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A Grand Strategy Challenge Awaits Trump
The strategy that has guided post-Cold War presidents thus far may have reached a crisis point.
Public attention is rightly focused on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition effort, especially his effort to assemble his cabinet and senior national security team. Personnel is policy in any administration, but that truism is likely to be particularly operative in the Trump administration. It matters who he picks, because those picks could dramatically alter the trajectory of policy. (That is partly why I continue to urge my friends to be willing to serve if they are asked, and why I think my friend Eliot Cohen is wrong to argue the opposite.)
Foreign policy and national security are always important, but I believe they are especially important now for two related reasons. First, Trump is set to inherit a foreign policy mess. There was an interesting and under-noticed convergence in views — across all the Republican candidates, and more interestingly, among many of the most senior experts on the Democratic side of the aisle — around the idea that President Barack Obama, whatever his intentions, is bequeathing to his successor a set of foreign policy challenges that are much harder than what he himself inherited. The unusual amalgam of threats — state-based and nonstate-actor-based, in every region of the world and linked across regions — is more daunting than any faced in the post-Cold War era. The country needs the A-team to manage these myriad crises and challenges.
Second, and more profoundly, the grand strategy that has guided post-Cold War presidents thus far — that Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all have followed to a greater or lesser extent — may itself be reaching a crisis point. Of course, every presidential election is something of a crossroads for American grand strategy. Every president comes in determined to put his stamp on the strategy and to shift it in one direction or another. And there have been shifts, some quite consequential, over the past 25 years. But the continuity across administrations has always been greater than any occupant of the Oval Office would want to admit, and the reasons are easy to explain. Regardless of campaign rhetoric, once responsible for actual policies, presidents have been “mugged by reality” and obliged to do more of what came before than they intended.
Thus, Obama, despite campaigning on a hyperbolic critique of Bush’s foreign policy, and despite taking great pains to talk about his policies in a different way, ended up largely continuing Bush’s second term approach to the global war on terror, continuing Bush’s Asia strategy (albeit rebranding it as the “pivot”), continuing Bush’s emphasis on development aid, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, continuing Bush’s approach to action-oriented multilateralism, and so on.
To be sure, Obama made important changes that may have had decisive effect. For instance, while ordering a Bush-like surge in Afghanistan, Obama also simultaneously imposed an artificial withdrawal timeline dictated by the American electoral calendar, thus undercutting the effectiveness of the surge. Obama inherited a war in Afghanistan that was not going well and will be handing off to Trump the same war that is still not going well — only this time, the medicine of a surge has already been applied and so may not be available. Similarly, all post-Cold War presidents preferred an onshore balancing strategy in the Middle East, but Obama shifted decisively toward an offshore balancing strategy in 2012. This shift proved disastrous for American interests and paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State, forcing Obama to shift back once again to an onshore balancing in the region.
The tweaks Obama made to the legacy of post-Cold War grand strategy probably go a long way to explaining why he achieved much less favorable results than his predecessors did.
But beyond the tweaks, Obama’s grand strategy may have underperformed for another crucial reason: The assumptions on which the grand strategy rests have increasingly come under question. Every grand strategy involves a set of assumptions about the geopolitical landscape. If those assumptions are accurate and the rest of the logic of the strategy is sound, then the strategy has a good chance of producing success. But if the assumptions are inaccurate, then the strategy will not produce good results, even if the rest of the logic is otherwise sound.
On Obama’s watch, especially in recent years, several of the most important assumptions of American post-Cold War grand strategy have become increasingly contestable. And it is likely that on Trump’s watch, the day of reckoning will come. America’s national security leaders will have to take stock of the global situation and either change the facts on the ground to bring them more into alignment with the assumptions of the legacy grand strategy, or change the grand strategy to fit the new reality.
This is the heart of an argument I have advanced in new article, coauthored with Hal Brands (my former Duke colleague, recently a strategic advisor in the Defense Department, and then on to Johns Hopkins’ Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies), Stress-Testing American Grand Strategy, forthcoming in Survival and available online now.
We identify seven core assumptions of American grand strategy that were either demonstrably true or at least widely accepted as true for most of the post-Cold-War era but increasingly look doubtful — and that could collapse entirely over the next four years:
1) The United States enjoys and will continue to enjoy uncontested military primacy, not just globally, but in all key strategic theaters.
2) U.S. allies are the richest, most capable countries in the world.
3) A richer and more globally integrated China will also be a freer and more peaceful China.
4) Great-power war is obsolete.
5) The advance of democracy is unstoppable and irreversible.
6) Globalization is inexorable.
7) Technological innovation will lead to greater human flourishing and freedom, and will disproportionately favour the United States.
In the article, we explain how that assumption shaped grand strategy for the past 25 years, why it looks less certain going forward, and what that means for grand strategy choices. As they say in the business, read the whole thing.
If you do, I think you will reach the same conclusion we did: Members of Trump’s national security team will have their hands full and their minds tested. From day one, they will have to manage a welter of over-boiling pots of crises and failing policies — and while keeping those lids on, simultaneously figure out whether the overall grand strategy needs a fundamental reassessment.
This would have been true regardless of who won the election, but it is the solemn assignment Trump worked so hard to get. How he manages this complex assignment will go a long way to determining the success of his presidency.
Photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images