At the senior service colleges where generals like those around President Donald Trump learned their craft, the emphasis is on developing and carrying out sound national security strategy. That means first defining clear goals, then drawing up plans and identifying resources needed to achieve them.
The Trump administration, however, has it exactly backwards. It has, for example, committed to adding major funding for an already plus-sized military establishment, without indicating what the Pentagon will be expected to do or accomplish with the tens of billions in new money.
At the same time, the president has shown little regard for other parts of what make up a smart, balanced and effective national security strategy. He has routinely dissed the State Department: failing to fill top jobs, freezing department officials out of key meetings where their expertise would have added value, and proposing crippling budget cuts. These steps undermine morale and diminish the contribution diplomacy and foreign aid can make to keeping the peace, assisting economic growth, promoting trade or assisting those hurt by natural disasters and wars.
The president’s own secretary of defense, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, knows the score, having declared that, if diplomacy and development are cut, “I’m going to need more ammo.” His point was that reliance on military power alone is a mug’s game; it will lead us to more armed conflict that might have been avoided and to the unnecessary loss of blood and treasure.
We need all the tools of statecraft
The United States clearly needs a strong military force – and we have it. We also require all the other tools of statecraft – diplomacy, development, intelligence, public diplomacy – to deal effectively with security threats such as those posed by ISIS, North Korea, Russia, Iran and others. Take North Korea, for example. We could conceivably destroy that country’s nuclear capability, but the cost would be impossibly high. Experts tell us that millions of people could die in the initial strikes and counterstrikes. Such a prospect brings to mind what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said during the Cold War: After a nuclear exchange, “the living would envy the dead.”
That’s why diplomacy remains the preferred option for settling differences with North Korea. Trump himself seems to have belatedly recognized that in asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to use his influence to get North Korean President Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.
When/if the day for real negotiations arrives, it will not be a winner-take-all poker game. Diplomacy involves give and take from all the players. We’d need clear-eyed negotiators focused on what is in our interest and what is possible. They might need to accept, for example, that forcing the current regime in Pyongyang to get rid of its nukes is an unattainable goal, given that North Korean leaders see these weapons as the only way to ensure their own survival. Some problems cannot be solved, only managed. That pragmatic approach halted Iran’s nuclear progress, no small achievement in the tinderbox of the Middle East.
Credibility of our intelligence is key
If we do reach some sort of understanding with North Korea on its nuclear capacity, we will rely on the ability of our intelligence agencies to monitor compliance, just as we currently do for the Iranian pact about that country’s nuclear industry. The credibility of our intelligence is crucial to verifying these and other potential agreements, such as with Russia, about its actions in Ukraine, or with Syria, about its promise to give up chemical and biological weapons.
For these purposes and more, we need an intelligence community whose reporting and assessments are accepted by our friends and allies. That trust was damaged by the president’s arbitrary dismissal of intelligence findings – particularly about Russia’s interference in our election campaign – that he found inconvenient. Restoring confidence will not be easy.
That’s true also about disparaging our allies, as candidate Trump did in suggesting that NATO was obsolete and that we might quit the alliance if our friends did not pay more of the defense burden. Since taking office, he’s discovered that this question, like so many others, is much more complicated that he imagined. He now says that NATO is no longer obsolete and that our commitment is firm. Whether our friends and adversaries are convinced by the latest statements we cannot know.
Unpredictability isn’t good
Unpredictability, or unreliability, is not a desirable quality for the world’s most powerful country. Allies want to be able to count on us in a crunch, and potential adversaries need to know we’ll go to the mat to protect our friends and our values.
We’re told to give President Trump some time, that his approach to national security, like his domestic policy, is still evolving. Sure, it’s still early. And also, as Adam said to Eve, we live in a time of transition. But it would be easier to be hopeful about an emerging national security strategy if we saw evidence that the president recognized that there’s more to it than bluster and the hammer. A successful strategy is one that sets clear, realizable goals and takes full account of all the tools of statecraft in pursuing them. Stay tuned.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He studied and taught national security strategy at the National War College.
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