The Influence of Thomas Hobbes on Trump’s National Security Strategy
By Kelly C. Jordan, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Military Studies at American Military University
The new National Security Strategy (NSS), unveiled by the White House in December 2017, is based on the acceptance of a global dynamic defined by competition. This NSS reflects the approach of English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes – intentional or not – who viewed the sacrifice of individual liberty as an acceptable trade off for increased security and the chance for survival.
The existing divisions within our country, however, make it difficult for citizens to identify and agree upon shared values and objectives. It is essential for our nation and its allies to agree on these shared values and objectives and view them as worthy of the required sacrifice.
Differing Viewpoints Often Cause Allies to Be Seen as Rivals, Not Partners
Our differing viewpoints often cast our allies as rivals working at odds with the United States (also a Hobbesian notion) rather than as partners that meet their responsibilities. This situation has produced a certain wariness with respect to trust and cooperation between the U.S. and all of its allies.
This situation requires the U.S. to take on a more substantial burden if we are to remain competitive. We must harness our national assets, akin to the total mobilization of WWII and during the Cold War. Once we coalesce, our marshaled resources will enable us to compete successfully and achieve shared objectives.
The alternative is to consider partnerships with national leaders who may not share our values or objectives. Regardless of the approach, identified areas of agreement should be made explicit and mutually beneficial. That may reduce the number and type of opportunities for true collaboration and create unusual partnerships, but it would also ensure that all actions would remain in our national interest.
How Trump’s National Security Strategy Reflects Basic Hobbesian Objectives
The four pillars of the NSS reflect support for taking action according to three primordial objectives identified by Hobbes: safety, gain and reputation. Here is how each NSS pillar relates to each Hobbesian objective:
- Protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life. (safety)
- Promote our prosperity. (gain)
- Preserve peace through strength. (safety)
- Advance American influence. (reputation)
Note that two of the four pillars relate to the primordial objective of safety. Safety as a relative priority in the NSS, which is both understandable and reasonable.
The NSS embraces the Hobbesian notion that the world is in a perpetual state of conflict due to competition for power or limited resources. Trump’s policy supports taking action in pursuit of Hobbes’ three primordial objectives and promotes nationalistic values and interests.
But does Trump’s national security strategy provide a reasoned justification for an American switch to the use of Sharp Power? That would create an international order in which the U.S. and other powerful states act in their own interests that also support American principles.
Could that lead to a balance of power favorable to U.S. security, prosperity, and a Western-oriented peace? Only time will tell.
About the Author
Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at AMU. He holds a B.A. in history from the Virginia Military Institute, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University. His teaching interests include military studies, military history, national security, and leadership. Kelly has also published multiple works, including The Yin and Yang of Junior Officer Learning, charting the development of the Army’s education program for its captains, ‘Formation’ in Formation, describing the remarkable capacity of military schools to develop character and leadership in adolescent boys, and is the co-author of Leadership in Agriculture: Case Studies for a New Generation. He has a chapter on leadership as a profession in the forthcoming Professionalizing Leadership: Debating Education, Certification and Practice, and manuscripts regarding the American Preparedness Movement and the Korean War under consideration by Texas A&M University Press.