Speaking at the launch of Policy Exchange’s new Anglo-American project in Washington DC last week, the US National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster offered a preview of some of the key concepts underscoring the new US National Security Strategy (NSS), launched on Monday 18th December. He was joined on the platform by his British counterpart, the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, Mark Sedwill CMG, who is currently leading the UK’s own national security capability review. It was the first time the two holders of these positions have spoken together in a public forum. In his remarks, McMaster outlined the changing strategic priorities of the United States which are likely to have a significant bearing on British thinking on national security in years to come.
Assessments of the state of US-UK relations are often reduced to ambient mood music, anecdote, or matters of personality. The unpredictable approach of President Trump, seen in his use of Twitter and lack of interest in established diplomatic protocols, has made maintenance of a close relationship between Number 10 and the White House no easy task. But the Prime Minister must set these difficulties in the broader context of British interests and take the long view on how these are best protected and advanced. For one, UK national security strategy is largely designed to work around that of the US, from force structure to intelligence sharing. For another, there has been the added incentive of laying the ground for a comprehensive free trade deal with the US in preparation for Brexit – of which there seems to be a good prospect.
Since his election last November, reading the runes of President Trump’s future national security strategy has been a challenging task. Much attention has been given to his choice of his appointments for key positions at the State Department, Department of Defense, or in the White House National Security Council (NSC). Some solace has been taken from the presence of the so-called “adults in the room” such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (about whose future there has been much speculation), Secretary of Defense James Mattis (who has proved an extremely popular choice in the Pentagon) and Lt. Gen. McMaster (who works most closely with the President).
A new NSS always requires an act of political triangulation. The latest one is not written in language that one would conventionally associate with President Trump but it does aim to elaborate on some of his campaign promises. Some of the key themes were previewed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Lt. Gen. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn (Trump’s key economic advisor) in May. In that article, they insisted that “America First” did not mean “America Alone” and that the US would continue to work closely with allies in pursuit of global leadership. “America First is rooted in confidence that our values are worth defending and promoting”, it went on to say, “This is a time of great challenge for our friends and allies around the globe — but it is also a moment of extraordinary opportunity.”
This was much the same script that Lt. Gen. McMaster used in outlining the headline themes of the NSS. Unsurprisingly, the highest priority was given to the protection of the American homeland from attack. Another overriding theme is the focus on American “prosperity” as a core national security goal. At one level, this is a basic principle of any coherent national security strategy (and certainly informs the UK’s own approach). But it has particular resonance in the US context, against the backdrop of growing concerns about stagnation and declining competitiveness compared to peer competitors (of which China is foremost). Notably, the same stress on economic robustness as the cornerstone of American security also informed the opening remarks of Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska at Policy Exchange’s Washington conference. Sullivan sits on the Armed Services Committee, and might be considered a more conventional “establishment” Republican voice, suggesting there is a degree of consensus on this.
One can also see subtler themes in the new NSS which represent an attempt by Lt. Gen. McMaster and his team to elevate the strategic discussion. There is no denying the fact that Trump’s election has had a meteor-like impact on what the scholar Hal Brands calls the “intellectual architecture” of American grand strategy. This has caused widespread discomfort among much of the US national security establishment, playing out in a deep split in Republican foreign policy circles. McMaster’s hope is that a more streamlined strategic doctrine can be salvaged from this, that something might be left on the parchment for future years.
Most significant here is the heightened emphasis on “competition” or “competitive engagement” as the leitmotif of the new American approach, at both the tactical (operational) and grand strategic (international) level. This is an idea most commonly associated with the practice of “net assessment”, which has a long heritage in US national security thinking but really had its heyday in the Reagan years. Indeed, the invocation of “peace through strength” in the new NSS is a conscious invocation of Reagan. Repurposed for the Trump administration, it has a certain synergy with the President’s demands for more effectiveness and utility in the international game – put simply, the need for America to “start winning again”. But it is an idea that predates Trump and has a deeper strategic logic. Notably, it was a theme that McMaster spoke about before his surprise appointment as National Security Advisor (seen, for example, in remarks made at Policy Exchange in early 2017).
For American allies, there was a mixture of reassurance and a plea for more proactivity in McMaster’s latest remarks. On the one hand, he once again referred favourably to the work of Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell, two scholar-practitioners who are now in the State Department. Their 2015 book, The Unquiet Frontier, stresses the continued importance of strong alliances on the periphery of American power networks. On the other hand, in more polite terms than the President is inclined to use, Lt. Gen. McMaster was careful to stress that the US will expect more “reciprocity” from its allies.
In addition to this, there was renewed emphasis on the threat posed by “rogue regimes” such as North Korea and Iran, without any specific clues on next steps. McMaster was also firm and unambiguous when asked about the security challenge posed to American interests and allies by Russia, in an attempt to ring-fence that area from the ongoing FBI probe into Russian interference in the presidential election. Two other particular areas of note in McMaster’s remarks in Washington for a UK audience included: his highlighting of the behaviour of Qatar and Turkey, in contributing to regional destabilisation through the use of proxies; and his expression of admiration for the UK government’s 2014-15 review of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the UK. That report was co-authored by Sir John Jenkins, the UK’s former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia who also spoke at last week’s Washington conference. One its main conclusions was that “aspects of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics” had been “contrary to our national interests and our national security”. It had significant influence on the last government in broadening the focus of counter-extremism policy towards Islamist ideology in general, as opposed to only focusing on groups and individuals who posed a violent threat on UK soil.
None of this suggests the need for an about-turn in UK national security strategy as the government undergoes its own national security capability review. It is clear that certain basic syngergies remain, such as the growing concern about cyber and the policing of the internet. At the same time, there is a need to recognise that the US is tilting towards a more competitive posture. It will continue to put pressure on its allies, the UK included, to retain their burden-sharing capabilities in terms of conventional armed force capabilities.
Broadly speaking, the decision of the British government to adopt an American-style national security system, with the establishment of a National Security Advisor and National Security Council in 2010, has been a success. In future years, however, the UK should also avoid adopting too narrow a definition of national security. In British parlance, national security tends to denote protection of the homeland and management of risk to the UK and its infrastructure (with an understandable focus on non-state actors and cyber). Beyond British borders, as seen in the last Strategic Defence and Security Review, a great stress is also placed on the UK’s commitment to a “rules-based international order”. The dangers of seeing that international order unravel are of course multi-fold to a status quo power like the UK, which was present at its creation. But being the curator of the old structures in a fast-moving international environment is insufficient in itself. For aspirations of Global Britain to be effectively realised, the UK will have to adjust the balance between its current risk management approach and a more competitive approach to the international arena.