March 16, 2018

Challenges and Threats to US Security

President Trump’s new national security strategy

President Trump’s new national security strategy

The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, adopted by the US Congress in 1986, states that the president must “transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States”.1 Even though every president since Ronald Reagan has produced such reports, they have not been submitted each year and the quality of the documents has varied. On 18 December 2017, President Trump signed his first National Security Strategy, which provides a general framework for interpreting the current president’s foreign and security policy and meeting its challenges.2
Together with the National Defence Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review, commissioned by President Trump in January 2017 and published in January and February 2018 respectively, these documents provide adversaries, allies and partners with an overview of the security-policy situation of the US, the threats to the country and actions taken to stand up to them.3
When H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, presented the strategy in the Ronald Reagan Library shortly before its publication, he compared the challenges faced by the US to the time Reagan took office, when the US was facing an internal and external policy crisis (Nixon’s resignation, Carter’s weak foreign policy, the rise of the USSR on the international arena) and, in effect, the world did not take the US seriously enough.4 It is worth mentioning that President Trump said Reagan was one of his political examples when he began his campaign for the White House and promised to “make America great again”.

Security Threats

The security strategy lists the challenges, according to which the main threats to US security are “revisionist powers”—Russia and China—that are trying to change the current political, economic and security order, acting according to their interests and at the expense of the US and its allies. The next category includes the so-called “rogue states”—Iran and North Korea—who violate their neighbours’ sovereignty, develop weapons of mass destruction and spread terror in other countries. Jihadist terrorist organisations, in turn, threaten people in all corners of the globe and are represented as cross-border threats. In addition, the previous world order has been changed by international criminal organisations and cyber hackers. Digital connectivity adds threats on the individual, organisational, government and military levels, which may presuppose that, in the event of conflict, essential and military infrastructure as well as government institutions will be under attack.
Both the security and the defence strategies state that the enemy has learned to act below the level of armed conflict and on the edge of international law, which means the US must be ready for this and prepare for fighting across the entire spectrum of conflict—air, land, sea, space and cyberspace—simultaneously. At the same time, it is admitted that achieving deterrence is nowadays much more difficult than during the Cold War. Without directly referring to Russia or China, the document points out that the use of cyber measures has enabled national and non-national opponents to disrupt US security in various areas.
The security strategy focuses on four actions:
(1) protecting the American people, the homeland and the American way of life;
(2) promoting American prosperity through economic growth, fair trade, protection of intellectual property and energy dominance;
(3) preserving peace through military strength; and
(4) advancing American influence to protect the interests and principles of the US on the international arena.
This is all based on order founded on freedom, democracy, law and private commerce.

Strategic Rivalry as the Main Challenge

The US is facing increased global instability, characterised by the decline of the long-standing, rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any experienced in recent memory. Instead of terrorism, the main source of concern in terms of national security is international strategic rivalry, and the US must rethink the defence policy it has pursued for decades in the light of these threats.
All three documents see Russia as the main strategic threat and challenge to the security of the US. According to the security strategy, Russia aims to weaken US influence in the world and separate it from its allies and partners. Russia views NATO and the EU as threats to the world order it advocates, and is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems. Russia seeks to restore its status as a great power and establish spheres of influence in its neighbourhood, and remains the most significant existential threat to the US, inter alia by destabilising American society with cyber capabilities. Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. In Eurasia, the risk of conflict with Russia due to a Kremlin miscalculation is growing. Cooperation with Russia cannot be based on wishful thinking but only on the military strength of the US, which is completely in sync with its allies.
While President Obama considered China America’s partner in the fight against global threats, Trump’s strategy calls China a “strategic competitor” and promises to pressure the latter over both its economic policy and its actions in the South China Sea, where Beijing is trying to increase its military influence by ignoring international law, to push the US out and to establish an order favourable to itself. In addition, the security strategy aims to prevent China from investing in the US technology sector. In November, during his visit to China, Trump considered relations with China exemplary, yet now it is unclear whether the strategy documents mark a change in US-China relations. Only time will tell.

Preserving Peace Through Strength

The national defence strategy presented by Secretary of Defence James Mattis on 19 January largely repeats the threats listed in the security strategy, but its main aim is to demonstrate how the military would respond to those threats, how funds would be used to develop capabilities and how the defence policy would be made more effective.5,6
The strategy lists US defence objectives, including:

  • defending the US from attack;
  • sustaining Joint Force military advantage, both globally and in key regions;
  • deterring adversaries from aggression against the US’s vital interests;
  • enabling US interagency counterparts to advance US influence and interests;
  • maintaining favourable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere;
  • defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly sharing responsibilities for common defence; and
  • dissuading, preventing or deterring state adversaries and non-state actors from acquiring, proliferating or using weapons of mass destruction.

The defence strategy presents a framework for how to organise, train, supply and employ forces for the defence of security. In addition to developing the military might of the US, it stresses the importance of allied relations to ensure the balance of power in a US-led world for the defence of a free and open world order. When presenting the document, Defence Secretary Mattis admitted that, while the US had had no global military challenge for a while, this advantage was diminishing in all military areas. In addition, competitors are trying to damage US military networks and military management and are attempting to achieve dominance by using other elements (information warfare, proxy wars, technological means, AI, robots, biotechnology, pulsed energy weapons). Not providing an adequate response to this puts the overall deterrent power of the US in question.
The strategy presents a plan to compete, deter, fight and win in this environment. Collectively, the force posture, alliance and partnership architecture, and departmental modernisation of the US will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength (military force). Failure to meet the defence objectives will result in decreasing US global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in American prosperity and living standards. Without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernise the military to make it fit for the time, the US will rapidly lose its military advantage.

The New US Nuclear Posture Review

On 2 February 2018, the Secretary of Defence published the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR),7 the fourth since the end of the Cold War. The document stresses that nuclear capability is part of the national security strategy and one of the key components in defending the US and its allies and partners.
The review claims that, even though the US remains committed to its efforts in support of the ultimate global elimination of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, it should still have modern, flexible and resilient nuclear capabilities to guarantee safety and security until such time as nuclear weapons can be prudently eliminated from the world. The latter is not likely in the foreseeable future and the posture document is based on the premise that, for the near future, nuclear weapons will continue to play an important part in deterring other nuclear powers, as well as ensuring conventional deterrence between nuclear powers. The NPR stresses that, even though the current security environment is making further progress in nuclear arms reduction extremely difficult, this does not mean the US will pull out of nuclear arms reduction treaties.
The NPR focuses on the need to maintain and modernise the nuclear triad (ground-, air- and submarine-launched missiles). This aim was set out in the Obama administration’s review in 2010 and involves the need to renew ballistic missile submarines, strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and their guiding systems. In addition, modernising the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will help to maintain NATO’s nuclear deterrence and the capability to quickly forward deploy nuclear weapons when necessary. According to the Pentagon’s calculations, maintaining the current US nuclear capability will take up about 3% of the entire defence budget. Modernising the nuclear capability would require an additional 3–4% over the next ten years.
The new NPR encompasses a wide range of threats (conventional, chemical, biological, space and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors), formulates a strategy and policy based on threat assessments, and shapes a direction for current and future nuclear capability policy to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners in worsening global conditions. The document admits that, since the previous review in 2010, the Great Powers have returned to a state of confrontation, global threats have increased and potential adversaries have developed their nuclear capabilities, which means the US is facing a more multifaceted nuclear threat. At the same time, the US has reduced its nuclear stockpile by over 85% since the height of the Cold War and has deployed no new nuclear capabilities for over two decades. Russia and China, on the other hand, have developed new nuclear capabilities. Even though Russia followed the example of the US and reduced the number of its strategic weapons, it kept a large number of non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, which it is actively developing today. According to Secretary Mattis, the NPR largely focuses on strengthening the counterweight to the adversaries’ growing tactical nuclear arsenal.
On 6 February, Mattis addressed Congress, saying there was [no] such thing as a “tactical nuclear weapon”. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer. … We don’t want someone else to miscalculate … because they are going to use a low-yield weapon … We do not want even an inch of daylight to appear in how we look at the nuclear deterrent. According to Mattis, the US must enhance nuclear deterrence with new tactical nuclear capabilities.8
With the modernisation of the nuclear programme, two new nuclear capabilities are being developed—submarine-launched low-yield ballistic missiles (SLMB) with about the same destructive power as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM). The first development will cost 50 million dollars in the next five years and their number will remain small. It is more of a deterrent tool to counter the Russian threat and demonstrate the capability the adversary will have to take into account. The second could be developed so that Russia would fulfil its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which guarantees the balance of non-strategic nuclear capabilities. However, it is unlikely that the development of new nuclear capabilities by the US will bring Russia back to the negotiating table; rather it will lead to new mutual threats, as President Putin clearly demonstrated in his address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March.9
According to the report, the US does not wish for a new arms race or to consider Russia an adversary, but rather it is responding to the already existing Russian nuclear strategy and doctrine and stresses the need to protect its allies and partners from all threats, as well as itself. It certainly does not mean the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on NATO’s Eastern Flank, but deterring Russia by developing countermeasures.

What do we conclude from this?

Trump’s security strategy is a skilful compromise between his radical “America first” paradigm and the more traditional view of US foreign- and security-policy positions.
The strategy emphasises sovereignty—i.e. following national interests—as the main leitmotif in guaranteeing security and speaks less of the need for international cooperation. The latter aspect is in strong contrast to Obama’s strategy of 2015, which deemed international cooperation and law-based order and its promotion the main activity that would guarantee US and global security.10
Trump hints that the US is ready to act alone and stand up against international agreements on trade, immigration and climate change if they do not directly benefit the US economy, the advancement of which is an important aspect of national security.
It is difficult for Trump to guarantee America’s strategic strength if he leads the US away from its old principles in international relations, where it emphasised its leading role in the world, international law and agreement systems. At the same time, the documents contradict themselves, saying that the US considers states that do not follow the principles of a global economic order based on agreements to be strategic adversaries, which stresses the importance of relations with allies.
The strategy documents present a very clear programme for the development of long-term strategic dominance, ensuring deterrence and the development of military strength globally and in all military areas. This is very different from earlier strategies, which focused mostly on regional confrontations.
US military strength and joint activities with its allies are one of the foundations of deterrence, and this is also an important security-policy message to Estonia. At the same time, the strategy clearly states that alliances are strong and secure only if based on meeting one’s obligations. The message to all European allies is clear—defence expenditure must be increased. For its part, the US is increasing expenditure on the European deterrence initiative in its defence budget to 4.6 billion dollars in 2018 and 6.5 billion dollars in 2019.11
The strategy documents that are most important for Estonia speak about Russia as an existential threat to security that must be contained by various methods. Even though Russia is seen as the main challenge and threat to US security, President Trump has not criticised Russia in his first year in office. On the contrary, he has taken Putin’s word over the US intelligence community’s evaluation of Russia’s role in the 2016 elections, and shortly before the security strategy was published the two presidents held telephone conversations in which they praised each other’s accomplishments. Trump has repeated (most recently at the Davos Economic Forum) the desire to repair relations with Russia and has not described Russia as an existential threat to the security of US or its allies.
Free trade has been completely left out of the security strategy. George W. Bush’s 2006 strategy made this the main priority, as did Obama in his 2015 strategy, believing the advancement of free trade to be important. Trump promotes fair, not free trade, and bilateral trade agreements as the main security-related issue in relation to US economic interests. A good example of such activity is the president’s recent decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminium.
Trump’s security strategy says nothing about promoting democracy, which was important in the strategies of both his predecessors. Trump’s says that America’s values are important and inspiring for other nations, but that the US does not impose its values on anyone. President Obama considered the war on terror to be one of the most important topics but made no direct connection between terrorism and Islam. Trump’s strategy speaks of the terrorist threat of radical Islam and names Jihadist terrorist organisations as the main problem.
While Obama’s strategy believed climate change to be a major strategic challenge, Trump’s speaks of the need to fight energy restrictions, as these damage the US economy and its energy interests. A clear example of this is the Paris Agreement on climate change, from which Trump has decided to withdraw.
Unlike President Obama, who believed in the possibility of a nuclear-free world, President Trump believes in the nuclear power of the US and strengthening it as the main element of defence to “preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the United States, its allies, and its partners”. Trump also stressed its importance in guaranteeing the security of the US in addressing Congress shortly before publishing the new Nuclear Posture Review.


Trump’s security strategy, defence strategy and nuclear posture review are substantive documents based on the understanding that the competition between the Great Powers is the key issue in global security. The documents assess the global strategic situation and state how the president thinks the US should act to stand up against those threats and challenges. Only time will tell how the documents will guide the president in making foreign- and security-policy decisions in the future, and whether he and his administration will actually implement policies based on them.
1 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017,
2 Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Public Law 99-433-Oct. 1, 1986,
3 Presidential Memorandum on Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces, The White House, 27 January 2017,
4 Remarks by LTG H.R. McMaster at the Reagan National Defense Forum: Reclaiming America’s Strategic Confidence, 2 December 2017,
5 Summary of the National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,
6 Remarks by Secretary Mattis on the National Defense Strategy, U.S. Department of Defense, Press Operations, 19 January 2018,
7 Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018, Office of the Secretary of Defense,
8 Aaron Mehta, “Mattis: No such thing as a ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon, but new cruise missile needed”, Defense News, 6 February 2018,
9 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, 1 March 2018,
10 National Security Strategy, February 2015,
11 Jen Judson, “Funding to deter Russia reaches $6.5B in FY19 defense budget request”, Defense News, 12 February 2018,


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.