Elevator pitches to Trump by The Blob, AKA The Foreign Policy Establishment
You’re a leading foreign policy expert and you just got into an elevator with President-elect Trump. You have a few moments to give your best elevator pitch on the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing his upcoming presidency. What do you say?
By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
You’re a leading foreign policy expert and you just got into an elevator with President-elect Donald Trump. You have a few moments to give your best elevator pitch on the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing his upcoming presidency. What do you say?
This was the fundamental premise behind the conference, “Lurking Crises, Hidden Opportunities,” hosted by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In true Harvard fashion, the one-day conference, held the other day at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., gathered a premier roster of foreign policy practitioners, journalists, scholars, and subject matter experts. The discussions ran the full gamut of challenges facing the Trump administration, from U.S.-China relations to Russian aggression, cyber threats, Syria and Iraq, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism. Ironically, the event represented an elite cadre of technocrats that Trump demonized and belittled throughout his campaign.
David Petraeus, former acclaimed general turned disgraced spy chief, opened the event by emphasizing the importance of managing “ungovernable spaces” where terrorist organizations flourish, and restoring American leadership abroad. Referring to the instability in the Middle East, Petraeus stressed, “You can’t drone strike or Delta strike your way of these problems.” Reflective of his counterinsurgency experience, the former general highlighted the importance of coalition building, sustainable solutions, and intelligence gathering for any administration entering the Oval Office.
When pressed about his recent meeting with Trump and speculations of his return to public service in a Trump administration, Petraeus answered, “I felt that he [Trump] was very pragmatic and I can work with that.”
His optimism, however, was not universally shared.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump has unnerved Beltway veterans with his support for torture, his advocacy and reversal on targeting the families of terrorists, and the speculation of his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin — just to name a few. The recent rumors of his nomination of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for energy secretary did nothing to ease these fears since Perry famously campaigned for abolishing the Energy Department in his own failed presidential bid.
Despite the appeal of eliminating unpopular federal agencies like the Department of Energy, the majority of the department’s mandate and budget involves American nuclear weapons and energy primacy — a cornerstone in U.S. national security. Daniel Poneman, a former deputy secretary of energy, argued the Department of Energy stands at a critical intersection of policy, defense, and science, citing the transformative power of reducing foreign oil dependencies. Similarly, William Tobey, the director of the Belfer Center’s U.S-.Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, warned that American nuclear primacy is in peril as its nuclear arsenal of B-52s, B-2s, Trident submarines, and Minuteman III missiles are dangerously outdated. Both pressed the need to maintain American nuclear primacy by exporting nuclear norms, being a global energy leader, and updating U.S. nuclear assets.
Concerning U.S.-China relations, Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor credited with the term “soft power,” stated, “managing the relationship with China is going to be one of the most important questions of your [Trump’s] Presidency, and of the century, because if you get this one wrong, it’s going be tremendously destructive. You have the largest and the second largest economies, but also a great power and a rising power and the danger of this becoming what my colleague, Graham Allison, calls the Thucydides’s Trap where the established power becomes too fearful and overreacts.”
Nye advised, “be tough with China, but be careful.” Containing China will only guarantee an enemy. He emphasized the importance of integrating China, while hedging one’s bets by reaffirming alliances in Asia like the US-Japanese security pact – a mixture of optimism and grim skepticism.
Likewise, James Winnefeld, the 9th vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned against “knee-jerk reactions” like the recent diplomatic gaffe over Taiwan and the One-China Policy. “I think it is really important for President-elect Trump to understand what he really [has] at his disposal if this gets out of hand and how hard he [can] play his hand in that regard or does he not have as strong of a hand as he thinks he does.”
“We do not have unlimited power,” Winnefeld added.
On trade, Robert Zoellick, a former U.S. trade representative from 2001 to 2005, counseled Trump to remember, “Each deal is about how it fits into the whole.” Recognizing Trump’s business experience, whether sincerely or sarcastically one could not tell, Zoellick advised that governmental trade deals are not stand-alone agreements, but impact a plethora of issues from tariffs to security cooperation. Nuance and foresight will be absolutely necessary for a Trump administration.
And in a world where cyber threats are constantly evolving and accusations of Russian hacking in the US election grab headlines, David Sanger, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, commented, “not only do we live in a glass house, we live in the glassiest house with the biggest rocks.” While the United States touts impressive offensive cyber capabilities, U.S. financial markets, critical infrastructure, and the military are all susceptible to cyber warfare. If President-elect Trump ignores Russian aggression in cyberspace or escalates the confrontation, the results will be disastrous. Let’s not forget other potential pitfalls like drone warfare and artificial intelligence.
Whether or not Trump heeds the advice of the foreign policy establishment, flippantly called the Blob, is anyone’s guess. Foreign Policy‘s Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor and the world’s premier realist, stated, “2016 was a really bad year for the establishment.” Through the course of the election, President-elect Trump challenged core tenets of U.S. foreign policy like the value of free trade, the importance of NATO, and American commitment to a two-state solution.
Not one to pull punches, Walt criticized the establishment, saying, “despite the fact that the world is a lot worse than it was in 1993, now 2016, so much so that Donald Trump can get elected, people in the Blob don’t seem to have changed their mind on anything.” According to Walt, the failure of Hillary Clinton as a candidate and the very establishment she represented was rooted in the inability to parade any “huge achievements.” By 2016, the economy was sluggish after a devastating financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exuded futility, and American prestige struck a disappointing low.
Thus, riding a wave of anti-establishment and anti-globalization rage, Trump won the election. And despite the vehement opposition of the foreign-policy establishment by both parties, or maybe because of it, Trump will soon wield immense power and influence in U.S. foreign policy. How he intends to transform his ad hoc and self-contradictory stances into longterm policies is questionable at best and terrifying at its worst.
Jake Sullivan, a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, confessed, “we have no idea what the foreign policy of the next four years will be.”
At the end of the day, one cannot help but feel that there is no elevator high enough or a pitch succinct enough to prepare the president-elect for the enormous tasks facing his presidency. Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center, put it best: “What do you do with a president that believes conventional wisdom is wrong and the keepers of that wisdom are wrong?”
Sebastian J. Bae, a contributor to Best Defense at Foreign Policy, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. Afterwards, he received his masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in violent non-state actors and counterinsurgency. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianBae.
Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images