“Know that uncertainty you feel? For us, it is more than uncertainty—we are unsettled. And we don’t get a vote.” Those were the words of an embassy attaché from one of our European allies. He was speaking to a group of American foreign policy professionals leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The two candidates put before the American people this cycle could not have been more different in approaches to the U.S. role in the world in terms of both principle and style, and while the country debated, the world watched.
The one with an impressive foreign policy resume and with a predictable agenda that tracked with the weak and haphazard efforts of the current President lost; the one who was guarded and whose words were carefully scripted lost. The one determined to restore America’s strength and prestige won; the one without a foreign policy history, who is unafraid to challenge bipartisan orthodoxy won. This portends a very different future for America, her friends and her foes, especially contrasted with the last eight years.
So, what might Americans, our foes, and allies anticipate with Donald J. Trump at the helm? The president-elect’s choice for Secretary of Defense will certainly provide more granularity on specific issues. But contrary to popular opinion, the president-elect does seem to have a framework for how he views American foreign policy, and what I think we can expect from President Trump is a reset.
Trump will give the United States of America as clean of a start as we could possibly expect in this modern era. He carries with him no baggage. Despite his forceful rejection of globalism and multilateralism as ends in and of themselves, it is wrong to consider him an isolationist: he has claimed a willingness to vanquish America’s enemies and to work with those with common goals. It is also wrong to call him eager for war: he clearly has no stomach for intervening in wars he sees as unwinnable and with no discernable benefit to the United States. President Obama recently told the press that after talking with President-elect Trump, he thinks the president-elect is less ideological and more of a pragmatist. I’d put it a different way.
While certainly more a realist than idealist, more than anything, President-elect Trump has shown a desire to return prudence to the forefront of American national security and foreign policy, with an unapologetic commitment to American sovereignty and a recognition of American exceptionalism. He ran a campaign promoting the idea that America is unlike other nations. It is better. Unlike his predecessor, he will not highlight or apologize for her imperfections, because her imperfections still pale in comparison to what she is and the standards she holds herself to.
President Obama’s “apology tour” is over and the new Trump administration’s approach to America’s foreign policy agenda should include the following:
One, an unshakable commitment to the primacy of America’s military, with a special emphasis on our strategic capabilities, i.e. nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, to reassert America as the world’s superpower, unmatched in every military domain. Indeed, a foreign policy agenda that allows America’s leaders maximum options for engaging other nations and responding to events requires a military that is decidedly second-to-none. Over the past several years Obama administration officials, like Undersecretary Frank Kendall, have warned, “Today we are seeing that other nations’ advances in technologies, designed to counter this U.S. overmatch, are bearing fruit. This is true in areas like electronic warfare, air-to-air missiles, radio frequency and optical systems operating in non-conventional bandwidths, counter-space capabilities, longer range and more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles with sophisticated seekers, improved undersea warfare capabilities, as well as in cyber and information operations. While the US still has significant military advantages, U.S. superiority in some key warfare domains is at risk.”
Not only must the United States invest in research and development in the key areas listed by Undersecretary Kendall, it must also end, and reverse where there is a need, the practice of using the military to push a social engineering agenda that military leaders have forcefully argued would weaken the effectiveness and morale of our fighting forces. Additionally, the imprudent and harmful effects of sequester should be reversed and the Budget Control Act repealed. The Pentagon budget can and should be increased, but that does not mean that waste and abuse within the Pentagon should be tolerated as the price of doing business. Wasteful programs and military platforms long thought of as simply too big to end, should be cancelled, and their budgets should be re-routed to worthy and much-needed budget priorities.
Two, an eagerness to re-engage, assure, and cooperate with America’s allies. Before President Trump visits with America’s adversaries, it makes sense that he would visit America’s most critical allies, and the ones in especially dangerous neighborhoods that might need the most reassurance that after eight years of the weak and directionless Obama administration. He should communicate that American strength, leadership, and resolve is back. America remains the nation with the moral authority and military prowess to lead, and it will now do so—from the front. But this does not mean it will not listen to the concerns of others. Certainly, a few on that list of allies deserving priority attention from the new President includes perhaps most crucially, the Lithuanians (who understandably believe Russia might test NATO’s commitment to the alliance by undermining Lithuania’s sovereignty either directly or indirectly), the Israelis, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the South Koreans, and the Japanese.
Three, a resolve to protect Americans from those who threaten us and what we deem right and good, from a position of strength, not weakness. This will have a variety of implications, but, just to contrast it to the Obama administration’s willingness to allow America’s foes gain in strength to our detriment: North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon five times, four of them while President Obama has been in office. The most recent one occurred on the heels of a salvo missile test, more evidence that Pyongyang is mastering the ability to perform complex missile attacks. Just before that, it launched a submarine ballistic missile. Some in the intelligence community believe Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead so that it could be fitted atop a missile. The previous Northern Command Commander, Admiral Gortney, testified before Congress that he had enough information to assess that the North likely does have the capability (however unreliable) and to plan accordingly. The tempo of nuclear and missile tests is surely increasing, and with it, the confidence the Hermit State has in its own capabilities, and in the belief that nothing will be done to stop it from obtaining a reliable nuclear missile arsenal. President Obama, and Secretary Clinton, had a starry-eyed confidence in diplomacy at all cost. But diplomacy is meaningless if it does not actually achieve ends that further actual U.S. national security objectives. President-elect Trump can put teeth back into diplomacy, with a relentless quest to strengthen the United States, and return to the “peace through strength” policy of President Reagan.
Four, a willingness to identify America’s most immediate enemies and devise and execute military campaigns to defeat them after we have weighed and accepted the costs. Specifically, we can expect to see a new plan to finally destroy the Islamic State (IS). It will necessarily be very different than the military campaign we have witnessed the last several years. As the military strategist Angelo Codevilla explained, ‘Killing the IS requires neither more nor less than waging war—not as the former administration waged its “war on terror,” nor by the current administration’s pinpricks, nor according to the too-clever-by-half stratagems taught in today’s politically correct military war colleges, but rather by war in the dictionary meaning of the word. To make war is to kill the spirit as well as the body of the enemy, so terribly as to make sure that it will not rise again, and that nobody will want to imitate it.’ Because of the high price of fighting to win, we can expect military engagements to be fewer— and more furious.
Five, an audit of President Obama’s executive agreements, treaties, and a reworking, or a decision to enforce or eliminate those that undermine American primacy. For example, President Obama knew he could not pass the Iran Deal as a treaty because the Senate did not support it. It has deep flaws that if left unaddressed will further empower Iran in the region, contribute to its efforts to destabilize other nations, and allow it to develop its strategic arsenal so that it can more credibly threaten and coerce the United States. Also, Russia continues to violate the INF Treaty and is above New START Treaty limits. It makes no sense to remain party to a treaty in which only the United States is in accordance.
The new American president will certainly mean change that will affect both America’s allies and enemies. But there are some discernable principles that will determine policies and positions, and friends and foes will need to adjust plans and agendas accordingly. It certainly seems likely that those who wish to work with the United States towards common goals, peace, and security, will find a great partner in the United States of America. Those who do not, and who instead threaten American security and seek to undermine her objectives, will find a mighty, more serious opponent than what we have witnessed in recent history.