President Donald Trump came to office to “make America great again.” A year into his first term, the Middle East Institute’s scholars are assessing what this means for the greater Middle East, taking into account President Trump’s initiatives so far, the global and regional reaction to them, and possible consequences for U.S. interests. The first in this series, this policy essay addresses President Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) announced on December 18, which outlines the administration’s America First strategy of “principled realism.” Other topics will span the range of U.S. interests in the Middle East.


The purpose of a National Security Strategy, especially for a new administration, is to inform the world how it intends to lead. In this regard, the NSS of President Donald Trump is only a partial guide; it must be supplemented by President Trump’s tweets, budget proposals, appointments, and decisions so far. It is clear that the America First strategy of “principled realism” is a hard sell, principally because of its emphasis on competition over cooperation. It engenders predictable hedging, leveraging, and compensating behaviors that are evident even in the Middle East, where President Trump’s leadership has been well-received. The most penetrating verdict on this strategy of “competitive engagement” comes from prototype realist Henry Kissinger, who argues that “the U.S. needs a strategy and diplomacy that allow for the complexity of the journey.” The Trump NSS misses this mark.


President Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) has been long-awaited as an official indicator of how America will lead the world. It is the 17th in a congressionally mandated series of NSSs dating back to President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Especially for a new administration, it serves not only to inform the Congress, the national security community inside and outside government, and the American people generally, but also to advise and alert our friends and adversaries worldwide about what to expect. Officially, it also forms the basis for the National Military Strategy by the Joint Chiefs and the National Defense Guidance by the Secretary of Defense, and for similar planning documents in the diplomatic and intelligence communities.

As a guide to U.S. intentions, it joins the President’s inaugural address, where he first officially announced his America First strategy; his budget proposals, which increased defense spending by 10 percent while cutting the budget for diplomacy and development by more than 30 percent; and his appointments, which have renewed the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership while leaving vast personnel gaps on the diplomatic side, including that of the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

Moreover, in Trump’s highly personalized presidency, the President’s famous scattershot tweets, averaging 11 a day since he has been in office, must be added to this list of policy indicators. Offering an unprecedented “telescoped view”[i] into the President’s psyche and policy sense, Trump’s tweets often ring truer than the NSS’s intellectualized formations, especially when they accord with his self-characterizations in his book “Art of the Deal”: skepticism of the value of expertise, strong reliance on his personal perceptions and instincts, hard-hitting reprisals to offenses, use of “truthful hyperbole” to make his points, a truncated focus on issues, and valuing publicity (even if negative) and bluntness over subtlety. Against the President’s highly interactive nature, the NSS’s central conceit is to ask its readers to ignore his unintermediated proclivities in favor of the intellectually principled predictability that it portrays.

The new national security strategy

Realism vs Idealism

The NSS proclaims to be non-ideological and only interested in results. Nothing could be further from the actuality. It unabashedly takes sides in the long-standing, frequently academic debate between realism and idealism in foreign policy. The America First strategy is, in the NSS’s words, “realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interests. It is principled because it is grounded in the knowledge that advancing American principles spreads peace and prosperity around the globe.”[ii]

The NSS goes to great lengths to denigrate the international liberal order it views as the source of many of America’s problems. It calls, for example, for the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades because they are “based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” According to the NSS, “For the most part, this premise has turned out to be false.”

While such revisionist history colors much of the justification for its realist approach, the NSS’s emphasis on values date back to Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy of “an empire of liberty,” where Americans had the obligation of “acting for all mankind.”[iii] Certainly this applies to President Trump’s National Security Strategy.

A Competitive World

The NSS stipulates four “Pillars” of U.S. interests: first, protect the homeland, the American people, and American way of life; second, promote American prosperity; third, preserve peace through strength; and fourth, advance American influence. All are premised on a sense of grievance. Despite America’s great military and economic strength, it has surrendered advantages in key areas and stood by while other countries exploited the institutions we created. The NSS asserts that the U.S. will forcefully respond to these “growing political, economic and military competitions.”[iv]

Inherently, the America First strategy engenders a transactional approach to foreign policy designed to produce winners and losers, and diminishes the scope for creative diplomacy and enlightened self-interest that can lead to win-win compromises. On an operational level, this translates into the NSS’s embrace of “competitive engagement.” Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor Nadia Shadlow, the principal author of the Trump NSS, advanced this idea as a means of galvanizing non-military instruments of power in 2013 while at the Smith Richardson Foundation.[v]

What the NSS says about the Middle East

Events in the greater Middle East drove the national security policy of President Obama despite his persistent efforts over two terms to “pivot” toward Asia to correct what he saw as our overcommitment to the Middle East. Ironically, President Trump stands a better chance of moving in that direction. In terms of regional priorities, the NSS assigns pride of place to the Indo-Pacific (newly renamed from Asian Pacific), citing the threats posed by China and North Korea, and those posed to Europe by Russia. The Middle East is third, and includes Iran, ISIS, al-Qaeda and other “jihadist terrorist” organizations as threats.[vi]

In his introduction, President Trump attributes the continuing Iranian “danger” to the neglect of “those determined to pursue a flawed nuclear deal,” and takes unalloyed credit for having “crushed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” through “renewed friendships ... to help drive out terrorists and extremists” in the brief time he has been in office.[vii] A fact-checked version of these points would acknowledge the significance of the nuclear deal in constraining Iran’s nuclear activities for at least a decade and applaud the 73-member coalition created by the Obama Administration that had largely defeated ISIS by the time President Trump took his oath.

In general, the NSS takes a conventional stance on Middle East issues, affirming that the U.S. “seeks a Middle East that is not haven or breeding ground for jihadist terrorists, not dominated by a hostile power and contributes to a stable energy market.”[viii] Alluding critically to both Barack Obama’s and George W Bush’s policies, it states that “The United States has learned that neither aspirations for democratic transformation nor disengagement can insulate us from the region’s problems” and cautions against allowing “pessimism to obscure our interests or vison for a modern Middle East.”[ix]

Besides upbraiding Iran as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and ISIS and al-Qaeda as the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations, it highlights the emerging “realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems,” puts forth the goal of settling the Syrian civil war in a way “that sets the conditions for refugees to return home and rebuild their lives,” encourages “economic modernization” across the region but especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and commits to maintain “the necessary American military presence” in the region to “preserve a favorable regional balance of power.”[x]

These points only hint at the Trump Administration’s apparent strategy in the Middle East: a strong alliance with the Sunni Gulf states against Iran, strengthened ties to Israel even at the expense of upending the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and greater collaboration with Russia to manage the conflict in Syria. Matching up what President Trump has done so far against his NSS framework shows that the NSS is at best a partial prescript of his policies. The acts that define his major shifts, such as his strong endorsement of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ gambit to isolate Qatar, his decision not to recertify the Iran deal, and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem do not feature in the NSS. All three of these issues pitted national security professionals against Trump’s instincts and campaign promises. The NSS does not connect the dots to give strategic coherence to a divided administration.

The four pillars

The NSS’s four “Pillars” come with a necessary precondition—the strengthening of our sovereignty, which the NSS calls the first duty of a government to its people. The Middle East figures significantly under all four pillars.

Pillar I

“Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life” covers immigration, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. Unconventionally, it excludes the military instrument of power, which is taken up later along with diplomacy under Pillar III, “Preserve Peace through Strength.” In parts relevant to the Middle East, the section on borders unsurprisingly advocates enhanced vetting of entrants to the U.S.; the terrorism section endorses the lines of effort inherited from the Obama Administration (albeit without acknowledgement); and the WMD section curiously omits discussion of nuclear proliferation, while addressing chemical and biological threats.

Pillar II

“Promote American Prosperity” advocates the “Embrace of Energy Dominance,” which includes steps to promote U.S. energy exports, protect the world’s energy infrastructure, assure universal energy access, and further America’s technological edge. There is no mention of any consultation with Gulf or other foreign energy producers whose cooperation would ease implementation.

Pillar III

“Preserve Peace through Strength” could be subtitled with Machiavelli’s famous advice that “It is better to be feared than loved.” It asserts that our military, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic agencies “have not kept pace with the changes in the character of competition.”[xi] To renew America’s competitive advantage, the military must “retain overmatch” so the U.S. “will never be in a fair fight,” by modernizing, acquiring new capabilities, improving readiness, and supporting a full-spectrum force.[xii] The aim is deterrence, which it characterizes as significantly more complex today than in the Cold War era and should extend across all domains. Still, it cautions that the Department of Defense must develop concepts and capabilities to win without assured dominance.

“Competitive diplomacy” entails upgrading “our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mindset.”[xiii] What this change in mindset entails is not spelled out, but in her academic writings Shadlow describes mapping out the positions of challengers and then crafting programs and strategies accordingly.[xiv] The NSS does specify reforms to enable diplomats to conduct “forward-deployed field work” to advance U.S. interests by building and leading coalitions, and to identify opportunities for commerce and cooperation.

Pillar IV

“Advance American Influence” affirms the value of partnerships. It contends that the key to American success has been that “we develop policies that enable us to achieve our goals while our partners achieve theirs.”[xv] It then advocates a development model to encourage “aspiring partners” that closely aligns development assistance with U.S. interests; it asserts that the way to achieve better outcomes in multilateral forums is through reclaiming U.S. sovereignty; and it walks a fine line between championing American values on the one hand and declaring that the U.S. will not impose its values on the other.

For the Middle East, these stances are a mixed bag depending upon how they play out. They correspond in many cases to those of Trump’s domestic constituencies. For example, while assurances that the U.S. will not impose its values upon the region is good news, the nomination of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, an evangelical zealot, to be Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is not.

Reactions and a look ahead

Initial reactions in the Middle East to President Trump’s election were highly positive after the nuanced and sometimes shifting positions taken by his predecessor. This was particularly true in Saudi Arabia and Israel, the marquee countries where President Trump made his first foreign trip this past spring. A U.S. diplomat described the Saudis as giddy with delight after having been through an era in which President Obama responded to a question about U.S. relations with the Kingdom by saying “It’s complicated.”[xvi] In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed President Trump’s election by proclaiming that Israel has never had a better friend. A year into President Trump’s presidency, U.S. relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel remain excellent but more sober, with signs of hedging, leveraging, and compensating behavior.


Middle Eastern countries, too, are very good at playing a realist, competitive game. While the Saudis welcomed President Trump in Riyadh in May with sword dancing, King Salman bookended his visit with a trip to Beijing in March and to Moscow in October. In the Gulf, President Trump’s unpredictability and the administration’s erratic policy implementation have not escaped notice, even though there has been little public comment. They have been puzzled about how to reconcile President Trump’s endorsement of the Saudi-UAE gambit to isolate Qatar with the more even-handed diplomacy of Secretary of State Tillerson; and they have been annoyed to be scolded by Trump for the devastating humanitarian consequences of the war in Yemen.

In the Saudi view, the U.S. has made major blunders in the past that have adversely affected their strategic environment: the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that enabled the rise of Iran, the American role in the downfall of Mubarak in Egypt, and Obama’s hesitant handling of the Syrian crisis, whose continuation has reshaped the Levant. The Saudis fear that the U.S. could make such a blunder again. The ultimate hedging behavior, which remains only a possibility at this point, would be a Saudi decision to develop nuclear weapons in response to an accelerated Iranian nuclear program because of concerns about U.S. reliability under an America First policy.


The Israelis leveraged their strong ties to score a major win when President Trump decided to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. It was a step that torpedoed at least temporarily any progress on the peace process, as the Palestinians disavowed the U.S. role as an intermediary and the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to denounce the decision. It also besmirched President Trump’s claim to be a consummate deal-maker, because there is no indication he got anything in return for the prize that he bestowed upon the Israelis.

Compensating Behaviors

Other reactions to the NSS have set the stage for compensating behaviors. As the Chinese government declaimed, “It is completely egotistical for any nation to put its interests above the common interests of other nations and the international community. It will lead to a path of self-isolation.”[xvii] Russian authorities first condemned it as a cast back to imperialism and the Cold War era, but later President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman nuanced this position, saying that Russia “also seeks cooperation with the United States in areas which are beneficial for us, depending on how far our U.S. counterparts are ready to go.”[xviii] Among U.S. allies, German Minister for Foreign Affiars Sigmar Gabriel warned, “The U.S. no longer sees the world as a global community but as a fighting arena where everyone has to seek their own advantage.” Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn the conclusion that “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.”[xix] In short, even among friends, America First is a hard sell for the world’s strongest military and economic power.

The best example of compensating behavior is climate change, given that the U.S. is the only country to withdraw from the Paris Accord. With 195 signatories, the U.S. is alone. The Chinese have seen this as an opportunity to tout their brand. In the words of the NSS, “when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States.” It also observes, “If the United States cedes leadership ... to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.”[xx] In the context of the Middle East, there has not been a responsible alternative to a strong American role in decades. That may change as the Russians re-enter as a strong diplomatic and military player in Syria, as the Chinese provide the prime market for the Gulf’s crude, and as the Europeans question U.S. leadership, particularly on Iran. The NSS may have spoken an unintended truth.

Conclusion: implementation and wild cards

Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly admonishes staff regularly that poor implementation defeats good policy nine times out of ten. The Trump White House faces tricky, so far unsolved implementation problems. The NSS repeatedly cites the overarching requirement that the U.S. compete with all tools of national power. While Congress mandates the establishment of a National Military Strategy and Defense Guidance, there are no similar processes in place for a whole-of-government approach to the non-military instruments of power. In contrast, the Department of State has led two Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Reviews under the Obama Administration and a variety of Mission Program Plans under President Bush. Will President Trump offer the bureaucratic leadership to create similar mechanisms or will he continue to prefer the personal scope that the current helter-skelter coordination provides?

Finally, this National Security Strategy issued in the name of realism runs a higher than average risk of being mugged by reality in terms of costs and decision making. Greatly dependent on the military instrument, it is much more expensive than a strategy more reliant on other instruments of power. While this added military capability is built in the name of deterrence, it inevitably also entails difficult choices regarding the use of force that have bedeviled previous presidents. So far no one on the civilian side of this administration has experienced a major national security crisis in which U.S. leadership would be determinative. The chances of it occurring in the Middle East are only overshadowed by the situation on the Korean peninsula. A major wild card both at home and abroad is how the Trump Administration will respond and whether American leadership would be accepted.

The most penetrating verdict on President Trump’s NSS is provided by prototype realist Henry Kissinger: “the U.S. needs a strategy and diplomacy that allow for the complexity of the journey.”[xxi] The NSS misses the mark because of its emphasis on competition and neglect of the possibilities for cooperation. In short, the international liberal world order is relevant, whether or not the Trump Administration agrees.


[i] Ambassador Nancy McEldowney (ret.), interview by William Brangham, PBS News Hour, PBS, January 3, 2018.

[ii] White House, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (2018), p. 73.

[iii] See Henry Kissinger, “‘Acting for All Mankind’: The United States and World Order.” Chap. 7 in World Order (London: Penguin Press, 2014), p. 236.

[iv] “National Security Strategy,” p. 2.

[v] Nadia Schadlow, “Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence,” Orbis 57, no. 4 (Autumn 2013): 501–515.

[vi] “National Security Strategy,” pp. 48–50.

[vii] “National Security Strategy,” p. 1.

[viii] “National Security Strategy,” p. 48.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “National Security Strategy,” pp. 49–50.

[xi] “National Security Strategy,” p. 28.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] “National Security Strategy,” p. 33.

[xiv] In her words, “A competitive engagement approach links day-to-day activities with idea that they should add up to a concept of operations and an overall political plan.” See Nadia Schadlow, “Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence,” p. 509.

[xv] “National Security Strategy,” p. 37.

[xvi] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic, April 2016.

[xvii] Scott Neuman, “Trump’s National Security Strategy Angers China.” NPR, December 19, 2017.

[xviii] Patrick Reevel, “Russia calls Trump's national security strategy ‘imperialist’.” ABC News, December 19, 2017.

[xix] Tom O’Connor, “US ‘Will Never Be the Same’ After Trump, Germany Says.” Newsweek, December 15, 2017.

[xx] “National Security Strategy,” p. 40.

[xxi] Henry Kissinger, “World Order,” p. 372.


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.