Last week, TAC held its annual foreign policy conference. Pretty much everyone there had expected to be talking about what President Hillary Clinton is going to do wrong; instead, the room was heady with possibility.
And with apprehension. I was encouraged by the fact that very few people there had any real confidence that Trump would pursue the kind of foreign policy that they favored. Rather, there was a sense that there was a chance that he might, and an eagerness to remain open to that chance, coupled with relief that they wouldn’t have the spend the next four years in predictable battles with a Clinton administration.
As for the views expressed, the big point of contention was over China. There was a general consensus that relations with Russia needed to be reestablished on a more institutionally secure basis that could relieve the wild swings, resets and ratcheting tensions that we’ve observed over the past decade. There was similarly a consensus that the terms of our engagement with Europe needed to be renegotiated on a more equal basis.
China, and East Asia more broadly, was another matter. Senator Jim Webb occupied one pole, advocating a sustained military and diplomatic effort to contain a rising Chinese threat. Christopher Layne occupied the opposite pole, seeing China’s rise as part of an inevitable “power transition” with the greatest risk being conflict arising from America’s unwillingness or inability to accommodate that rise. (I situate myself in between these two poles, in the camp of Graham T. Allison, who argues that managing that power transition is an exceptionally difficult and important diplomatic task that neither containment nor accommodation nor a “perfect balance” of carrots and sticks can achieve, because a successful, non-violent transition requires active cooperation between the rival powers rather than merely proper management by the status-quo power.)
Do I think there was — or still is — an opportunity with Trump to see the kind of break with the foreign policy consensus that many at TAC have sought? Personally, I have always been skeptical, partly because of my views of Trump’s fundamental character, partly because I think Trump’s personal conflicts make it more difficult rather than easier for him to pursue such policies as a reset with Russia (whereas he would have more running room to seek a stable modus vivendi with Iran, if he so desires, which I doubt), and partly because of my conviction that the institutional GOP will mostly get its people into key positions. Since personnel is policy, the policy will hew closer to an ultra-hawkish line than not, if it has any coherence at all.
In the week since the conference, a couple of appointments have been announced that should give further reason for pessimism.
Lt. General Michael Flynn is going to be the National Security Advisor. I admit, Flynn is a bit of a puzzle, since all the evidence prior to 2014 is that he was an exceptionally astute officer, and all the evidence since he was dismissed from the DIA is that he’s a raving lunatic. I can’t imagine a normal President even considering someone like Flynn for any post of consequence, much less one for which he seems especially unsuited like head of the NSC. But Trump clearly views as a positive the kind of vocal extremism that I find abhorrent. Now we’ll have to see what exactly that outrageous talk is indicative of.
Rep. Mike Pompeo is going to be the head of the CIA. I know very little about Pompeo except that he is extremely well-regarded for his intelligence and that he is a very partisan Republican. His appointment should demonstrate the degree to which conventional Republican views on foreign policy have a place in a Trump administration, and the degree to which people with those views will in no way be a heck on the most alarming possibilities of a Trump administration in the foreign policy arena.
Many of the other names being floated for offices like State and Defense, like Mitt Romney and General James Mattis, feel similarly. I’d certainly rather see Romney at State than John Bolton, and I’d rather see Mattis at Defense than Senator James Cotton, possibilities that have also been floated. But last week’s conferees were clearly hoping for some evidence from appointments that Trump meant to steer in a new direction, and at this point the only encouragement they can take is that the worst has not yet come to pass.
Towards the end of the conference, there was a bit of a Webb-boosting boomlet that managed to make the news. I would have been very happy to see Webb at Defense, particularly if balanced by someone like Jon Huntsman at State, particularly in terms of Huntsman’s views on China. But this is a fantasy version of this administration that is unlikely to correspond to reality at any point, and certainly not at the outset.
The rosiest-case scenario from my perspective at this point is that the rhetorical excesses of both Trump and some of his leading advisors don’t translate into policy in any meaningful way, and that, in fact, they are a kind of substitute for bellicose action — a kind of “shout loudly but don’t actually hit anybody with your stick” policy. I’d expect a policy like that to result in a lot of failure as rivals learn that they don’t actually need to show us any respect so long as they give our President some symbolic victory to brag about, but that kind of failure is better than catastrophe. Unfortunately, “not a catastrophe” feels like hope to me these days.
Meanwhile, what I do remain encouraged by is that the folks at the TAC conference, howsoever they might have been more hopeful than I am, were equally committed to opposing this administration if it disappoints them.