Crisis and Conviction: US Grand Strategy in Trump’s Second Term

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Image courtesy of US Department of Defense/James K McCann.

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 6 August 2018.

In the spring of 2014, before Donald Trump’s presidency was even a rumor, I began an article about the sources of U.S. grand strategy. By “grand strategy,” I mean a state’s way of orchestrating means and ends to achieve security over the long haul. I argued that the habitual ideas and pervasive influence of the U.S. foreign policy establishment make the fundamentals of American statecraft hard to change. What former advisor Ben Rhodes called the “Blob” and what former National Security Council official Michael Anton called the “priesthood” defines and dominates the ecosystem in which foreign policy is made. It exerts its influence through its expertise and its advantageous structural position as a “revolving door” between government, academia, think tanks, foundations, and corporations, reinforced by the feedback loop of allies’ demands for American patronage. In turn, the establishment successfully advances the view that the only prudent and legitimate grand strategy for the United States is “primacy,” the pursuit and sustainment of unrivalled dominance.

Accordingly, the conservative force of tradition would constrain even revisionist presidents intent on change. Prior choices — over military power, alliances, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of American capitalism — would probably persist. Grand strategic change is possible. But it requires two interacting elements that come together rarely: a major strategic shock and a determined president willing to bear the costs of overhauling American security commitments. Until those forces convene, the United States has a powerful default setting of “leadership,” despite disappointing wars, economic crises, and increasing public fatigue with the burdens of hegemony.

Then Trump came to power. Trump provides us with a live experiment that tests the argument, or at least the proposition that short of a major shock and a committed agent of change, the existing strategy will endure. How well does it stack up? Here, I offer two hypotheses. First, despite his aggressive words, his maverick deeds, his authoritarian tendencies, his allies’ doubts, and critics’ lamentations, Trump hasn’t yet altered U.S. grand strategy in its fundamentals. That doesn’t mean he has personally converted to tradition. Trump is still Trump. But so far, he has been constrained. He is not a determined-enough agent of revision to destroy what he inherited. The structure of American power-projection persists. However much he commands center stage, Trump is not America. Even this flame-throwing “outsider” is counter-balanced by the weight of congressional will, the cumulative advice and pressure of Cabinet, the security bureaucracy and the CIA, and the appeals of allies. Violating conventions and slobbering admiringly over international rivals is not the same thing as overhauling a grand strategy at its foundations. That task would take more resilience and more time commitment than the president has shown.

Secondly, though, this may change. If Trump is re-elected in 2020 — a distinct possibility — there is a chance that we will see both forces of change come together. If we see a fundamental shock that discredits the status quo and weakens the authority of the establishment, the environment will become more receptive to fundamental change.

The Show So Far

Among anxious commentators, the defining temptation of the Trumpian moment is to emphasize high drama that eventually leads to a rupture in the Pax Americana. America’s establishment primacists pour obsessively over the president’s tweets and antics. They presume the power of one president’s rhetoric to destroy quickly the post-1945 dispensation, suggesting it must have been fragile to begin with. Old Europe and Putinist Russia form the focus of these lamentations. They point to Trump’s antagonisms with allies such as Angela Merkel’s Germany, his overt coercion of European partners and brute demands that NATO allies pay up for American protection or else, his sinister linkages with Moscow, and his gutting of the State Department. The complaints comport to Twitter word limits. “This is Putin’s dream,” claims Nick Kristof. Wailings from some grandees are ahistorical and shallow.

The United States and its diplomacy, though, is not simply the captive of one demagogic commander-in-chief. It moves on two axes. Trump’s heterodox rhetoric and brutally transactional worldview are only one. The second axis is a long built-up assumption that the United States must lead the world. This entrenched idea determines the legitimacy and standing of those who hold office. It is the core concept of what has become an elite “common sense.” It demands that the United States must be the world’s dominant power; that it must have an outsized military power; that it must be preponderant particularly in the three vital power centers of the world, Europe, the Gulf, and East Asia; that it must exercise dominance through allies whom it must contain and subordinate; that it must strive to prevent “rogue” adversaries from acquiring nuclear weapons; and that it must prize open and expand markets for the penetration of American capital. To alter this structure, shred alliances, retrench security commitments, frame the world not as an American domain but as multipolar spheres of influence, would take more than attention-grabbing statements. It would take a sustained, costly, and fiercely fought political struggle, domestically and abroad.

Thus far, the bottom line about Trump’s presidency is that before he took office, he threatened to govern as an isolationist, but he has not. Instead of addressing the failures of primacy, he is exacerbating them. When running for office, Trump promised to extricate America from unnecessary wars. He toyed with the idea of tolerating others’ nuclear proliferation. He pronounced NATO to be “obsolete.” He took up the slogan of interwar isolationism, “America First.” This worldview persists. He is no convert to the traditional ethos of the Pax Americana. In his contractual view of international affairs, he would prefer to draw down global military deployments. He would prefer not to be bound by alliance commitments. He would rather accommodate other major powers and let them dominate their back yards. He would be content for regional powers to be security providers. And he has no time for the traditional logic that the hegemon pays more than the lion’s share of the defense bill in order to keep allies subordinate.

He has not governed this way. Look beyond the tweets to follow the money and the troops. Trump is aggressively reasserting American primacy, not dismantling it. Rather than bringing the legions home, Trump is reinforcing their central importance, emptying the treasury to strengthen them, and even asking for military parades. Thanks to his deficit-financed military build-up plus his extravagant tax cuts, the annual budget deficit has ballooned by 12 percent since last year, and is projected to rise by an additional $100 billion a year. In the Middle East, Trump has doubled down on America’s bid to remain predominant for the foreseeable future, increasing civilian and military deployments by 33 percent (as of November 2017) along with accelerated arms sales, while strengthening ties with the Saudi bloc and Israel to confront and coerce Iran, America’s main rival in the region. In Asia, Trump has pursued the nuclear disarmament of North Korea while increasingly confronting China about Taiwan, trade, and the South China Sea. We can debate what to call this, but it isn’t isolationism.

The disjuncture between Trump’s anti-traditionalism and American deeds, indeed between Trump and the policy thrust of the executive branch, is most apparent in U.S.-Russian relations. Trump’s notorious words are often contradicted by the details of actual policy. Trump stands accused of treasonous collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s regime, due not only to allegations of electoral interference and private one-on-one meetings, but deferential statements about Russia’s security interests, congratulating Putin on re-election, and suggesting that Russia be invited back to the G-7. But amid the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s fascination for the extent of Trump’s collusion with Putin, its almost Trumpian fixation with televisual optics, and its fondness for grandiose tracts about “world order,” it neglects the prosaic details of concrete commitments.

Consider the totality of American policy towards Russia since January 2017, which is the product of multiple decision-making centers, and some of which is forged despite Trump. Around the infamous Brussels and Helsinki reports, a significant act went under-reported. Before he went to Brussels, Trump addressed the Three Seas Initiative at Warsaw, where he pitched the United States as an alternative energy supplier to Russia, explicitly to break Russia’s gas monopoly, his Energy Secretary presented the United States as an alternative market provider to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Moscow noticed with displeasure. Whether or not Trump threatened to quit NATO, its members are spending evermore on defense, which is not a happy result for Russia. Despite protestations, European states retain powerful incentives to stick with Washington. There are no signs of their abandoning the alliance to rearm independently or bandwagon with other powers.

Consider too other measures. He has appointed hawkish American primacists and Putin critics to Russia-related official posts. He has expanded sanctions, including an expanded Magnitsky list of targets. The Justice Department has forced Russia Today to register as a foreign agent. Trump has expelled Russian diplomats. Trump has armed Ukraine, Romania and Poland. The U.S. has reinforced NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Poland and the Baltic states with increased troop numbers and more exercises, and presided over the expansion of NATO into Montenegro and Macedonia, against Russian efforts to keep its clients in the Balkans and resist E.U.-NATO enlargement, while courting Ukraine and Georgia as future alliance members. The United States also acquires low-yield nuclear weapons with the explicit rationale of competition against Moscow, to remain “top of the pack” among nuclear powers. Trump twice authorized airstrikes against Syria, Russia’s Middle Eastern client state, against Putin’s protests. He also loosened the rules of engagement in Syria, struck Russian troops and mercenaries there and bragged about it. So far, the U.S. refuses to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. Is this Putin’s dream?

Some commentators, like Daniel Vajdich and James Carafano, maintain this confrontational stance is Trump’s own. Carafano attributes Trump’s reassertion of American hegemony to a coherent Trumpian vision, a “large dose of peace through strength: showing strong face to his enemies with military and economic pressure,” while offering them a “chance to stop competing.” This is an elegant explanation. But it overstates the president’s command of the policy process. The picture that emerges is more fraught. A surer verdict must await future archives, but from the pattern of what we can know about the process behind these choices, a reluctant Trump is constrained to maintain a hard-line policy mix. This is despite his public braggadocio and despite his instinctive belief that Washington should delegate anti-Putin countermeasures to Europeans. Similarly, he retains a personal preference for pulling troops out of Afghanistan, South Korea, and Syria. Yet advisors pressed him successfully to maintain the traditional U.S. posture so far. “You guys want me to send troops everywhere,” Trump charged Secretary of Defense Mattis, whose response (“You have no choice”) carried the day.

As well as being subject to constant advice to maintain a tough stance on Russian adventurism, domestic criticism of any conciliation of Russia and the Mueller investigation that the foreign policy establishment has encouraged have led Trump to complain that he “can’t put on the charm” or “be president.” Trump acknowledges that he is boxed in: “Anything you do, it’s always going to be… ‘He loves Russia.’” “I just want peace,” he complained when aides pushed him (successfully) to supply lethal aid to the Ukraine. The White House initially invited Putin to visit Washington, but subsequently postponed the occasion, citing the “Russia witch hunt.” If Trump had his way, as one former official put it, he would purse a “much more open and friendly policy with Russia.” So far, he hasn’t had his way on most first order questions. The environment is too resistant. The actor is not determined enough and doesn’t have enough political capital to spend. True, in the field of economics, Trump’s stoking of trade wars and large leaps in protectionism are a departure from post-Cold War policies, though he adheres to the impulse of creating markets open for American business and on American terms. On security questions, though, if it is hard politically to arrange a Putin visit to the White House, the constraints against doing what Moscow would like, negotiating a “Yalta-2” grand bargain to recognize a Russian sphere of influence — or withdraw from Europe — are strong.

It is thus premature to argue that Trump is “off the chain,” as Hal Brands does. Brands notes that the constraining influence of Secretary Jim Mattis has waned, now that he has fallen out of favor, and that Trump is increasingly being Trump. Yet none of the concrete policies identified above have lapsed. And to focus on palace intrigue over which appointee is in the ascendancy is to miss the larger pattern. While Trump periodically falls out with just about everyone, the policy ecosystem is dominated by primacists and the primacy consensus. Though Tillerson and McMaster fell from grace and departed, the pool of capable talent from which the president selected appointees remains primacist. As Steve Bannon once observed, once you remove anti-Trump neoconservatives and never-Trumpers, the group of viable conservative candidates for official positions is not a “deep bench.” Accordingly, Trump has replaced estranged hawkish primacists with even more hawkish primacists as his new consiglieres: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, alongside U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who endures as the unapologetic voice of superpower assertion.

The Precipice: Trump’s Second Term

We would be wise to entertain the possibility of a second term of Trump. Thus far, it has proven futile for Trump’s critics to seek refuge in wishful expectations that he would go away, a wish found wanting every time it is updated. Recall that critics have hoped Trump wouldn’t win the nomination; that he would lose the election; that he would be impeached; that he will not stand again for office. The hope for a post-Trump return to political normality is similarly vain. After Trump there will likely be more Trumps, given the force of populist revolt that he has stirred, and the general dissatisfaction with the alleged liberal world order, whose breakdown and failures made Trumpism possible in the first place.

There are good reasons to expect Trump to be a strong contender for re-election. Since World War II, incumbency has been a strong force in U.S. presidential politics. It has been rare for one of the two major parties to hold the presidency for only one term. Consider too Trump’s standing. His disapproval ratings are at historic highs, yet he also strongly mobilizes his base. Donations to Trump’s re-election campaign flood in. Trump enjoys near record approval from Republican voters, with no sign of mass defections. As things stand, he can campaign for a second term with a contentious but powerful story: a booming economy, low unemployment, a rising stock market, strictly enforced borders and tariff walls, and making peace through tough confrontation of North Korea and Iran. Each of these claims can be unpicked. But rebutting them takes explanation. In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re failing. Trump may be fortunate that his re-election timetable coincides with the right side of an economic “boom bust” cycle. Were he to win a second term, and especially if the margin was more decisive, the conditions of his presidency would change. If he won big, he would have more political capital to spend. He would feel vindicated by the authority of a second mandate. Term limits would mean that he would no longer need fear election failure. It is possible that Trump “Mark 2” would be more willing to tolerate the costs of introducing major change in American grand strategy.

Consider further the possibility of a major strategic shock, with an impact comparable to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. By definition, the shape and outline of the shock is unclear. And we can’t know when it would happen. But if the literature on great power decline is sound, it would likely have military and economic dimensions, featuring some fatal interaction of war and debt. The source of the next financial crisis could lie elsewhere, but Trump’s own policies also make more likely what was an implicit tendency, increasing the debt-deficit load and repeating a familiar pattern, whereby a large deficit-financed military build-up, deficit-financed wars (alongside tax cuts) stimulates demand, creates bubbles of irrational exuberance, overheats the economy, and eventually leads to a loss of confidence in markets. This would be followed by a contraction, but this time without the financial reserves that were available to mitigate the last financial crisis. This process could erupt sooner rather than later.

It would take the combination of a strategic shock great enough to discredit the status quo and a determined revisionist president. If so, then these forces might come together, to take the president off the chain, and to create a domestic environment more hospitable to major change. Earlier security shocks, such as the 2008 financial crisis, did not lead in this direction because the Bush administration was averse to retrenching commitments. With Trump or a Trumpian figure in the white house, one response that was once taboo would be on the table: a fundamental retrenchment of overseas commitments, along the lines of Trump’s instincts. It isn’t certain what this will involve, but it would be drastic and imply a different assumption about how to pursue security. It could lead the United States to, for example, withdraw from the Gulf and let Saudi Arabia acquire the bomb, or to acknowledge Russia’s view of its sphere of influence while withdrawing from NATO or decisively repudiating Article 5, or to reduce military expenditure just to the level needed for the United States to deter attacks and defend itself.

American “greatness” would still be Trump’s signature tune, but it would be redefined around liberating America from foreign entanglements, investing in and walling off the country, and an industrial renaissance. To be sure, the American foreign policy class would fight back furiously. But like in the era of Vietnam and the oil embargo, its power and confidence would be diminished. Already scarred by the last global financial crisis, stagnating wages and general alienation, the populace would be more receptive. An emboldened and more risk-prone president would be willing to hire outsiders as officials, less experienced and capable but ideologically attuned to the narrower security vision of “America First.”

All this might be difficult to imagine. But rapid realignments of grand strategy can happen. As I argued, one example is Great Britain’s postwar abandonment of empire. New conditions were inhospitable to the exhausted country maintaining its colonies. These included the cumulative fiscal pressures of World War II, decolonization resistance, the United States’ dismantling of the economic order of imperial preference and the sterling bloc; and the shock of the Suez crisis of 1956, which revealed Britain’s vulnerability to U.S. coercion. Successive British governments were impelled to bow to these pressures once they became overwhelming. They then redefined Britain’s status around alliances and nuclear weapons, presenting retreat from empire as a graceful management of change and casting the emergence of independent countries as “the crowning achievement of British rule.”

If we see a different kind of President Trump unleashed by new conditions, less constrained and more emboldened, in a context where major retrenchment becomes thinkable and attractive, only then will he or his heirs probably try to bring down the priesthood’s temple. If so, as Steve Bannon suggested, the next episode of Trump’s prime-time show will be as “wild as shit.”

About the Author

Professor Patrick Porter is Chair in International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. His book, “Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq” will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2018.

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