The National Security Strategy (NSS) released by the White House this week—the only time in the first year of a new presidency—is a sober and realistic assessment of the state of play of international relations and the place of the United States within it.

Notably, it embraces the value of the international order and its constituent institutions (NATO, the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank) that the U.S. and its like-minded allies created after World War II. And it supports the need for continued U.S. engagement in the global economy to ensure that its rules are both operating fairly and regularly updated.

While the National Security Strategy is characterized by a prudent internationalism overall, there is ambiguity built into it. If this NSS were a car ride, the reader would have the sensation of driving along a fairly recognizable and well-lit road, only to be shaken every once in a while by speed bumps—sixteen in all. Because that is the number of times that the NSS tries to bolster its arguments by invoking sovereignty.

Now, in a world of disorder, national sovereignty is the guarantor of a baseline of security and prosperity. But sovereignty risks becoming an empty shibboleth when too much emphasis is placed on its intrinsic value, and not enough on the extent to which it is a reliable guide for promoting U.S. national interests in a complex world.

Perhaps the best way to understand this year’s National Security Strategy is to distinguish between symbolism and substance. By emphasizing sovereignty, the White House’s approach to national security policy rests comfortably under the “America First” mantle that the document does in fact set out as a guiding principle. That helps to make it resonate with populist-minded voters who tend to equate raw assertions of national power and pride with foreign policy effectiveness. Therein lies its symbolic potency as a tool of political communication.

But if this rhetorical device is set aside, what stands out is not an attempt to “Make America Great Again” through a return to some halcyon days of a United States unfettered by international commitments. Rather, the document’s substantive core is that while the world is a dangerous place, U.S. national security is best advanced through cooperation with other countries that share its objectives and principles—through joint efforts in multilateral forums and in the economic realm via negotiated trade agreements as well.

Still, to balance these competing messages requires some policy acrobatics. In one illustrative passage under Pillar IV – Advance American Influence, the document states that “The United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values. A competition for influence exists in these institutions. As we participate in them, we must protect American sovereignty and advance American interests and values.”

While there is a nod to the need for U.S. leadership, the main emphasis here is on the risk rather than the opportunity side of the equation: vigilance is required lest the U.S. shed sovereignty through its participation in multinational groupings. The idea that multilateralism can be a multiplier for U.S. policies is implied, not confidently stated.

Another, more positive way to have phrased this idea would be: “The United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements created by the U.S. and its allies to promote their shared interests and values. There is a need to update the rules to preserve U.S. influence in these institutions. In doing so, we can enhance our country’s capacity to exercise our sovereignty more effectively.” The same cautious, interest-based internationalism would be there, but the populist symbolism would be lost.

Right at the start, the National Security Strategy declares itself to be one of “principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Fair enough. But when the temptation to assert de jure national sovereignty bumps into the need for giving up some short-term control in order to promote long-term national interests—in other words, to assert de facto sovereignty—it will be worth watching whether the administration harks back to the document’s substance or its symbolism.


Peter S. Rashish is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Geoeconomics Program at AICGS. 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.