By Jono Davis
Columnist, International Relations Student
Can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I’m excited for a Trump Presidency (if only for the promising future in the realms of defense and foreign policy). The United States of America has lost its way a bit on the foreign policy stage, both blundering into Iraq and Afghanistan and then subsequently thinking that making amends meant quietly sitting in the back waiting for people to forgive and forget while unsubtly giving morally dubious militias weapons to fight wars against much more powerful forces. The hard truth is that America has the potential to be a true force for good on the global stage, but so far the 21st century has revealed it to be careless and unprepared for both the implementation of forces abroad but also national defense, seen most recently in the hacking of elections by Russia. While I’m not suggesting that a Clinton Presidency would have been a bad choice in the foreign policy realm, and if someone had asked me how I felt about Donald Trump three weeks ago I probably wouldn’t have had the strength to answer, what is clear is that Trump’s transition team is making smart appointments in the foreign policy sphere (domestically, that is a completely different story), that could lead to some much needed changes.
The United States of America has lost its way a bit on the foreign policy stage.
The first course of action however is to try and see passed the new administration as merely being Donald Trump as president elect. Despite being apparently unqualified, a racist, a rapist, a misogynist, a homophobe, and orange (no link needed), but also, at least in political experience terms, making George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan look like George H.W. Bush, it is worth remembering that the administration is bigger than the president, a fact that has only become more true every presidency. This is not to say that none of these allegations are true, and, as mentioned, it is hard to think of many people more qualified for the dictionary definition of the United States Presidential Office than Hillary Clinton, but instead of panic and anger, rational thought should be given to the Trump foreign policy and what it may look like. In studying his appointments in both the well-publicised Cabinet positions but also the less well-known members of departments, such as the staff on the National Security Council and the Pentagon, a clearer picture of America’s new foreign policy can be glimpsed.
Despite being apparently unqualified, a racist, a rapist, a misogynist, a homophobe, and orange (no link needed)… it is worth remembering that the administration is bigger than the president, a fact that has only become more true every presidency.
What is interesting about Trump, is that he is not an ideologue; in the last seventy years or so, that has yet to be a president that hasn’t had an agenda, a set of ideas that he wants to carry out in his years in office. This is a positive, as too many times has America been subjected to Presidents who have made unpopular decisions based on a bullish attitude to remain consistent with their ideologies (Ford’s pardon of Nixon comes to mind, or Clinton’s economic policy of boosting household income for the sake of American jobs), but a president who has no real idea is a president who is, in theory, open to suggestion and ideas from both sides of the aisle. His victory speech was, albeit for many Americans as hard to swallow as the victory itself, one of a president willing to compromise, declaring to “be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”
What is interesting about Trump, is that he is not an ideologue
On the other hand, the lack of a vision or idea is slightly worrying, especially when examining historical precedence. In 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush, unlike his father, was a novice on foreign policy. His inexperience led him to turn to his national security council for not just advice, but policy too – and thus the creation of the Bush Doctrine was established, outlined in the 2002 Paper The National Security Strategy of the United States. The issue was not that Bush turned to his advisors for advice (the name is not merely a misnomer), as no president could truly have been prepared for such a crisis that unfolded after 9/11, but whom the cabinet consisted of. One has to look no further than the infamous duo of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, both of whom worked together in the Nixon administration, with the former being nominated by the latter for his role in the Bush administration. It is widely known that these two men, and specifically Rumsfeld, would lead the charge in calling to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also developing the interrogation camps revealed in the 2006 Abu Ghraib Scandal. When an unprepared President surrounds himself with colluding hawks whom he doesn’t particularly know, there can really be only one outcome.
However, turning to Trump’s appointments, it doesn’t look as though the same story will be playing out here; despite having never even held any public office, let alone governorship of a state (which at least gives some political Executive experience), Trump is looking to run his presidency in the only way he knows how: like a business. This involves personal delegation and essentially creating “mini-presidents” amongst the executive whom he trusts. The trust is significant, for it is what separates Trump from most other presidents in that the appointments are hand-picked and vetted by him in a unique process, where previous presidents have delegated appointments to another figure (Obama appointed Vallerie Jarrett to essentially pick his executive team, and Bush relied heavily on Cheney). Of the few appointments that are known so far, a seemingly positive picture is already being painted of the direction the foreign policy of the US is going in.
When an unprepared President surrounds himself with colluding hawks whom he doesn’t particularly know, there can really be only one outcome.
The most important of these appointments are those that sit on the National Security Council, previously mentioned in being the deciding factor in the foreign affairs of any president. At the helm: Michael Flynn, one of the most bullish, if also most qualified, characters to ever hold the office and has also been an avid supporter of Trump from the beginning. Flynn worked in the Obama administration as Director of National Intelligence (DNI), as well as Commander of the Joint Forces Central Command of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (yes that is one title) and Chair of the Military Intelligence Board; it’s safe to say he’s qualified if nothing else. However, having been removed from his post a year early for his inability to compromise, Flynn left the Obama administration and set up a defense intelligence contracting company, Flynn Intel Group, most notably advising Turkish President Erdogan in 2015 and into 2016 as he began clamping down on his people’s liberties. While it is very difficult to prove Flynn’s culpability in Erdogan’s misdeeds (and much of the media has played up many of Flynn’ activities post DNI position) it would not be incorrect to say Flynn has no moral boundaries as to who he aids in intelligence improvements.
To Flynn’s credit, he has produced several very well received papers, notably the 2010: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan and the 2012: VISION2020: Driving Change Through Integration, both of which express much needed change to American military in both long-term combat operations and integration in both civil-military and Joint Forces relations. The ideas expressed in these papers are arguably another reason for Flynn’s early exit from the Obama administration, as while Obama was hesitant on making changes to the American military due to an already mounting domestic budget, Flynn almost daily ranted to staff that changes needed to be made, and the threat of terrorism, be it 9\11-esque in nature of cyber, should to be taken seriously. In his thirty-three years of military expertise and unprecedented knowledge, Flynn is not merely the rabid animal many media outlets have portrayed him to be.
Flynn is also a good choice when looking at his counterpart in the Defense Department, headed up by well-respected retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Despite the nickname, US military veteran and former Head of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command Mattis, is actually a foreign policy moderate and long-time supporter of John Kerry’s foreign policy. Like Flynn, he commands great respect from the armed forces, and his differences to Flynn on foreign policy look to act as a good counter-weight to Flynn’s worrying (to say the least) comments on Islam. Moving Mattis to Defense Secretary is a smart move, and one that should be readily applauded, especially given the lack of foreign policy initiative coming from the Obama administration.
Transitioning from positive to positive, Flynn’s experience and ideas for streamlining the US military, most likely attempting to cut the spiralling budget while increasing efficiency, and Mattis’s experience in NATO (he was at one point Supreme Allied Commander) and the U.S.’s appearance abroad, are only further supported by more apt appointments in the lesser staff. The National Security Council has now been filled with notable names such as Marshall Billingslea, former Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment at NATO, and Thomas Higgins who is Chief Administrative Officer for First Data, a Cyber Security, and Crisis Management firm. In the Pentagon too, we see Senior Vice President of defense contractor Cubic Corporation: Joseph Keith Kellogg, Vice President of Government for defense contractor Elbit Systems: Thomas Carter, and Senior Consultant at defense contractor Burdeshaw Ltd: Willian Hartzog.
These names should all be incredibly assuring, as it is now clear the direction the Trump foreign policy is, at least for the moment, currently going in, reining in budgeting and spending. With a Clinton Foreign Policy, it was almost expected to see some familiar faces; former national security advisor Tom Donilon (responsible for the largely unpopular Pivot to Asia) for instance, many of whom are experts at deploying and directing forces, but not at efficiently equipping these forces. With this Trump administration, a reset button has been pressed, and it looks as though the Defense Department and National Security Council are going to focus on national defense and budgeting, both of which are of paramount importance after a year of election hacking allegations, and a strengthening of militaries worldwide. Additionally, with a team of experts (fingers crossed) spending efficiently on the military for possibly the first time in American history, there is the possibility that there will be funds left over for infrastructure projects (instead of relying totally on trickle-down economics).
Does the Trump foreign policy team have issues? Absolutely. It could come to the fore as a result of his team putting their commitments in the Asia Pacific on the backburner (there are, as of yet, no Asia or Korean Peninsula in either the Pentagon of National Security Council) while North Korea only increases to develop its nuclear capability and Trump begins a potential trade-war with China. Alternatively, it could manifest from the worrying air of Islamophobia wafting around the White House. But does this mean that the current team won’t implement much needed change to America’s military? No, and in life unfortunately there’s no such thing as having your cake and eating it, and like it or not national security and military streamlining are two areas that the US has needed to significantly improve on; both of which appear to be at the forefront of Trump’s foreign policy team.
Featured image by Daniel Oines/Wikimedia Commons