Trump Security Policy: Not a Lot to Draw On

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Donald Trump isn’t one to make detailed speeches or to offer commentary at think tanks or to post policy prescriptions.  And he doesn’t have a foreign policy track-record to explore. 

So that leaves pretty much the campaign rhetoric to rely on.  And campaign rhetoric historically gets softened by the realities of office (President Barack Obama and some electronic surveillance programs come to mind).  And the federal bureaucracy has its own way of pushing back, too.

Still, some clear Trumpian patterns have emerged over the past year, so I’m just going to assume that he will try to govern consistent with the language of his campaign. 

So—at the risk of sounding a bit more coherent than the candidate himself usually is—let me outline what I think would be the broad principles of a first Administration.

Immigration will be treated as more a threat to American well being than an advantage.  Extreme vetting, beautiful walls, and deportation forces will add up to a less welcoming country.  While exaggerating the threat posed by immigrants, the Administration will alienate adherents of one of the world’s great monotheisms, slow the entry of people who keep our population youthful and entrepreneurial, and reduce the number of foreign students in the country—many of whom in the past have mastered English and been imbued with American values before later becoming prime minister or such back home.

American alliances will become more transactional and less strategic and the core of the transaction will be “if they pay.”  In other words, relationships will be more based on a fee for service rather than on shared interests.  I doubt that burden sharing talks would exactly mirror a Staten Island protection racket, but we stand a good chance of alienating our friends and emboldening our enemies.

(By the way, countries like Japan, Korea, and Germany contribute billions each year to the upkeep of U.S. forces stationed there and the United States could not afford to keep those forces if they were to be returned to the United States.)

Despite being the global champion for free trade for three quarters of a century, the United States will turn more protectionist.  Trying to opt out of rather than manage globalization might seem an odd position for the world’s most powerful and still most envied economy.  And, whatever it may or may not do for domestic industries, opposing trade deals, like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), will cede influence over the shape of the future rules based commercial order to powerful competitors like China.

The Administration will reset relationships with the near peer and the pretender.  In short, China down, Russia up.  China down largely for alleged currency manipulation and product dumping rather than for its sand castles and aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea or its human rights crackdown.  Russia up, it would seem, without demands to amend its behavior in Ukraine, Syria, cyberspace, or elsewhere.  ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be friends with Russia?” has been the meme, with nil said about changing Putin’s behavior.

We will attempt to quickly kill our way to resolution of the challenges of ISIS and of the broader Middle East.  We will, specifically, “bomb the s**t” out of them.”  And, based on Mr. Trump’s Youngstown speech, any other “s**t bombers” will be our friend, since fighting ISIS will be the core criteria for defining American friendship. All of which, oddly, might eventually align us (If they ever get around to fighting ISIS) with monstrous Syrian President Bashar el Assad, state terrorist Iran, and Shia Hezb’allah.

It isn’t likely to solve the problem of terrorism, though, since we will not stick around long enough to change any facts on the ground.  Nation building is definitely out.

Finally, there will be some modestly increased investment in the armed force, but money to do what?  The historically high expenditures of the past 15 years have largely been consumed by operational and personnel accounts.  What’s needed now is investment in future systems, but which future systems—cyber, counterterrorism, maritime, air, ground, space, reconnaissance—will be favored?  The campaign hasn’t said, and budget realities won’t permit all. 

To be sure, there will be other changes.  We will learn more when we find out who will fill senior policy positions (no campaign chatter yet unfortunately). It will be exciting to see how national security issues are teed up for someone of such intense personal confidence.  We will quickly understand how advice might be given, welcomed, or acted upon. 

And then there will be the question of the President’s focus.  Will there be any?

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