U.S. Defence Strategy: Changed Priority

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Last week, the Pentagon released an 11-page document – a synthesis of a much bigger document in its classified version – on the U.S. defence strategy. It is the second document of the triad that will make the Trump administration’s orientation in what concerns grand national strategy clear and visible: the first – National Security Strategy – was published last month and reveals the emphasis on maintaining the U.S.’s systemic leadership grounded on economic superiority; the second is this one, which concerns the defence strategy; and the third, which will be released soon, concerns the country’s military strategy.

According to this new document concerning the national defence strategy, the Trump administration is shifting the main strategic priority from combating the terrorist threat, which had held the top place since September 11, 2001, to the competition between the great powers, outlining the role of competitor played by China, mainly, and Russia. According to an official, “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” another official position being that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term strategic competition,” particularly represented by China and Russia. In the words of another Pentagon official: “central challenge facing the department of defense and the joint force [is] the erosion of U.S. military advantage vis a vis China and Russia.” According to the document, China has a plan which seeks “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future.”

Thus, China is defined as the main competitor seeking to replace the U.S. at the helm of the international system of states. In what concerns the relations between the two states, the strategy emphasises that the U.S.’s long-term objective is “to set the military partnership between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.” In what concerns Russia, the American defence strategy is just as explicit: “Russia seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic, and diplomatic decisions, to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favour.”

The U.S. defence strategy is very clear about the target sought by the two great powers mentioned as competitors, and points out that they seek to weaken the international order systemically established after the Second World War, defined as built by the U.S. and its allies and partners “to better safeguard their liberty and people from aggression and coercion.” The document outlines that China and Russia “are now undermining the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles and ‘rules of the road.’” Likewise, mentioned among the “revisionist powers” of the international order whose defence is the stated main goal of the U.S. defence strategy are: North Korea – which “seeks to guarantee regime survival and increased leverage by seeking a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons and a growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan,and the United States”; Iran – which is “competing with its neighbors, asserting an arc of influence and instability while vying for regional hegemony, using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a growing network of proxies, and its missile program to achieve its objectives.”

In contrast to the National Security Strategy published last month in Washington, the current defence strategy is more explicit and calls things as they are. While the former document outlined that the main security objectives pursued are to “protect the American people, the homeland and the American way of life”, “promote American prosperity”, “preserve peace through strength” and “advance American influence”, the second is far more direct and explicit, even in its declassified and simplified form. The threats that the Pentagon takes into account are directly named and prioritised, the competitor to systemic hegemony is named without hesitation, so are its partners, and the ways to counteract it are also detailed. In other words, the “strategic context” in which the U.S. must act in line with the mentioned strategic goals is outlined, the objective of building a “more lethal force” and of strengthening alliances and attracting new partners is proposed, and so is considering a reform of the Defence Department in order to optimise its performance. A comparison between the two documents may create the appearance of a major difference between them. In a tweet posted on Janury 19, after the release of the U.S. defence strategy, former Swedish Premier Carl Bildt made the following observation, which should nevertheless be taken into account: “New US Defense Strategy worried by ‘challenges to the free and open international order’ and ‘the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations.’ Fine, but the White House Security strategy sounded very different. The Potomac seems wide.”

In our opinion, the upcoming publication, even in a shortened form, of the third document of the triad mentioned at the start of this article – the military strategy devised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff – will bring supplementary clarifications. In this context, one can also notice the conceptual differences between the U.S. security and defence orientations and the ones devised in Europe, and thus evaluate the current state of the transatlantic link, whose sturdiness is the basis of the current international order established at the end of the Second World War.