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The US security strategy falls short, but not for the reasons cited by Trump critics

Niall Ferguson

(South China Morning Post) – As 2017 draws to a close, the world has seldom been so binary. You love Donald Trump or you loathe him. You adore Brexit or abhor it. This polarisation has been fostered by giant online social networks and the phenomenon students of networks know as “homophily”: birds of a feather flock together.

Facebook encourages you to like or not like what you see in your news feed. Twitterallows you to retweet or like other people’s tweets or block users who offend your sensibilities. Pretty soon you are in a filter bubble with people who share your view of the world. The result is paradise not just for fake news but extreme views.

In the wake of the exposure of Harvey Weinstein, shrill voices insist all men are potential rapists. Since the death of a (white) protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, zealots insist all white people are racists. White men must therefore be racist rapists.

I have had a tough time this year explaining even to friends why I like some aspects of the Trump administration while disliking others. And I wish I’d had a bitcoin for each time someone complained that my position on Brexit has flip-flopped; I’m just ambivalent.

I had a great deal of sympathy last year with those who expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo by voting for Brexit or Trump. But I was also aware there would be significant difficulties with both these populist ventures, as has proven the case. This used to be known, in a bygone era, as nuance.

A good occasion for more ambivalence is the Trump administration’s new national security strategypublished last week. As usual, there were plenty of commentators ready to denounce it and predict the imminent end of days, similar to the calamities supposed to follow the ending of net neutrality – the policy requiring internet service providers to treat all data equally – and the passage of the Republican tax cuts. In reality, this new national security strategy is a great improvement on the last administration’s essays in “strategic patience”.

Gone are the highfalutin but vacuous proclamations of virtue that were Barack Obama’s presidential signature tune. Instead we have a muscular and unambiguous identification of the principal threats to America and a clear commitment to meet those threats by force if necessary.

The idea that this document will destroy the “liberal international order” and unleash the third world war is absurd. It was high time to call out China, increasingly brazen in its assertion of power in the South China Sea and further afield.

This was Obama’s 2015 security strategy: “The scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented … The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asiaand around the world … While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation.”

Compare and contrast with the 2017 edition: “China seeks to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its [favour] … China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance.

“It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying … China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

I know which I prefer. I also agree wholeheartedly that it was naive to assume that including Russia and China “in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners”.

Those who worry about alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year ought to welcome tough talk about Russia. Those who feared Trump would terminate Nato should be reassured.

My concern about the US security strategy is that it is a fundamentally old-fashioned document. Its main preoccupations are threats posed by established nation-states – China, Russia, North KoreaIran. The document says much less about the new threats all nation-states now face.

Cyber-warfare can potentially disrupt vital infrastructure without warning. A new strain of influenza could devastate the world. Nano-technology could threaten conventional forces with swarms of hostile devices.

Climate change is conventionally cited as the principal common danger facing all the world’s states. But it is only one of a number of such dangers and by no means most proximate. The new security strategy alludes to some of these threats, but it does not make clear how America is going to combat them. Coming in the wake of a tax bill that significantly reduces the federal government’s tax base for the foreseeable future, the US security strategy can make only vague commitments to increase expenditure on national security.

The new strategy is therefore just another aspect of Trump’s administration about which it is right to feel ambivalent. It’s an improvement, but it falls a long way short of explaining how America can be made great again.

But as the authors of the 2017 strategy note: “China, Russia and other state and non-state actors recognise that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war’, when it is actually an arena of continuous competition.”

This applies equally to domestic politics, where binary thinking is the enemy of rigorous thought.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power

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