The NSS is a major milestone, and a standard against which all of Washington's actions now can be measured
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
My latest article analyzing the National Security Strategy document which Donald Trump presented to the public on 18 December was republished a day later in Russia Insider, where it attracted a considerable audience of more than 3,700 and also generated questions and criticisms, none more challenging than the 4 words from one reader: “Is this a satire?”
That blunt, even insulting comment on the essay raised a red flag even if it lacked any substance to which I might reply. Substance was later provided in direct offline discussion with other readers who took issue with my high regard for words (NSS) that are in flagrant contradiction with actions (Trump’s first year in office).
After all, these critics say, where do we see Realism in what the U.S. government has actually done on Trump’s watch ever since his inauguration in January? As proof of the irrelevancy of the texts published as the new NSS, these critics introduce such misdeeds as the recent decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine thereby crossing Russian red lines and risking a wider war in the region, the 7 April cruise missile attack on the Sheirat airbase in Syria explained by unproven allegations of use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, the significant enlargement of the list of Russians under sanction of the Magnitsky Act and the replacement this past summer of economic sanctions against Russia based on presidential order and so revocable at will by sanctions embedded in federal law and so revocable only by act of Congress.
The same critics of my essay point to the shrill attacks on Russia by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which in no way differ from what her predecessor Samantha Power of the Barack Obama administration was saying. Meanwhile, in civil society and the U.S. media, the loathing for Russia and for anyone seen as an apologist for Vladimir Putin has reached an hysterical pitch during the time Trump has been in office not seen since the worst days of the McCarthyite witch hunt for Communist subversives said to be serving the interests of Moscow.
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Dismissing the relevance of words means dismissing the potency of ideas in general. In our given case, it means dismissing the distinction between the Idealism that has guided U.S. foreign policy for the past 25 years and Realism, the philosophy underpinning the new NSS. Ultimately it is challenging the added value of intellectuals to public policy. For these reasons, I am duty bound to respond point for point to these legitimate and weighty criticisms.
First, with respect to Trump’s record in office, it must be emphasized that much of the specifically anti-Russian rhetoric and actions these past 10 months was imposed on him by Congress and the federal bureaucracy as a straight-jacket, to ensure that he could not implement the policy of accommodation with Russia that he had promised during the electoral campaign. And the outstanding exception to the foregoing, his Tomahawk attack in Syria, surely had behind it calculations and actors far more substantial than what was explained in the media, namely that it came as a response to photos of civilian victims of chemical gassing in Idlib province that Ivanka showed her father. It is more than likely that this attack took a page from the “mad President” scenario that Henry Kissinger once wrote for Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War to keep critics at bay and unnerve enemies. Indeed, the jackals that had been circling Trump in the weeks before the attack on Sheirat, pressing for his impeachment now backed off and gave him several weeks of respite during which he had a small victory on Capitol Hill in his bid to recall and replace Obamacare.
The observation that Liberals and Progressives have fanned anti-Russian hysteria during the Trump presidency, whereas they might have favored dialogue with Russia had Hillary won, takes us into a very peculiar logic, in effect blaming Trump for ever having been born. That the Left has taken leave of its senses is the responsibility of the Left, not of Mr. Trump. In fact, the McCarthyism we are witnessing is nothing more than a progression and public display of anti-intellectual, anti-democratic tendencies inherent in Political Correctness of all stripes.
Moreover, any censorious trend operating in the US public space today is a development within civil society and not in relations between civil society and the state. That in itself is a very important change which one person, and one person alone brought about: Donald Trump.
My point in writing my article on the NSS was not to make Trump look like a genius. However smart or stupid Trump may be, I think few of his detractors will deny his courage. The man stood up to the entire U.S. political establishment, to nearly all of the electronic and print media and said what none of his rivals wanted to hear: that he saw nothing wrong in trying to achieve good relations with the world’s other nuclear superpower, Russia.
The consequence of Trump’s saying the impossible aloud and repeatedly from the start of his campaign in early 2016 has been to give courage to academics and publishers in the domain of International Relations and so to change the nature of discourse on security issues in public space.
When I mention our newfound freedom of speech, I judge by what happened in the profession of International Relations and political science from December 2015, i.e. from before the Trump phenomenon to what is going on now. I take as my marker Johnson's Russia List a daily digest of news and commentary about Russia which is hosted by George Washington University and is distributed to all university centers and think tanks which have an interest in such matters. In December 2015, JRL was just a propaganda sheet in which only the Washington Narrative was being printed. That was not due to the editorial views of its management. It was because there was no other material coming into their in-basket. By contrast, JRL today is very diverse, a carrier of intellectually challenging babble from many points of view. That is a vast change from conformity to diversity. This means, for example, that students of international politics coming up through many American universities today may well be exposed to something resembling higher education and not just the advanced kindergarten which these institutions had become.
Now, having said that, I do not mean that we have anything resembling a level playing field and the degree of open public discussion of security issues in the high venues that attract mainstream media attention that we need to have if our actions in the world are to become civilized. The money changers are still occupying the temple. And in particular, the most elite and prestigious institutions like Harvard and Columbia, the founding institutions of Russian area studies going back to 1949, are probably among the worst offenders in terms of stifling non-conformist thinking. I know from personal experience of being refused space and time to address students at both schools. Their Russian and international studies programs and faculty have to be leveled and start over afresh. But clearly other institutions are letting their experts have their say even if it is non-conformist, and journals are publishing them. For that we must be grateful to Donald, whatever we may think of him and his political agenda otherwise.
The way has been cleared for honest differences of opinion and real discussion as opposed to shouting matches and closed minds. The Idealist mindset that has dominated the Establishment has promoted ad hominem argumentation rather than interaction with ideas and proposals. It has focused on enemies who maliciously seek to subvert our democratic institutions. For anyone who doubts my word, the 14 page article “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs co-authored by Joe Biden sets out precisely what I mean. Anyone challenging Biden’s views on Russia is by definition complicit in Moscow’s subversion, in other words a subversive himself. There is no need to deal with issues. We deal only with people who are willing or unintended “dupes.”
Now, on the question of day to day U.S. foreign policy in the days and weeks to come. Yes, indeed no big changes will necessarily come as a result of the NSS. I mentioned that in my article. But, the new doctrine steers away from the Hillary-Biden course, which led straight to war.
I also mentioned in my article on the NSS that nations rather than personalities and regimes are front and center. This is all to the good. When you call Putin a "Hitler," as Hillary Clinton did repeatedly, you have made it impossible to do business with him and you are in the antechamber of WWIII.
That dangerous language is all gone, stricken from the NSS document. Instead we are competitors with Russia, as we are with the rest of the world. We are not mortal enemies. This has to be celebrated.
So far, so good. But does Realism, as opposed to Idealism, on its own usher in a golden age of peace-making? Not at all. The actual content of a Realist foreign policy depends on its implementers.
Can we expect Donald Trump, his entourage, or Kissinger to compete fairly with Russia and other key nations? Maybe yes, maybe no. Kissinger, for one, very often was a knee to the groin guy during his time in power. And there is little reason to expect Donald Trump to behave differently on the world stage given his comportment in his presidential campaign. Proof positive of this likelihood was provided in the days immediately following the roll-out of the NSS when we saw massive attempts at bullying the entire international community in preparation for the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In the end, American efforts failed miserably and the United States found itself isolated.
The new language is far more honest and transparent that what it replaced. It blows away the smoke screen of humanitarian concerns, democracy and universal values and exposes to the scrutiny of friends and foes the motives of the US as actor on the world stage, its ugly selfishness and cynicism. This is not cuddly. But it is sobering and essential if we are to be cured of our hubris and move forward.
This transparency may finally cure our European friends and allies of their illusions about Uncle Sam’s solicitude for their welfare as it prepares to bully them into buying its overpriced LNG, or contributing ever more funds to support NATO escapades. If so, the NSS language will have done a world of good.
For all of these reasons, I maintain that the NSS is a major milestone, and a standard against which all of Washington's actions now can be measured.
© 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 www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg