“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Today both Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will address the Munich Security Conference. After yesterday’s sprawling presidential press conference what I am looking for is clarity from the new Administration over the future direction of US foreign and security policy. Like many Europeans who are not part of the Munch-esque anti-Trump hysteriocracy I nevertheless find myself increasingly confused by President Trump’s idiosyncratic and oft inconsistent utterances.
Speaker Tip O’Neil one famously said that all politics are local. In fact, for an American president all politics are global. President Trump said last night that he had inherited a “mess” from the Obama administration. OK. Mr President, what are you actually going to do about it? For example, when is the Administration going to appoint a Deputy National Security Adviser and a Deputy Secretary of Defense? ‘Deputies’, I hear you say? Why does this matter? Surely, it would first be nice to have a National Security Adviser properly in place. Under the American system it is the so-called “Committee of Deputies” that generates policy and thrashes it around, before kicking it upstairs to Cabinet and the President for decision. As yet there are huge holes in the US foreign and security policy security policy apparatus. Result? The Allies are at best confused, and America patently unsure.
One of the many weaknesses of the Obama administration was that it had no discernible foreign and security doctrine, and thus no guiding principles that established consistency and reinforced ‘red lines’ to both Allies and adversaries alike. Equally, President Obama also avoided shooting from the policy hip, which is precisely what President Trump did this week with his ‘one-state/two-state’ hip-hop, which no doubt left the Israelis and the Palestinians as confused as I was. Worse, President Trump seems to say one thing one day, only for Secretary of State Tillerson and the other Principals to say something quite different the next day (possibly even the same day). ‘Clarification’ it ain’t!
What I need now is some semblance of policy substance that goes far beyond the President simply saying he is going to ‘fix things’. For example, beyond getting the Allies to spend more on defence what does the Trump administration actually expect from NATO? What future relationship does Washington foresee with an EU that is about to be changed profoundly with the departure of its second biggest economy and strongest military power? Brexit will change the shape not just of the EU, but of the wider West, with implications also for the Asia-Pacific region's ‘Western’ powers.
What will be the main pillars of US policy to the Middle East and North Africa? What about Iran? What about North Korea? Critically, what will US policy be towards China under the Trump administration? There are also a whole host of other policy areas which are awaiting some sense of settled US policy. These range from the Administration’s attitude to multilateral institutions, such as the UN, arms control, climate change et al. As for Russia my sources tell me that Moscow is as confused as I am. Now, keeping the Kremlin politically off-balance is probably no bad thing, but only if such a stratagem is a function of strategy. Right now, Washington is keeping us all off-balance.
Above all, the Allies need some sense that the Administration is beginning to get a grip of what will be enormous foreign and security policy challenges over the next four years. A big set-piece speech from President Trump would be useful to lay out systematically the Administration’s foreign and security policy goals. The speech would need to show that President Trump recognises that he is not just the head of state and government of the United States, he is also leader of the Free World.
As a citizen of the Free World, and a proud friend and ally on the United States, I want America to lead. However, I need to be convinced the Administration is up to the challenge of leadership. Consequently, I expect the focus now to be on policy, strategy and responsibility. If America does not want to lead then please tell me so that my country and I can make other arrangements.
To conclude, President Trump is absolutely right to tell the European allies to stop free-riding on the US and to spend more on defence. Europe’s strategic pretence has gone on for far too long. However, in return the Allies want and have the right to expect that the White House get its strategic act together and quickly. Perhaps what Vice-President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis will say today will show just that. Let’s hope so.
What’s the plan, Mr President?