- By Vikram SinghVikram Singh is the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining CAP in 2014, Singh served at the State Department as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and at the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia. He focuses mainly on Asia policy, defense policy, human rights and humanitarian issues, and national security strategy. A native Californian, he lives with his family and some bees, chickens, cows, and horses in Virginia.
Donald Trump’s national security cabinet will serve largely as international explainers and soothers, smoothing ruffled feathers and helping partners accept the new reality of Trump’s America. The most all-star display of this to date will be at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. To the world leaders meeting the new U.S. team I offer this advice: Be polite, reassure your people, and have a plan to survive abandonment by the United States of America.
Munich will bring together a distinguished delegation of reassuring American leaders: Pence, Mattis, Kelly, and steadfast members of Congress like John McCain. They will call on allies to do more, of course. But they will be committed to NATO and Europe and firm in the face of Russian pressure — perhaps even “incredibly tough.” We know this because we’ve been watching the Trump foreign policy band on its “don’t worry, be happy” world tour.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was pitch perfect on his kickoff international trip to treaty allies South Korea and Japan, easing concerns by stressing that all the region’s maritime disputes have only diplomatic, not military, solutions. Secretary of State Tillerson started off by “Cleaning up after President Trump.” He’s quietly reassuring G-20 counterparts and before heading to Mexico, where he will laud joint efforts to combat organized crime and drug cartels and remind Mexicans that President Trump was just joking about invading their country to take care of some “bad hombres.” Mike Pompeo will reassure Iraqis that they can keep sharing intel on ISIS even though Trump banned each and every Iraqi citizen from America. Nikki Halley proves Trump’s toughness because she actually stands against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.
Rather than being a check on Trump’s worst instincts, however, these Cabinet officials will be his enablers. They are largely playing in an orchestra led by Steve Bannon who knows just how important comforting, credible voices are to the revolution he wants to launch.
Without voices of reason and patience, the underlying Trump strategy of unpredictability cannot work. Even as Trump proceeds to do the extreme things he has promised to his base — a trial-size Muslim ban, a border wall, punitive tariffs, deportation forces — he needs to reassure the majority of Americans and people around the world who were horrified by those plans. They — we — cling to hope that he’s full of bluster and trying for good negotiating positions. Folks like Tillerson and Halley will help us hold on to this illusion.
Someone also needs to run the day-to-day business of diplomacy, the military and the other arms of government. Competent and well-respected figures are useful in this regard, at least on foreign and national security affairs (even if they are left understaffed). By keeping normality going they enable the budding autocrat to launch an occasional shock-and-awe disruption like unilateral tariffs or an end to the one China policy or questioning commitments to mutual defense within NATO. The collective relief when things return to “normal” will mask the fact that some significant norm of behavior has been violated.
General Mattis demonstrated this during his first speech to NATO colleagues saying allies have to pay their fair share or America might “moderate” it’s alliance commitments. This raised eyebrows, but is being digested and accepted. It will be followed by more reassuring words. We will quickly grow used to these kinds of departures from the norm, and by the time we understand and accept how fundamentally things have changed, it will be too late. Indeed, the sanctity of NATO’s Article V commitment to mutual defense has already been compromised. Even if we gain higher European defense spending. America’s allies are now hedging against Washington in addition to Moscow.
Finally, good emissaries can convince us that Trump’s disruptive agenda is manageable. Mattis will convince allies that the new normal for is okay. Tillerson can reassure that NAFTA renegotiation will be in the spirt of prior revisions and that the U.S. does not want a costly trade war. Halley can keep up the idea that the U.S. will be a partner on global issues, at least for a while, even if she is putting UN members “on notice” just like Iran.
But promises from this administration are far from ironclad. They can be shattered with a single Presidential tweet. Protectionist barriers are not off the table. The free flow of information, goods, and services may be disrupted, rather than championed, by America. Allies may not have support from the U.S. in a conflict. Donald Trump has been true to his words, and he has listened to Steve Bannon, whose world view requires a Judeo-Christian war against Islam, seeks the breaking of post-World War II institutions from NATO to the UN, and expects war with China. He is surely first member of the National Security Council to support the dissolution of the European Union.
Munich is a venue for controversy. It’s where Donald Rumsfeld coined the term “old Europe,” criticizing America’s historic allies as self-satisfied relics while admiring scrappy new comers like Poland and the Baltics. They will all hear something they can cling to in Munich, but it should be a cold comfort. Secretaries of State and Defense and Members of Congress cannot commit the United States to any action in global affairs. That rests unpredictably with the President.
So, dear partners in Munich, thank America’s delegation for its honesty. Tell your people that you can work with this new American team. But get ready. When a true test of defending Western values arrives on your shores, be prepared to act alone as you did for most of World War I and World War II, waiting for America to awake.
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