A Grand Strategy for Trump

U.S. Marines during Exercise Platinum Lion 17.1 in Bulgaria. Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense

How does more hard power comport with a broader strategic vision?

May-June 2017

WHILE HE is well into the first one hundred days of his presidency, Donald Trump’s overall global strategy remains, in many respects, undefined. This is not unusual. His predecessors also took their time in establishing a worldview and a sense of direction, and often experienced internal strife. The Reagan administration was riven by doctrinal disputes over intervention between Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The George H. W. Bush administration debated its approach to the Soviet Union at length. The Clinton administration agonized over whether or not to intervene in the Balkans. The George W. Bush administration entered office on the strength of a pledge to practice more humility, only to embrace a sweeping vision of ending evil after the attacks of September 11. And the Obama administration never fully came down on the side of either restraint or intervention, though midway through Obama’s second term it landed upon the ungainly term “leading from behind.”

At the same time, the lengthy and increasingly cumbersome process of nominating and confirming senior officials in the key departments also partly explains the Trump administration’s slow start, as does the complexity of working out an effective and efficient process for national-security decisionmaking. Competing power centers in the White House, coupled with Trump’s penchant for truculent tweets—including accusing China of “playing” the United States and Germany of manipulating the euro—have hardly helped, either.

In the case of the Trump administration, however, the “geoeconomic team” has made some real headway in defining a new approach for trade and investment: the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been dropped, the NAFTA agreement is under review, the adoption of a controversial border-adjustment tax is being studied, and a variety of legislative and regulatory proposals are being designed to attract more foreign investment.

In the geopolitical sphere, though, the same momentum is not evident. The administration does deserve credit for introducing its “hard power” budget estimate; Trump and his advisers clearly understand that a 9 percent increase in defense spending sends a message of credibility and seriousness to allies and adversaries alike. The president’s emphasis, in his early communications with European and Asian leaders, that U.S. allies must do more to share the burden of military spending appears to be paying off, even if they are not (at least in the case of Germany) moving as quickly as he would like.

But a bigger military for what? How does more hard power comport with a broader strategic vision? By anybody’s reckoning, a U.S. military buildup could form one part of an integrated strategy to create incentives for Russia to seek a more productive relationship with the West. Other steps are also important, including new approaches to finding a settlement in Ukraine, examining ways to cooperate in fighting ISIS, and addressing a new agenda of military threats and nonproliferation.

The problem, of course, is that any serious effort to work out a new strategy towards Russia has been paralyzed by a partisan and increasingly hysterical debate in Washington over what, if anything, the Trump campaign did to assist Russian hackers in intervening in the 2016 elections. The debate pits the Trump White House and its Republican supporters on the Hill against an unholy alliance of Republican hawks—John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio—and Democrats who want to blame Vladimir Putin for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, or at least exact a political price for it.

But as Henry Kissinger has correctly observed, “Demonizing Putin is not a strategy,” and the current Russiagate mania is deterring people from designing an agenda that could enhance both European security and U.S.-Russia relations. Consider the following.

First, if the United States gave up, at least for now, its twenty-five-year-old policy of turning Russia into a Western-style democracy, but instead focused on the external threats it poses, would a more politically secure Kremlin be prepared to respond positively?

Second, would a guarantee of nonalignment for Ukraine form part of an overall settlement? The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon has proposed such guarantees to other “grey area” states, such as Moldova. The idea deserves serious examination.

Third, are there new approaches to nuclear arms control that make sense? Rather than simply limiting numbers of weapons, new developments—including new technologies, new doctrines for nuclear use and the apparent violation of core arms treaties—appear to make a deep discussion of nuclear issues a necessary part of any new U.S.-Russia dialogue.