powers,” a key Realist School term. In the NSS, it is used in matter-of-fact manner, whereas the notion had in the first Obama administration been condemned by Joe Biden, by Hillary Clinton as “passé,” as so very 19th century, an antiquarian object that is inadmissible in our modern age. We were told by our Liberal Interventionists that we are now living in the age of “smart power,” the latest version of “soft power” invented by Harvard professor and Democratic Party thinker Joseph Nye.

 In the NSS, there is the notion that states have always been in competitive relationships, are so today and will be so far into the future: the challenge is to position oneself to win in the competition. 

By the same token, the given text is devoid of all the Cold War vintage legalistic argumentation against Russia or China that Kissinger found so galling and denounced in his memoirs.  The Dulles brothers’ thinking was still going strong under Bush and Obama. But lawyer statesmen are well and truly buried in Trump’s NSS. There is not a word about our competitors violating international law, only about their going against our interests in pursuit of their own interests. 

Equally telling, there is not a word in the NSS document about malicious foreign leaders and their evil regimes. The personalization of politics, the denigration of foreign presidents and prime ministers that has characterized most official American pronouncements on international affairs these past 25 years and prepared the ground for open and covert attempts at regime change – all of that is absent. This is entirely in keeping with the overarching concept of Realism, namely that national interest is in the DNA of nations and not merely the whim of whoever has come to power.

Moreover, when you characterize leaders of other states as evil, when you call Vladimir Putin a "Hitler," as Hillary Clinton did  a number of times during her campaign speeches, then you close the door on negotiations and have entered the antechamber of WWIII.

What we see in the NSS is prioritization and true strategic vision as opposed to ideological cant and ad hoc responses to global developments, or, as one might have expected from Trump, given his reputation for a disorganized mind, some grab-bag of issues to be pursued, starting with the hot ones in his tweets, Iran and North Korea.  No, the stress in the NSS is on competition with two great powers, China and Russia, both described as revisionist, meaning that they want to re-claim their positions of influence at the world’s board of governors at the expense of the sole surviving superpower, the United States.

 This is in itself a wholly new appreciation. With respect to Russia, for example, Obama had foolishly told us it was just a “regional power.”  Putin replied with amused irony: which region? But the point was lost on Washington. Now we find that the United States is engaged in a hot competition with both China and Russia in virtually every corner of the globe.


Fact versus Fake


Over the past 18 months there has been a lot of talk in public space about “fake news” and about lies coming from high places.  The former has been the repeated message of Trump in his attacks on CNN, the BBC and other mainstream media.  The latter has been the push-back from the media and political opposition to Trump. By way of example, to this day a regular feature item in The Washington Post is a fact check on whatever Trump says, or Pinocchio index.

 The refreshing thing about the NSS is that it is fact oriented.  This is in keeping with the tenets of the Realist School of International Relations.

 Russia is very correctly identified as a military threat, first and foremost.

 “Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States…”

 To be sure, the NSS also carries the fake news accusations against Russia for political destabilization of democracies through information and cyber war. This is part of a shared authorship issue which I will mention in a moment.

 China is identified in the NSS as a growing military power with great potential:

 “It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying.”

 But otherwise China’s threat to United States interests is shown primarily in terms of economic aggrandizement and unfair trading practices that do harm to the United States economy. The Chinese economic expansion is noted in all continents.

 The competitive pressure from both China and Russia taken together present a formidable challenge, which is described in almost but not quite value neutral terms:

 “…after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. 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.”

 I would qualify that generalization as correct, and I commend its neutral tone.  Similarly Kissingerian is the description of what our yellow press likes to call “hybrid warfare.” In the NSS that is defined as “operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law.”  Note: “at the edges” not in violation of international law.  Note, too, the follow-on criticism of American policy-makers for having a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time:

“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.”

 This remark comes straight from the Master.  So, too, is the call for sophistication in pursuing the overarching strategy in regional contexts:

 “The United States must tailor our approaches to different regions of the world to protect U.S. national interests. We require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions, and the promise of available opportunities, all in the context of local political, economic, social, and historical realities.”


Those realities can be appreciated only if the relevant area studies are sustained, which ceased to be the case in the United States years ago, when universal values hijacked foreign policy and regional differences were dismissed by the political bosses. 

As for any contradictions in the text, we must remember that Trump is surrounded by officials who are carriers of the world view and prejudices of the preceding 25 years. Partly they are the holdovers whom he could not fire lest the bureaucracy be totally depopulated. Partly they are his own appointees as he sought to fill posts the easy way, without confronting the Senate on each and every appointee. We know that one officer in his National Security Council was responsible for the NSS text, and not all that she wrote was red-penciled. However, the dominant lines of the NSS were clearly written by others, who are close to Trump, and presumably close to his mentor Kissinger. So there are unavoidable wrinkles.




The following pearl says in eloquent, Kissingerian terms what Donald Trump has been saying in his more tongue-tied way ever since he entered the presidential race:

  “We are…realistic and understand that the American way of life cannot be imposed upon others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.”

 The NSS tells us that the United States will stand by the values of its Founding Fathers, will seek to be a beacon of light and hope to the world on behalf of democracy, the initiative and enterprise of citizens and rule of law, but it will not impose its ways on others.  This is what Trump said on the campaign trail, but here the notion is given more specific form. 

 The Neoconservative-Liberal Interventionist claptrap that has had a monopoly position in all International Relations literature and US government documents for the past 25 years is stripped away.  The theses of our post-Cold War secular religion, and in particular the conviction that only democratic countries can live in peace, are almost entirely absent from the NSS. The metrics of democracy promotion have been removed. What remains is the feeble statement that authoritarian countries, countries that do not allow women to participate equally for example, deprive themselves of major sources of economic strength and well-being.


This is not a small matter.  To be sure, over the past 25 years the Neoconservative-Liberal Interventionist claptrap has been wrapped around a core of Realism that promoted not only U.S. ideological preferences but also U.S. hard power and economic interests.  But the claptrap was dangerous because the democratic and free market values, claimed to be universal values, were by definition not amenable to compromise. They were seen as the “End of History,” the ultimate berth of the ship of humankind. This justified the demotion of diplomacy to a weak supportive role for military policy. 

Put in other words, a foreign policy based on universal values can only lead to war. However, when the driving force of foreign policy is precisely national interest, then diplomacy has a chance to thrive. By definition, national interest is subject to compromise based on unsentimental calculation of power equations.


Words count


Analysis of the NSS requires that we pay attention not only to concepts but to vocabulary. The key words in the NSS is “competitor” or “rival,” although we also find in the text the substitute word “adversary.”  “Competitor” is the word applied repeatedly to China and Russia. It is perfect for the purposes of Realist School foreign policy, precisely because it is descriptive, not judgmental, and not emotional.  The text reads: “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict…”

 The word “adversary,” also found in the text, is more troubling, because it is seen by some as a synonym for “enemy,” which in turn has within it the semantic load of “hostile.” These terms are emotive, not descriptive and are not far removed from the “axis of evil” thinking brought into public space by Ronald Reagan and picked up and propagated by George W. Bush.  Happily, in the National Security Strategy “adversary” is not spelled out, not applied to specific countries. 


Unredacted mention of “authoritarian regimes” appears in the NSS here and there. but this donkey tail is also not pinned on specific targets.  The term stands in contradiction with the Realist School’s indifference to the nature of regimes and sensitivity only to raw power. This betrays the obvious fact that this new Security doctrine is the work of at least two agencies:  the National Security Council and unnamed individuals in the circle of the President who had the final say on the text.  Trump could not dispense with staff whom law and custom oblige him to retain but he could overrule them, resulting in the contradictions that appear in many places in this document.


Words and Deeds


As I have indicated in the foregoing, the thinking underpinning policy has changed dramatically in this new Security doctrine compared to the thinking highlighted by the presidential administrations of the past 20 years or so.  However, when we look at the recommendations for implementation, at the priorities, it is also clear that there will be no big changes in day to day US policy because, as I noted, the thinking behind US policy has always had both Realist and Idealist components to it. The question is the balance between the two and which is on the surface.

 For example, with regard to sanctions directed against Russia and the U.S. attempts to isolate and penalize the country especially since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it is clear from this new doctrine that the sanctions may remain in place in perpetuity.  Not because of any violation of international law, as U.S. diplomacy has maintained loudly in every imaginable forum.  But simply because the United States reserves the right to apply these tools against every power which works against its interests, and in particular “to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.”  This matter-of-fact declaration violates directly the entire logic of the WTO and free trade.  But the notion of preventing the formation of local hegemons, whether Russia in its “near abroad” or China in Southeast Asia, has always been a principle of U.S. policy, though rarely in the past 25 years has it been stated so baldly.

 The change in justification from violator of human rights or of the territorial integrity of sovereign states to “acting against US interests” is of very great importance. This removes all justification for other countries to apply sanctions against whomever the United States is punishing except as their own interests are also threatened by the offender.  In the case of the European Union and Russia, national interests speak to the opposite policy – namely for full normalization of relations with Russia.


It is also worth noting that the NSS makes clear that the US policy of fighting Russian energy dominance in Europe going back to the second term of Bill Clinton will continue unabated. But whereas until Trump that card was played by seeking to stymie Russia’s paths to market via gas pipelines, and to bring in gas from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and other non-Russian sources via pipelines that do not cross Russian territory, the new game is to promote America’s own shale gas to displace Russia in its traditional markets.

 “As a growing supplier of energy resources, technologies and services around the world, the United States will help our allies and partners become more resilient against those that use energy to coerce”   - sums up this policy neatly.




Without any question, expanding and upgrading U.S. military forces is seen by the authors of the NSS as one of the key tasks to ensure American security, alongside growing the domestic economy so as to support this burden.  However, the NSS makes an intelligent, almost impassioned argument in favor of “competitive diplomacy.”  And even the platitudes set down here have potential value if they will be implemented with any consistency:

 “Diplomacy sustains dialogue and fosters areas of cooperation with competitors. It reduces the risk of costly miscommunication.”

 Indeed, at a time when lines of communication with Russia built over decades have been severed unilaterally as “punishment” for its alleged transgressions, this is a powerful argument for a re-think in Congress and at Foggy Bottom.

Nonetheless, it bears mention that the NSS speaks of negotiations being carried on "from a position of strength." That phrase also is a long-standing entry in the Kissingerian inventory of concepts.


How has the NSS been seen by commentators inside and outside the United States


Given the contradictory elements in this National Security Strategy, given the obvious contradictions between the many high-minded declarations of principle it contains and the actual words and deeds of the sitting President over the past year, it should come as no surprise that observers within and outside the United States have interpreted the document variously. I will comment on just three of them here.


The Wall Street Journal was cautiously sympathetic to the key role given to economic and trade policies in the new national security strategy. The paper gave a factual account of highlights in the document, starting with its focus on the challenges presented by China and Russia. It attributes oversight of the project to Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and one of his deputies, Nadia Schadlow, whose writings are reflective of the Washington Consensus thinking of the Department of Defense and private research institutions in which she served before joining the NSC.  Who may have actually written the NSS text is a matter about which they do not speculate.


The anti-Trump liberal journal of commentary The Atlantic takes a less generous direction in “Trump’s National Security Strategy is Decidely Non-Trumpian.”  They conclude that the plan “highlights the wide gulf between what the president says and what he does.”   However, that view comes from the attention they direct to the values passages in the NSS such as “The United States rejects bigotry, ignorance, and oppression…etc.”  They insist on Trump’s violation of the principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights, cited in the NSS, by his travel ban and “targeting of Muslim-majority countries.”  This is a fair line of attack, but one which has little relevance to the main contours of the security doctrine as I have delineated them.


The Washington Post calls attention to the hard line on China which, they say, is mentioned 23 times in the doctrine

 In Russia, the new NSS immediately became a lively subject for discussion on the political talk shows, where it was generally viewed with ironic bemusement.  For its part, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a negative commentary, noting that the document’s idea of negotiating “from a position of strength” is a policy line that is not conducive to “constructive partnership on an equal basis for the joint solution of existing problems, but to confrontation.” They go on to say that the United States is “trying to preserve the noticeably weakened American domination in the international arena at any price.”

This official Russian appraisal chooses to overlook Kissinger's long association with the offending phrase. After all, Kissinger is treated with high respect by the Kremlin to this day. But more generally, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ignores the obvious switch in principles guiding U.S. policy from Idealism to Realism, although Russia itself builds its foreign policy primarily on the principles of the Realist School and should be pleased by what now will be a level playing field.  I would therefore characterize the Kremlin’s reaction as mere posturing that will change quickly as opportunities to enter into talks with Washington materialize.


Kissinger for better or worse


Surely some readers of this essay will express dismay that I put a positive value on Kissinger’s having influenced Trump’s security doctrine. Among many sincere, educated, right-thinking Americans, there is the belief that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. His role in conducting the Vietnam War, and in particular events like the ferocious Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972  and the spread of the war into Laos and Cambodia still earlier are not forgotten or forgiven by his detractors to this day.

It is also true that Henry Kissinger has spent the second half of his long life making amends for the misdeeds of the first half.  And in the present day environment, it is reassuring that we have at the side of Donald Trump not only generals known by their sobriquet “Mad Dog” but also a civilian expert with deep experience in statecraft and appreciation of how far you can go in applying pressure to the likes of Russia or China before all hell breaks loose.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

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