A Strategy for the Age of Trump

Trump holds a rally with supporters in an arena in Youngstown, Ohio

To succeed, Trump needs to retool the national-security apparatus, shaking up its turf-obsessed, risk-averse culture while sharpening its tradecraft.

September-October 2017

Such entrenched regimes pose threats both to their own citizens and to democratic governance elsewhere, as seen with the recent exposure of Russian influence operations aimed at misleading public opinion and fracturing political consensus in Western countries, including the United States. Inevitably, citizens in those societies will demand greater political participation and economic opportunity. Regimes at risk of losing control could resort to military force against neighbors to rally nationalist support; internal crises could arise with little or no warning.

History, at least since the French Revolution, has moved in a direction suggesting that political evolution toward rights-based governance with transparency and accountability is both universal and inexorable. The rise of a global youth generation, connected by the internet, makes it hard to imagine that the vox populi, from Tehran and Tahrir Square to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Hong Kong, Caracas, Kuala Lumpur and now even Moscow, will be indefinitely denied. And yet, ruthless actors—virtually all of them male—still cling to unbounded power and privilege, imposing harsh reprisals on any who would take it away from them.

The future international environment will be shaped by whether universal rights are defended and upheld, or suppressed with impunity. The United States should cooperate with any government where U.S. interests so dictate. Yet Washington must weigh deficits of political legitimacy in measuring relations with autocratic regimes, and be counted in opposition to the gross violation of international norms. We need to consider the implications for American interests if an alternative model of governance takes hold, marked by dictatorship, corruption, repression, censorship, arbitrary justice, destabilization of neighbors, and the serial violation of international law and norms. Our enduring security is connected to the legitimate interests of citizens everywhere, free and unfree. This is the defining ethos of U.S. foreign policy.

A second major danger, requiring—as it has for decades—steadfast U.S. policy leadership and conviction, is the potential spread of nuclear weapons and the escalation of hostilities involving nuclear-armed powers. At the heart of nuclear-nonproliferation policy is the imperative of defusing the perceived utility and appeal of nuclear weapons as geopolitical currency, conferring power and status. Even as the United States maintains its nuclear forces, its doctrinal reliance on nuclear weapons and its explicit pledge to extend nuclear protection to treaty allies such as Japan, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be upheld as the international standard obliging nuclear-capable states to work, in good faith, towards conditions for disarmament while cooperating in the peaceful use and safe custody of nuclear technology. Where opportunities arise to negotiate restraints on nuclear-weapons-related programs, the United States must be willing and prepared to test the possibilities and pursue them diplomatically.

Nuclear diplomacy with proliferating states does not always lead to improved relations. The Obama administration and its P5+1 negotiating partners traded major financial, legal, political and security-related concessions for Iran’s commitment to abide by restraints on its nuclear program. While monitoring and enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States and others need to make clear that the accord does not exempt Tehran from accountability for its other objectionable actions. As North Korea’s provocative behavior forces the United States and others to contemplate options to prevent it from achieving a deliverable nuclear-weapons capability, the United States and its Pacific allies should also consider acceptable terms and arrangements by which Pyongyang might be induced to cease its threatening nuclear- and ballistic-missile-related activities. In South Asia, irrespective of the state of U.S. relations with Pakistan or India, maintenance of strategic stability remains a policy imperative, just as anywhere nuclear escalation remains a risk.

A third danger, plaguing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies alike, is the contagion of terrorist and extremist violence perpetrated by actors claiming Islamic duty as their motivation. The succession of terrorist attacks at crowded sites in Europe and North America has spurred a powerful transatlantic consensus that this threat is intolerable and must be stopped. Doing so will require not only actionable intelligence on imminent threats, but greater insight into the roots and appeal of secretive calls to civilizational treason, as the basis for concerted action to contain and extinguish it.