Robert O’Brien’s Case for Donald Trump 2.0’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump

Robert O’Brien’s Case for Donald Trump 2.0’s Foreign Policy

President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, Robert C. O'Brien, just published an essay outlining the perils to which President Joseph Biden and his administration have subjected the United States. O’Brien details the growing danger and the path back in a notional second Trump term.


Robert C. O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, just published an essay in Foreign Affairs outlining the perils to which President Joseph Biden and his administration have subjected the United States. O’Brien details the growing danger and the path back in a notional second Trump term. There will be no return to an imperious, preachy, or triumphalist America. Instead, Trump’s America will be a traditional one that is secure and reticent but acts decisively when challenged. 

Most notably, O’Brien calls for economic de-linkage from China, a process Trump set in motion with his tariff policy. He also charts what several administrations have signaled but failed to achieve—statecraft, including military power, that actually recognizes China as America’s greatest foreign threat. This “realism with a Jacksonian flavor,” as O’Brien labels it, will help bring back the secure America that marked Trump’s first term. 


O’Brien’s essay is contrasted with one written by former Obama aide Ben Rhodes in the same edition of Foreign Affairs. Like many of today’s leading Democratic Party figures, Rhodes can’t help but assert, all evidence to the contrary, that Trump would “roll back American democracy” and thus “swing further in the direction” of “strong men.” In addition to Trump, Rhodes includes Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in this group. Did you get that? To today’s Democrats, conservative elected leaders of democracies like Trump, Modi, and Netanyahu are in the same boat as China’s dictator and the terrorism-exporting theocrat who runs Iran. 

Rhodes also can’t help but betray the Democrats’ sympathy for Palestinians and their Hamas government. Like the progressive activists who took to college campuses this spring, Rhodes faults Biden for not breaking with Netanyahu sooner, which “…invited greater risks from the within the Democratic coalition and around the world.” Pleased with Biden’s subsequent evolution, Rhodes wants Washington “to use its leverage to press for negotiated agreements [with Hamas], Palestinian state building,” and he condemns questioning the Palestinian death toll, which even the United Nations conceded was grossly exaggerated. 

These are today’s Democrats: confused globalists who condemn American patriots while giving the benefit of the doubt to U.S. adversaries, including Hamas and Iran.

O’Brien offers a different analysis and prescription. He was the final of Trump’s four national security advisors and the only one who was any good. His essay notes that Trump was a peacemaker who eschewed new wars and victoriously ended the one with ISIS. By focusing on the Iranian threat, Trump transcended the Palestinian matter that Biden’s policies have helped bring back to life. In a second term, Trump would again enforce U.S. sanctions and other forms of maximum pressure on Iran that so successfully put the Islamist regime on the defensive when Trump was president. 

O’Brien condemns the Biden administration’s inability to secure the southern U.S. border as “perhaps its biggest and most embarrassing failure.” By noting that Mexican drug cartels “form a parallel government,” he foreshadows that a second Trump term would not solely view the immigration and fentanyl crises as domestic law-enforcement matters. 

O’Brien ridicules Biden’s China policy by simply quoting the president’s words, which have ranged incoherently from saying that China’s economy is a “ticking time bomb” to “I don’t want to contain China.” Another Bidenism: “We’re all better off if China does well.”

O’Brien departs from more high-minded foreign policy ruminations to get into the nuts and bolts of building a military that can contain China and deter war in the Pacific. He calls for Congress to fund a 355-ship navy (which recently has fallen to around 290 ships from a nearly 600-ship force at the end of the Cold War). But O’Brien also singles out failed procurement practices at the Pentagon, especially the larding of program “requirements” that leave the military with weapons that are high tech but too few in number and which arrive late and grossly over budget. 

O’Brien also spotlights the unfortunate but critical need to renew America’s nuclear deterrent given China’s rapid buildup of its nuclear arsenal. He argues for resuming nuclear weapons production and testing for the first time since 1992 to ensure reliability and safety. Just as important are delivery systems, especially fast and viable hypersonic missiles—a technology in which the United States trails Russia and probably China. 

O’Brien’s defense-reform argument is notable for what it avoids: calls by some who argue the defense budget should grow to 5 percent of national output. To make such an argument, which would nearly double the defense budget, is to fail to understand the fiscal crisis that the Biden administration has left America: a bloated annual budget of $7 trillion, of which $1.8 trillion is borrowed despite the lack of a national emergency—piling new debt and $659 billion in interest on top of $34 trillion in existing debt held by the public. Either the military must achieve more with less and cut some of its liabilities, or it will cease any pretense of balancing and deterring China. Anyone can be a hawk; O’Brien is a hawk who understands math.

O’Brien echoes Trump in drawing a connection between Biden’s weakness and his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the general emboldening of America’s adversaries, including Putin, who authorized an invasion of Ukraine six months after the fall of Kabul. Like Trump, O’Brien endorses aid for Ukraine but also seeks a negotiated solution that “ends the killing and preserves the security of Ukraine.”

O’Brien also calls for Reaganesque attention to political dissidents in places like China as a way “to illustrate authoritarian abuses and highlight the superiority of the free world’s model of inalienable individual rights and the rule of law.” He cites, as an example, publisher Jimmy Lai and others whom China has imprisoned in Hong Kong for exercising rights Beijing previously promised to honor. While it sounds innocuous, it is here that O’Brien actually makes his most radical departure from Biden’s policy and establishment doctrine. To advocate unashamedly for American values, one must be unashamed of America. This is a quality of Trump and O’Brien—and a concept that is completely alien to the blame-America-first crowd that occupies the Biden White House and the heights of our culture. 

About the Author: Chrisitan Whiton 

Christian Whiton was a senior State Department advisor in the Bush and Trump administrations. He is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War and a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He assisted O’Brien in producing his recent article in Foreign Affairs.

Image: Jonah Elkowitz /