20 February 2017

The White House is at war with itself over foreign policy

By Shashank Joshi

We are one month in to Donald Trump’s presidency. From the extraordinary use of his Mar-a-Lago clubhouse as an open-air situation room, to National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s unprecedented sacking, to the President’s Lear-worthy performance at an impromptu press conference, this administration is demonstrating an ineptitude unparalleled in the last 40 years of American history. But underneath this chaotic spectacle, where is American foreign policy headed?

The first lesson we can draw from the first month is that America First wasn’t simply a campaign slogan; it is a governing ideology. However, its main thrust is not isolationism, but nationalism. Trump may have quashed the Trans Pacific Partnership and taken a cavalier approach to allies such as Australia – steps that will indeed leave America more isolated – but he is comfortable with using, and threatening, military force.

He has put Iran “on notice” for a ballistic missile test, laying down a red line that will inevitably be crossed, and considered interdicting Iranian ships in international waters. Trump’s Pentagon is mooting the prospect of ground forces for Syria, in line with his suggestion last year that he would be open to 20,000 to 30,000 troops.

The President’s spokesman has repeated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s suggestion of blocking Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea.

Many in the US military welcome the opportunity to break with elements of the Obama doctrine, particularly on escalation in Syria and more aggressive naval patrols in Asia. These are not the signals of a country that intends to withdraw from the world. What is being dismantled is multilateralism, not activism.

The second lesson is that there is a war is playing out, within the administration, to define foreign policy and national security. On one side are radical, nationalist culture warriors, such as Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, White House advisers and the two architects of the Muslim-focused travel ban. These ideologues have benefited from their pivotal campaign roles, the gutting of the senior bureaucracy, and the absence of strong leadership and coordination.

On the other side of this struggle are moderate, pragmatic, and establishment-minded figures such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis and his State Department counterpart, Rex Tillerson. They have been slower to settle into office and sit further from the apex of power, but – particularly in Mattis’s case – command large and powerful organisations, and enjoy the support of Congressional leaders.

Further complicating matters is the consiglieri-type role of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is playing a pivotal role in day-to-day diplomacy, notably in key bilateral relationships, such as those with Israel and Mexico.

The result is that there is that currently there are multiple American foreign policies, all unfolding on different stages: some in dawn tweets, others in hastily-scribbled executive orders, and others still in set-piece speeches in European capitals.

It would be a mistake to view the Breitbartian kitchen cabinet, with its fervent support for European populist and far-Right movements, as the only driver of foreign policy. There is evidence that the moderates are making their presence felt, sometimes in important ways, on Russia, Nato, China, and the Middle East.

Despite Trump’s lavish praise for Vladimir Putin, for instance, his own ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a stinging rebuke of Russian behaviour in Ukraine early this month. “Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine,” she declared, undercutting those White House advisers who had pushed for early sanctions relief to lubricate a deal with Moscow.

Not long after, Rex Tillerson underscored that the Minsk accords – which require Russia to withdraw heavy weapons from Ukraine – had to be respected. Then, a series of American officials visited Europe to reassure allies. James Mattis described Nato as the “fundamental bedrock” of US defence policy, while the Vice President, Mike Pence, described “Trump and the American people” as “fully devoted to our transatlantic union”.

This dynamic could be seen in other areas, too. Concerning Asia, Trump had threatened to reconsider the One China policy, to secure political and economic concessions from Beijing. But then, without anything in return, Trump abandoned this idea.

On the Middle East, Trump upended two decades of US policy by suggesting he would be open to a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But within days of the President making these remarks Nikki Haley “clarified” them, declaring Washington was committed to the two-state solution.

None of this is to suggest that the Trump administration will simply accept the status quo. Tillerson himself alarmed European ministers with his very first briefing on Middle East policy, while Mattis issued a stark threat to “moderate” the US commitment to Nato, should allies fail to spend more on defence.

This is an unusually hawkish and disruptive administration, by any standard. But a pattern, of decisively walking back the most radical policy shifts, is apparent.

The conclusion to be drawn from these mixed messages is that the balance of power is still being negotiated. We should not exaggerate the authority of cabinet secretaries: Mattis was not consulted on the Muslim-focused travel ban and Tillerson has been virtually absent from the president’s meetings with foreign leaders.

But nor should we write off the moderates. Respected officials are in short supply in this administration. Congressional Republicans view Tillerson and Mattis, from the military and business world respectively, as moorings to the establishment. Trump cannot fire these officials without risking a serious breach, and adding to the mounting sense of chaos. If they are willing to credibly threaten resignation, they wield power.

Tillerson, Mattis, Haley, and Pence have all laid down public markers on Russia and Nato in particular. I can foresee one or two rolling over, but certainly not all, should Bannon and co urge Trump to lurch in a radical direction.

If Michael Flynn’s replacement as National Security Adviser is a traditional figure, such as the acting incumbent, General Keith Kellogg, rather than a neophyte or polarising figure, such as John Bolton, it would probably reinforce this pragmatic caucus.

What this means is that European allies should, with due caution, engage these characters all the more intensively, rather than prematurely and publicly writing off American foreign policy as a basket case, as some seemed close to doing at the Munich Security Conference and the Malta Summit before that.

However, our third lesson is that this institutional turmoil is coming at some cost to foreign policy and national security. A huge tranche of middle and senior management positions remains unfilled, with the administration’s loyalty tests shutting out much of the traditional Republican talent that would fill these roles.

As of last week, Trump had 14 confirmed senior officials – compared to Obama’s 40 at the same stage. At the time of writing, not a single under-secretary of state for defence has even been nominated, let alone confirmed.

At the State Department, the senior leadership, including the most experienced diplomats in the country, have been cleared out. The breakdown in trust between Trump and his intelligence agencies has resulted in sensitive intelligence being withheld from the President, for fear it would leak and jeopardise sources; allied agencies, such as MI6, are likely to be far more cautious in their own intelligence-sharing.

Meanwhile, there are entire areas where policy is not so much conflicted, as entirely absent. Adversaries will exploit this vacuum, as Russia has done in hosting separate conferences on Afghanistan and Syria over the past week, without America present.

These lessons are tentative. We cannot rule out more dramatic shifts. If the national security apparatus continues to leak heavily, Trump may respond by centralising power and information, replacing professionals with loyalists, and retreating further into the bunker.

His policies may also evolve in confusing and unexpected ways. For instance, his rapprochement with Russia may come unstuck on differences with Moscow over Iran and nuclear weapons; but if the White House allies itself to Europhobic populists and abandons consensus positions on the Israel-Palestine dispute, we could see a simultaneous deterioration of ties with Europe. Less Russia does not necessarily mean more Europe.

In the weeks ahead, we should watch for key indicators of the balance of power between ideologues and pragmatists. How much autonomy will Mattis and Tillerson be given in filling out their departments? Will the new National Security Advisor be permitted to choose their own staff? Will Sean Spicer, the White House hapless propagandist, seek a confrontation with cabinet secretaries?

This is a disturbing period for American democracy and the liberal, bipartisan traditions of American foreign policy. But all is not yet lost.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute