Best Defense

What Gen. Mattis’s favorite strategist thinks about the election of Trump

As an academic with (small ‘l’) liberal leanings I am as discombobulated by the combination of the successes of Brexit and Trump as most of my colleagues in Europe and the US (including Republicans).

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By Sir Hew Strachan
Best Defense guest columnist

As an academic with (small ‘l’) liberal leanings I am as discombobulated by the combination of the successes of Brexit and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as are most of my colleagues in Europe and the United States (including Republicans). As a Scot I should be more used to it. Multiple, overlaying identities — Scottish, British, and European — have been under challenge for some time. Brought up to see them as constant, I am now confronting their malleability, and even transience. Unionism used to mean one thing in British politics (the union of the United Kingdom); in the Brexit era it can mean another. For Scottish nationalists you can be Scottish and European, but not British, and for Brexiters you can be Scottish and British, but you can’t be European. And now across the pond many Americans doubt their own constitution when it produces a president-elect who does not share what they understand to be American values.

As a historian I should be less surprised by all this. Historians deal in change, not in continuity. They are drawn to the break points in history, the causes of the American Revolution or the end of the Cold War. However, much as they are wedded to stability in their own lives, they know that in the long run neither the European Union nor NATO will last for ever, that for all the United States’ belief in its own exceptionalism its global predominance is not guaranteed, and that the absence of major war since 1945 is not a predictor of the future. As citizens living in conditions of extraordinary and comparative security relative to the past, we have too easily assumed that they are constants. Only when they disappear do we realize that we should have fought harder for their defense.

What has happened in 2016 is that we have awoken to the realization that what we persuaded ourselves for so long was certain and secure is in reality neither. In Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor’s new clothes, the emperor’s loyal subjects collude in the pretense that he is clothed when he is not because that is how they need to see him. It requires a child’s honesty to reveal the reality. Our clothes are the multilateral organizations produced by the post-1945 world order, the European Union, NATO and (although alarmingly too little addressed) the United Nations. The travails of the EU were self-evident before Brexit. Its principal problem has been the weakness of its Franco-German axis. As for NATO, many American politicians before Donald Trump have challenged the United States’ allies to do more for their own defense. They tend to forget how after 9/11 NATO rallied to the United States, and in 2006 staked its reputation on success in Afghanistan. Now, ten years on, allied troops are still there but their electorates have all but forgotten them. And pity the poor United Nations: Too often it can seem all but irrelevant to the concerns of either the United States or the rest of the world. In Syria, once the United States did not enforce its own “red lines,” the survival of the population of Aleppo depended on Assad and Putin, not on the west or the United Nations.

Strategists, for all their pontifications about the future, have failed on two counts. First, they have become too politically aware in their views. Politicians need to buttress current institutions, and in doing so feed the narrative that the institutions are robust and reliable, despite their need for reform and reinvigoration. Strategists need to be tougher, and to speak truth to power. Since the end of the Cold War, geopolitical pressures have taken the common ideologies of the “west” — democracy and liberal capitalism — in divergent geographical directions. Globalization, for all its rhetorical flourishes, has mattered less than regionalism. The United States has turned from the North Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific and East Asia. Meanwhile Europeans are driven by an opportunistic Russia and a flood of refugees to look to their eastern marches and the Mediterranean.

Secondly, strategists have failed because they have allowed their understanding of strategy to be dominated by their commitment to the status quo. Strategy has become obsessed with the mitigation of risk and the minimization of threats, rather than with the exploitation of the opportunities which risk presents. Strategy has to respond to and even initiate contingency, not to be fearful of it. Both the Brexit vote and the election of Trump amplify the risks which we face, but they also — like Hans Christian Andersen’s child — expose the emperor’s nakedness. We shall not master risk if we do not also embrace it. 

Sir Hew Strachan is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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