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O’Brien Speaks: Trump’s ‘Shadow Secretary of State’ Weighs In

Trump’s former national security adviser files a Jacksonian treatise to Foreign Affairs. What to make of it?

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“The Cold War practice of garrisoning large numbers of troops with their families on massive bases in places like Germany is now, in part, obsolete. Modern warfare is increasingly expeditionary and requires platforms with extended range, flexibility and endurance. While air bases and logistics hubs remain important, the Cold War-style garrisoning of troops makes less military and fiscal sense than it did in the 1970s,” the then-White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2020. With his name floated again as a potential national security adviser, O’Brien has written a long essay in Foreign Affairs about a potential Trump 2.0 foreign policy. 

The crux of the argument is that Trump was a Jacksonian peacemaker who believes in peace through strength, as displayed in his administration’s efforts in Serbia and Kosovo and the crowning achievement of Abraham Accords. Another Trump achievement was his hesitation to launch foreign wars. “Trump was determined to avoid new wars and endless counterinsurgency operations, and his presidency was the first since that of Jimmy Carter in which the United States did not enter a new war or expand an existing conflict,” O’Brien reminds us. 


He argues that Trump is different from traditional foreign-policy presidents in an old school way: He prefers diplomacy as a secretive personalized endeavor, as it was conducted in the 19th century (successfully, one might add). 

“Trump has never aspired to promulgate a ‘Trump Doctrine’ for the benefit of the Washington foreign policy establishment,” O’Brien writes. “He adheres not to dogma but to his own instincts and to traditional American principles that run deeper than the globalist orthodoxies of recent decades.”

O’Brien provides three key foreign policy suggestions for a future Trump administration. On Ukraine, he thinks that Trump should keep the door of diplomacy open with Russia while pushing Europe to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine. “Trump’s approach would be to continue to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, financed by European countries, while keeping the door open to diplomacy with Russia—and keeping Moscow off balance with a degree of unpredictability.” This is different from the current Biden approach, as Biden is slow-rolling aid to Ukraine while shutting off the diplomatic route completely. “The Biden administration has since provided significant military aid to Ukraine but has often dragged its feet in sending Kyiv the kinds of weapons it needs to succeed. The $61 billion Congress recently appropriated for Ukraine—on top of the $113 billion already approved—is probably sufficient to prevent Ukraine from losing, but not enough to enable it to win. Meanwhile, Biden does not seem to have a plan to end the war.”

His second provocative plan is a complete decoupling from China, including moving toward a maximum tariff as well as rearming, retesting, and stockpiling nuclear weapons: “Washington must test new nuclear weapons for reliability and safety in the real world for the first time since 1992—not just by using computer models.” 

He adds, “Congress and the executive branch should recommit to the goal of having a 355-ship navy by 2032, which Trump set in 2017. This modestly larger navy must include more stealthy Virginia-class attack submarines.”


The rest of the op-ed is Washingtonese-heavy and mostly concerned with tactical changes. There’s not much to disagree with it, especially if you are a foreign policy realist and understand that China, not Russia, is the key challenge, that the Middle East is a place best avoided—or, even better, dumped on local players as a curse to manage—and that Europeans will wax lyrical about democracy so long as they can leech American taxpayers’ money. 

None of this is new or controversial. “The United States is not perfect, and its security does not require every nation on earth to resemble it politically. Throughout much of U.S. history, most Americans believed it was sufficient to stand as a model to others rather than to attempt to impose a political system on others.” What is there to disagree with? A certain foreign policy analyst recently wrote a short paper that made many of the same arguments. 

Purely for the sake of concrete assessment, however, a couple of clarifications are required. First, a complete decoupling from China is fine in theory. How would one do that? What would be the economic impact? A worldview is as good as its implementation. Washington’s biggest power is not nuclear weapons, but the dollar. Currently, we are struggling to coerce Russia by sanctions as China, India, and even Europe are looking for ways to get away from dollar hegemony and find alternate reserve currencies and trade routes. Collapse would come to D.C. if the dollar ever loses to something else; and this scenario is too devastating to even contemplate. 

Second, O’Brien doesn’t offer much about nearshoring manufacturing. Taking manufacturing away from China but giving it to India or the Philippines won’t help reshape the American industrial base. It would strengthen those country’s economies at best, and at worst would create a new monster with power to leverage against us (as in the case of India). 

Third, it must be underlined that the most easily reformable foreign policy theater is Europe, the world’s second-richest continent but a parasite on the generosity of Americans. While a lot was said about Western European freeriding, not much is said about the Baltics or Ukraine and their attempt to chain-gang us to war. A student of history would remember that most modern great power wars were due to smaller protectorates dragging their benefactors to unnecessary civilization-destroying wars. The Danes are not the ones pushing for escalation in Ukraine. The Balts and the Polish are. 

For what it’s worth, Western Europe is still more important economically and strategically to the American security architecture. Eastern Europe, not so much. Geography is destiny. The prudent strategy is, as always, consider the European Union as a trade and even ideological rival, and “divide and rule.” A Europe divided is beneficial to American trade and power. We can do business with every single of those countries individually, and we’d have the leverage. If we end up consolidating Europe under one army and one flag, then tomorrow they might side with China against us. Balance is to be the ultimate guarantor of European security, while having Europeans take the majority of their security burden. O’Brien is prudent enough to realize that, perhaps without putting it out on paper. But someone needs to say that out loud. 

Not since Henry Kissinger has a national security adviser been so close to creating a foreign policy legacy of his own. Of the three theaters, a new security arrangement and architecture in Europe would be historical and legacy-building for a new president, and perhaps, of all the theaters in question, the most ripe for a restructuring. One hopes the next State Department is full of people who can realize what a golden opportunity they are presented with.