Since Ronald Reagan was president, the commander-in-chief has been tasked with submitting the National Security Strategy to the Congress each year. It is, by statute, supposed to state the nation's global interests and objectives that are important to national security. No president has produced a strategy annually, and Donald Trump's administration was the first to publish its strategy in its inaugural year.
His administration's National Security Strategy was also the product of an intensely collaborative process upon which the president also had a "huge imprint," according to the document's lead author, Nadia Schadlow, who served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy until April.
"If you look at the president's speeches, both before he took office and in the early part of his administration," Schadlow said, "you'll see very much the integration of … the philosophy in the speeches and the document."
Revealed a year ago in December 2017, the strategy lays out the administration's four major pillars – protecting the homeland, promoting prosperity, preserving peace through strength and advancing American influence.
Before the document's release, there were concerns about how the president's well-known and forcefully articulated 'America First' governing philosophy might be reconciled with a strategy often focused on international cooperation, alliance-building, and engagement with multilateral institutions.
At the time, there were also widely perceived to be dueling factions within the White House. Those who subscribed to a traditionally internationalist worldview and were derided as "globalists" – like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster – were said to be at odds with so-called nationalists like former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to and lead speechwriter for the president.
But Schadlow, in an interview on Intelligence Matters with guest host Admiral Sandy Winnefeld (Ret.), said the document's core structure was determined early on by McMaster and Trump himself.
"We prepared briefings for the plane," during some of the early trips the president took, Schadlow told Winnefeld. "Plane time is always a good time to get things done."
She also said she personally briefed Trump on the document's key ideas "to ensure that they were aligned with what he wanted." The America-First approach in particular, Schadlow said, was ultimately expressed in the document in what she described as a "straightforward" way.
"By looking at what I always saw that it meant – How do you advance America's interests and values? And how do you keep that front and center?" she said, "and because those interests and values are actually consistent with the interests and values of our democratic friends and allies – I saw it as consistent."
She said the document's fundamental dichotomy lay between the values and principles of open societies versus those espoused by repressive and authoritarian regimes, and that the team drafting the strategy sought to strike a practical balance between strengthening institutions whose qualities benefit open societies while reevaluating those that have been manipulated by bad actors.
"What institutions have not changed or reformed or been updated since 1945?" she said. "It's hard to think of American businesses – they don't look the same. The U.S. military doesn't look the same. Many institutions have changed and evolved over time. It's a fresh look at the nature of that order," she said.
"I think the debate that we've been having over the past year and a half in Washington and elsewhere has actually been a healthy one – to force people to look at those questions in a hard-headed way," she said.
Schadlow submitted her resignation soon after Trump announced he would replace McMaster with John Bolton, who currently serves as national security adviser. Bolton has consistently expressed disapproval of, and occasionally disdain for, certain international deals, treaties and institutions. He has pushed president Trump to withdraw or threaten to withdraw the United States from a number of multilateral agreements.
Schadlow said a rigorous "outcome-based" evaluation of international institutions is sign that the strategy she helped write is unfolding in a meaningful way across its four pillars.
"[I]f you look at the priority actions, I think a lot actually is underway," she said. "I think the key now is to work with departments and agencies on implementation, to recognize that the White House doesn't really control implementation."
"Anyone who has worked in Washington knows it's a small group of people there and the departments are much bigger. They have the resources, the money, they people," Schadlow said. "Implementation is really important right now if you actually want to see sustainable change."
For much more from Sandy Winnefeld's conversation with Nadia Schadlow, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.