In the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the Egyptian Pharaoh sends his massive army in pursuit of fleeing Israelis until the sea closes over them with disastrous result: “And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exodus 14:23). At the moment, it feels as though U.S. foreign policy is a bit like the Egyptian army, charging into a highly dangerous situation, with waves about to come crashing down and little thoughtful leadership on display.
At the prestigious Munich Security Conference, for example, European anxiety over U.S. erratic foreign policy choices thus far was on constant display. Europeans over the weekend cited Trump’s highly ambivalent commentary on Russian aggression, the potential jettisoning of the two-state solution in Israel, and the dramatic volte-face on challenging China’s “one-China” policy. The Europeans were particularly rattled by a sense that support to NATO was purely transactional — essentially conditional based on how much they chipped into the alliance coffers.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave by far the best speech at the conference, providing a firm argument against the idea that Europe is the only beneficiary of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Her point, well phrased from a platform that included unpersuasive canned statements from new U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (both of whom declined to answer questions from the floor), was logical and well-received: the U.S. benefits greatly from the trans-Atlantic relationship. She is correct.
While personally moderating a key panel at the Munich Security Conference on the future of the alliance that included Defense Ministers from five NATO nations (the U.K., France, Netherlands, Canada and Turkey), I could feel the nervousness in their voices.
Europe represents the best pool of partners we have in the world. They share our values; are situated in a critical geostrategic region between the U.S., Russia, the Middle East and Africa; are a fundamental part of our economy (with $4 trillion annually crossing the Atlantic); collectively have the second largest defense budget in the world (behind only the U.S.) as NATO partners; and have exceptional technology sharing to offer us in Internet, artificial intelligence, medicine and other cutting-edge 21st century sectors. They should meet the 2% of GDP goal for military spending, and are working to get there — but overall, they are crucial to our global security strategy. At the moment they are confused and bruised, and the foreign policy of the U.S. feels incoherent. What should we do?
First, the Trump Administration desperately needs to get the interagency policy in gear. Far from the “well-oiled machine” described by the President, it is badly out of sync and clearly misfiring. The new National Security Adviser who replaces the disgraced General Mike Flynn will have his hands full and must have the authority to pick his own team, starting with the crucial deputy job. We need to have a regular schedule of Deputy and Principal Committee meetings, which thus far have not been convening. What is said at the U.N. by Ambassador Nikki Haley, for example, must line up with presidential tweets and press conferences. The glaring disconnects are becoming extremely noticeable and are discouraging to our closest allies while providing ammunition to anti-U.S. narratives.
Second, political operatives like Steve Bannon should not be formal appointees to the Principals Committee. More than one European pointed out that having a purely political voice in that body is not so far from the Soviet system of having a political officer in every security unit — remember the commissar on board the defecting Russian submarine in The Hunt for Red October? Captain Ramius had to eliminate him in order to execute his plan. The President certainly deserves the advice of people he trusts — but that can come offline, not amid the deliberations.
Third, the second- and third-tier appointees in the national-security space have to be prioritized and moved forward immediately. The Democrats have a significant responsibility to ensuring this happens, but most observers believe that much of the fault is in a disorganized transition team. We cannot construct let alone execute complex foreign and security policy with only Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — they need talented and experienced teams around them.
Fourth, we need to rehearse for the obvious potential crises. Has the new team gamed out what we will do in the case of another North Korean nuclear test? An Iranian provocation on the waters of the Arabian Gulf against a U.S. warship? A major terrorist incident here in the U.S. by the Islamic State? Another Russian cyberintrusion, perhaps against our financial system? All of these are hardly black swans — we know they are coming. Have we thought through roles, responsibilities and responses? Probably not, and it is time to do so with the new hands on the team.
Fifth, and most importantly, the Trump team has to lay out some basic and fundamental strategic principles as they construct a coherent world view and ultimately a full blown international security strategy. A few good starting points would include: making NATO and Europe the centerpiece of our global relationships in Eurasia; strengthening our relationships with Japan and South Korea; replacing the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership with a web of bilateral relationships quickly before China steals a march on us; working to bring the Sunni Arab world and the Israelis closer together in creating a bulwark against Iran; improving our increasingly fraught relationship with Mexico and building ties with Colombia (an emerging powerhouse in Latin America); focusing on India as a potential long range partner and counterweight to China; and confronting Russian aggression with international pressure.
Right now, the plan seems to echo the Pharaoh’s approach — charge full speed at the nearest problem. But, quite predictably, the waves will come crashing down soon. A better approach would be to map out a coherent course, build a solid team, and marshal our friends and allies. We are galloping all too swiftly into danger.