Why Brian Hook Is an Empty Suit

The Harry S. Truman Building of the Department of State. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@AgnosticPreachersKid

Brian Hook, who is being touted for a senior State Department post, is a consummate creature of Washington conventionality.

Brian Hook, unlike a number of members of the Republican foreign-policy establishment and, apparently, his own wife, never said Never Trump during the campaign. But he would still be a startling choice for the Trump administration, which is apparently considering him for the post of director of the policy planning staff at the State Department. It’s a post that legendary figures such as George F. Kennan have occupied. Kennan used it to help further conceptualize and implement his new containment doctrine in the late 1940s. If Hook is given the post, however, he’s unlikely to shake up American foreign policy the way Kennan did. On the contrary; the chance of any change in the foreign-policy thinking that has held sway in Washington in recent decades is next to nil.

Hook, a cofounder of the neoconservative John Hay Initiative, is a consummate creature of conventionality. His selection would be an indication that the discrepancy between the change that Trump promised during the election and his actions as president isn’t a small gap. It would be a chasm. Yet according to John Hudson of Foreign Policy magazine, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants Hook as a key deputy. In Hook, Trump and Tillerson would get a card-carrying member of the Republican foreign-policy establishment who is far more comfortable espousing the strengths and virtues of the NATO alliance than he is questioning its value or utility. As an integral member of the Mitt Romney–aligned Hay Initiative—a group of GOP national-security heavyweights who advised Republican presidential candidates during the election last year—Hook concentrated on ensuring that the party’s foreign policy orthodoxy remained the dominant narrative. Indeed, a cursory glance at Hook views and those of his colleagues make it abundantly clear that they aren’t fans of Trump’s “America First” policy—a term that conventional Republicans read as a return to 1940s-style isolationism.

Hook made precisely this point during an interview on NPR last year. He likened Trump to a twenty-first-century incarnation of Robert Taft, the senator from Ohio who opposed U.S. support to the British during World War II and a politician who was emphatic that America would be better off leaving everybody else to their own devices. When asked by NPR’s Steve Inskeep about how he viewed Trump’s foreign-policy positions, Hook answered the way many members of the establishment class did at that time; by expressing confusion and perhaps a little self-doubt that Trump knew what he was talking about.

It may be overkill to label Brian Hook as a central part of the neoconservative crowd, but he can certainly be considered a traditional hawkish Republican and a firm believer in the notion that if the United States doesn’t continue to lead the international community and promote democratic and free-market principles, the world will be far worse off. In a joint article with former George W. Bush administration alumni Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen, Hook wrote that the stability of the international system is only as good as America’s place in it. “The United States does not seek to impose its form of government by conquest,” Hook, Edelman, and Cohen wrote, “but it should never flag in its defense of the basic ideas that have defined us: limited government; freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; protection of private property; an independent judiciary.” They conclude that “the United States could not thrive in a world dominated by corrupt, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes, and history suggests that, although democracies have waged war against each other in the past, by and large free states can and do settle their differences amicably.”

It’s difficult to see any of those words coming out of the mouth of Donald Trump. In fact, they appear diametrically opposed to the forty-fifth commander in chief’s conception of transactional, cold-hearted and cold-headed realpolitik, where dictators, authoritarians and quasi-democratic heads of state aren’t to be shunned and ignored, but brought into the tent for a good old-fashioned negotiating session. Where Trump would prefer to strike game-changing agreements for the benefit of America, it appears that Hook would rather keep that type of transactionalism far away from the State Department. How the White House would be able to square that circle is hard to envision.

Speaking to Politico during the GOP primary, Hook wasn’t as declaratively opposed to working with the Trump campaign as a number of his John Hay colleagues—it should be noted that it was the Hay Initiative that organized the infamous anti-Trump open letter from national-security conservatives, which shut the door to many of these people from entering the administration)—but he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea, either. “Even if you say you support [Trump] as the nominee,” Hook told Politico, “you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one.”

And this man is now a top candidate for a senior position? How is he going to conceptualize the kind of revolutionary change that Trump demanded during the campaign?