The big question about the new Trump administration is whether its foreign policy will reflect President Trump’s views or long-standing Establishment positions. It is too early to offer a firm answer, but early indications are worrying.
The past several weeks have seen senior administration officials traveling the world, offering reassurances to our (mostly worthless) allies that no policy changes are coming. We will continue to be committed to war with China over the Japanese Senkaku islands, which are uninhabited; war with Russia over the Baltic states (which Russia is unlikely to attack); and, most worrying, to continued confrontation with Russia for no reason in particular.
The latter is the central point. President Trump, during and after his campaign, made establishing good relations with Russia the key to his foreign policy. He was correct to do so. If we are to have a foreign policy for the 21st, not the 20th, century, it must begin with an alliance first with Russia, then with China. This alliance needs to be directed against not any other state, but violent non-state Fourth Generation entities. This new Triple Alliance, in turn, should serve as the basis for an alliance of all states with the goal of preserving the state system against Fourth Generation challenges.
President Trump has yet to articulate this grand strategy. But he has tried to lay the basis for it by ending our hostility toward Russia. That is the sine qua non. Without an American-Russian alliance, the rest of the strategy is impossible.
Yet President Trump’s officials are sending a contrary message. We will continue to regard Russia as an opponent, they tell NATO, the EU, and Japan. With the latter, they add the same message about China, compounding the move away from the Triple Alliance we need.
What does President Trump do about this? Anything? What he needs to do is gather his senior national security officials, make it clear to them that he wants an alliance with Russia and China and that he expects them to work to that end. If they will not, there’s the door. They are free to resign.
The senior officials are counting on the fact that the establishment would scream bloody murder if they left. But it is going to do that anyway whenever the president moves away from the Establishment’s preferred policies. That does not hurt his relationship with his base. In fact, it strengthens it. Were President Trump to model his future behavior on Mother Teresa the Establishment would still pour vitriol on him because it simply hates his guts. It hates him because he is not one of them.
To put the big question another way, President Trump must decide whether he will rule or merely reign. The former means he makes the key decisions and expects his subordinates to carry them out. In the latter case, he spouts off whenever he feels like it, but everyone learns to ignore it and continue with business as usual. In foreign policy and defense, nothing changes, and what we do becomes more and more irrelevant to the world we face. To his credit, President Trump appears to want to rule in domestic policy. But whether that is true in foreign policy, and specifically in grand strategy, is much less clear. He needs to make it clear, soon.