Experts on a wide range of issues have parsed the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) since its release in December, often criticizing what they regard as a weak treatment of crucial topics. This scrutiny includes attention to the strategy’s stance on U.S. support for democracy and human rights abroad. Former national security adviser Susan Rice, for example, observed in a list of stinging criticisms that the strategy “fails to mention the words ‘human rights.’” The editorial board of the Washington Post regretted that the strategy contains “no commitment to promote democracy and human rights, other than by example.” Given the administration’s erratic and often damaging stance thus far on democracy and rights abroad, these warning flags are more than understandable.
To be sure, the overall level of democratic ambition in the strategy is a far cry from some previous iterations, such as former president Ronald Reagan’s first NSS, the cover of which featured Reagan’s declaration that the United States sought “freedom, peace and prosperity . . . for ourselves, our friends, and those people across the globe struggling for democracy.” Yet a thorough review of the latest NSS reveals much that democracy, rights, and governance advocates can use to situate their work within the new administration’s stated priorities. For a document that proclaims “a return to principled realism,” close readers will come away persuaded that these principles do indeed still include, at least on paper, supporting democracy, defending human rights, advancing accountable governance, and mitigating state fragility.
A Closer Look
A resource page for this article details all of the references to democracy, human rights, accountable governance, and state fragility in the strategy. Given the importance of multilateralism to the pursuit of these objectives, it also identifies references to multilateral approaches. A brief review of the strategy’s language relevant to each of these five categories highlights the following perspectives.
The NSS contains many explicit references to democracy. Most emphasize the value of American democracy itself, although there are references to shared interests between the United States and “our community of like-minded democratic states.” The observation that affinities exist among global democracies would have seemed self-evident until recently—indeed, a bipartisan parade of U.S. administrations has helped lead the Community of Democracies for just this reason. But in the context of the Trump administration, known for publically embracing autocrats and playing hardball with allies, this statement within the NSS can translate into an important basis for policy decisions.
Relatedly, the strategy also features multiple mentions of ideological competition with Russia, China, and other adversarial powers. It frames the overall geopolitical context as an ideological or values-based clash between freedom-oriented and non-freedom-oriented countries—echoing National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster’s much-remarked-upon assertion earlier in 2017 that Trump is the inheritor of Reagan’s ideological global competition. Democracy advocates can argue the need to shore up U.S. support for threatened democracies within the competitive geopolitical landscape the strategy describes.
However, there is no general statement that the United States will seek to advance democracy in the world. The democracy and human rights references in the text emphasize the power of U.S. inspiration rather than democracy-promotion actions, consistent with the insistence of President Trump and some of his close advisers that the United States shouldn’t impose its values on others. Notably, the inspiration described is specifically “American” democracy and “American” values—a distinct change from the emphasis on universalvalues by the Obama administration. Resting democracy support solely or primarily on the pillar of inspiration—rather than also on the pillar of action—is a weak recipe. This is especially true at a time when the pillar of inspiration is showing serious cracks, at least in the eyes of many in the world.
The strategy features a near-absence of the term “human rights” (the one usage being “human rights abusers”). But it does contain many references to closely related ideas. In particular, it contains six references to “human dignity” and variants on “individual dignity.” Notably, it links human rights to advancing the Trump economic agenda: “Governments that respect the rights of their citizens remain the best vehicle for prosperity, human happiness, and peace.” The text also underscores the importance of religious freedom.
Although it does not include the term “women’s rights,” the document does take a positive stance on gender issues. Among other mentions, it notes, “Societies that empower women to participate fully in civic and economic life are more prosperous and peaceful. We will support efforts to advance women’s equality, protect the rights of women and girls, and promote women and youth empowerment programs.”
The relative abundance of concepts related to human rights, combined with the near-total absence of the exact words “human rights,” suggests the authors may have taken pains to avoid the term, perhaps because of its perceived association with the Obama administration. Regardless of their precise wording, these references provide considerable fodder for crafting human-rights-oriented communications or policy proposals. In every administration, human rights concerns are situated among other U.S. interests when deliberating a particular policy decision. The strategy at least provides some evidence that human rights remain part of such conversations.
The document also gives some, though not extensive, emphasis to accountable governance and the rule of law. It contains various references to corruption, linking corruption to economic competition and business investments with other states, as well as connecting corruption to the challenges of fragile states.
For example, it directly relates accountable, effective governance to the U.S. agenda in Africa: “People across the [African] continent are demanding government accountability and less corruption, and are opposing autocratic trends. . . . We will encourage reform, working with promising nations to promote effective governance, improve the rule of law, and develop institutions accountable and responsive to citizens.” It further commits the United States to take appropriate action by “working with committed governments and regional organizations to address the root causes of human suffering. If necessary, we are prepared to sanction government officials and institutions that prey on their citizens and commit atrocities.”
Regarding the Western Hemisphere, the document promises that “we will build upon local efforts . . . and encourage cultures of lawfulness to reduce crime and corruption, including by supporting local efforts to professionalize police and other security forces; strengthen the rule of law and undertake judicial reform.” Though the document lacks a strong assertion that corruption is a national security concern globally, these modest mentions are significant. Rather than framing accountability and rule of law as niche issues, the document links them (at least in some regions) to broader U.S. national security interests.
The strategy gives a fair amount of attention to fragile states, correctly asserting that “political problems are at the root of most state fragility.” Consistent with the Trump administration’s overall emphasis on foreign policy threats rather than opportunities, it underscores a threat-based view of state fragility—especially the violent extremism and transnational crime that can emerge from it. But the text takes a fairly wide lens in terms of diagnosis and solutions, emphasizing a whole-of-government approach that provides an important case for civilian tools of national power.
The document recommends a strategic response to fragile states, noting that the United States must “prioritize programs that empower reform-minded governments, people, and civil society,” and that in formulating these initiatives, “inputs from local actors improve the likelihood of enduring solutions.” Further, the authors recommend “patient partnerships” with countries emerging from conflict—a useful reminder of the perils of unrealistically short-term foreign aid aspirations.
Multilateralism and Global Engagement
The document also features a relatively broad commitment to multilateralism and global engagement, approaches often vital for the international democracy, rights, and governance agendas. It 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.” And echoing the idea of a community of like-minded democracies, it adds that the administration “will strive for outcomes in political and security forums that are consistent with U.S. interests and values—values which are shared by our allies and partners.”
The strategy offers a broad, inclusive justification for foreign assistance: “It is part of our culture, as well as in America’s interest, to help those in need. . . . We aid others judiciously, aligning our means to our objectives, but with a firm belief that we can improve the lives of others while establishing conditions for a more secure and prosperous world.” After a year in which the administration proposed slashing multilateral and assistance commitments, the strategy’s language provides important, albeit limited, evidence that they still constitute part of U.S. foreign policy.
From Words to Deeds
Proponents of active, effective U.S. engagement with democracy, rights, and governance abroad can certainly lament various elements of, or omissions from, the National Security Strategy. These include the lack of a clear general statement about the administration’s intention to support the advance of democracy globally, the focus on inspiration rather than action with regard to both democracy and human rights, the lack of a strong declaration on the connection between corruption concerns and national security threats, and little recognition of the valuable role that many U.S. allies play on these issues and the importance of close partnerships with them.
Nevertheless, the NSS can serve as a useful tool for democracy and rights champions inside and outside the government. For a Trump team elected with mostly vague foreign policy positions beyond defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State and walling out Mexicans, and after a first year that has been long on drama and short on policy details, the National Security Strategy represents a rare, codified statement of priorities. For those within the foreign policy and aid bureaucracies who are searching for pre-approved, high-level guidance upon which to base global policy stances, recommend country-specific actions, or justify budget proposals, there is a fair amount to choose from. Meanwhile, partners outside of the government can advocate and act in reference to many parts of the strategy’s framework.
Obviously, glaring contradictions exist between what language the strategy does include on democracy, rights, and governance and the Trump administration’s actual actions to date. To name just a few examples, the document’s tributes to free press, tolerance, transparency, anti-corruption, and pluralism stand in notable counterpoint to many of President Trump’s statements and actions. But the National Security Strategy does establish that U.S. foreign policy still officially includes supporting democracy, defending human rights, advancing accountable governance, mitigating fragility, and making at least some use of multilateral forums and mechanisms. For all concerned with these issues, the task now—as the administration moves to translate words on the page into deeds on the ground—is to try to ensure that this crucial basic fact becomes policy reality.