The Trump Administration’s National Security policy is quickly becoming one of the most contestable issues facing the nation. It is not only unconventional, but also disquieting in its rebuke of the traditional practices of statecraft and ideological doctrines. Where it lacks strategic discipline, Trump makes up for it by using bellicosity as a principle for deterring enemies. The administration’s threatening rhetoric on Iran and North Korea facilitates political posturing that can quickly build into escalation, especially if we have broken channels of communication between agencies involved with monitoring diplomatic protocols.
Blustery language is not a substitute for national security policy. What is dangerous about using combative and antagonistic rhetoric to potentially subdue enemies is that it catalyzes the usage of violence as a selling point. The nation’s war chest becomes a prioritized end instead of a means for protection. What hardens this problem is that the Trump Administration’s national security initiatives have been framed with inconsistencies. There have been many mixed messages on what the president is seeking to do on Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Without a confluence of directives by President Trump, it heightens the possibility that our enemies will miscalculate the (intended?) perplexity of our national security policy and bring us closer to open hostilities.
It is quite possible that the confusion is intentional and Trump seeks to use it as a calibration against an enemy’s ability to pose a threat against our interests and infrastructure. But with the usage of nonconventional methods to international relations, the same can be used against the U.S. Posturing war against North Korea will not make it easier to get Kim Jong Un to negotiate away his nuclear capabilities. It puts him on a level playing field with the United States and gives him the power to make the next move. This is why the “method of madness” theory to foreign affairs is starting to worry, well, a lot of people.
Chaos theory may have been able to work for Trump’s business deals where there was always a constant set point, i.e. liquid assets or infrastructure investments, but no such constant exists when formulating policy toward foreign nations. In the age of nuclear weapons, what does an investment in peace look like? There is no constant set point in international relations. It is about leveraging balance between objects (states and non-state actors alike) and managing to use that balance to facilitate power. Usually that power is used to bring stability, if not, the risk of war becomes greater.
It should be understood that having the most technologically sophisticated military in the world does not necessarily precipitate winning. If Trump is positioning the U.S to be the biggest bully in the battlefield, he is actually laying all of his cards on the table and allowing our competitors to more easily dissect the fallacies/weaknesses of the U.S’s capabilities. Competitors will seek not to match the strength of our most powerful weaponry, but adopt unconventional means to break down the U.S’s ability to use those weapons.
Crafting national security policy for the 21st Century is no easy task. It will be even harder if the Trump Administration continues to act like a 19th Century European power on the decline. We live in an era of asymmetrical warfare and nonlinear conflict. The threat of a cyber attack on critical infrastructure, like the power grid, has become more probable than the onset of inter-state war.
The creation of national security must be carefully conducted to take in all accounts of this change of environment. We must be able to aptly identify the capabilities of an enemy and coordinate a policy to deter and dismantle threats. In order to put this into motion, the acting president must go through and work with the monolithic national security architecture. As of the current date, this does not seem like something the Trump Administration has been willing to do.
Since various agencies and departments shape policy, it puts a strain on how national security should be carried out. Some major problems arise when the president tries to establish an effective National Security policy and are typically caused by conflicting interests and priorities. Most of the conflicts are between the Department of Defense, the bureaucratic administrative “deep state”, and the Intelligence Community.
There is an odd thing about the Trump Administration’s mismanagement of messaging when it comes to policy on regime change in Syria. There may be conflicting foreign policy goals about Assad’s role in Syria coming from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, but it’s the emphasis of their political saber-rattling that is consistent. It is possible that the lack of political decorum is being used as a tool to create infighting, leaving diplomatic channels obscure and thus unsafe for usage.
The real persuasion might be coming from the military. Trump’s Cabinet is decorated with military men skilled in war planning, not statecraft. Some of the key figures are Lieutenant General H.R McMaster as nation security advisor, retired General John Kelly as head of Homeland Security, West Point graduate Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, and retired General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. These men have been trained in war fighting and deterrence tactics, where strategy is guided by the superiority of prowess. Men who think in terms of zero-sum calculation guide Trump’s policy circle; winning is ensuring that someone else is losing.
Further troublesome is the wide array of staff positions that have yet to be filled. Trump has yet to put forward the nominations of 475 people (out of 554 positions that need Senate confirmation). The State Department is detrimentally understaffed, where key posts such as ambassadors have remained unfilled. This has hampered the flow of information within the State Department and between other agencies. The State Department holds some of the most diplomatically sensitive posts and is fundamental to shaping national security policy.
So far, the State Department has been undercut while the military has been shaping foreign relations with bomb strikes in Syria (April 7) and Afghanistan (April 13). Trump’s triad of generals (McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly) has a considerable amount of power given the president’s insistence on delegating foreign policy solely to the military brass. There is also a quiet build-up of military personnel in Iraq and Syria that indicates a much wider operation is in the works. The merit of such a build-up is debatable and may be necessary to dismantle the operations of ISIS networks across the Middle East, but deploying more hard power in ongoing wars is only another tactic. The Trump Administration has not stated long-term regional objectives or presented a plan for working with allies like Egypt, Jordan, or Turkey to stabilize Syria’s hot war. Bombing campaigns will only give short-term gains and should only be paired with the foresight of a comprehensive plan for the region that includes diplomacy and soft power tools.
The military has a distinctive way of conducting policy. Some may say that the national security state is formed by occupation policy: policy that is institutionalized by the occupation of resources by force. The United States is now a national security state. The influence of military generals is greater than any time in recent history, wielding increased authority in an era of political imbalance.
The military is still under civilian control despite the growing power of the military in political roles, but new antagonisms have been created within the bureaucratic structure that deals with the real day-today tasks of operating policy. As stated earlier, many key positions of Trump’s government remain empty. Most of these positions are vital to the operational flow of information between important political and military actors and aids in the development of laws to be passed through Congress. If these operations continue to be at a standstill or cease altogether, the military will not need to negotiate the use of weaponry with the Congress. They will have enough influence to execute policy without the input from other branches of government, for example, declaring pinprick-bombing campaigns as national security imperatives. The vision for war is encased by the definitions used to define the enemy. For the military, total victory means being a dominant factor in the politics of negotiation. So far, the military seems to have the upper-hand.
The security of a nation should be based on the reality of a pending threat to its people. But reality has become much harder to define, especially when what constitutes a threat is increasingly obscured by the emergence of cyber attacks and domestic terrorism. The military now has a freer reign in its ability to define the threat and pose as the solution.
Hard power, the military power, should not be the only factor in national security. The strength of a nation also rests in its economic, educational, and social policy. If these factors do not emerge together, the national security policy of the United States will be built on the institutionalization of war as a strategic imperative. This may lead to the weakening of multilateral treaties and institutions that have traditionally tried to administer a restriction on how wars can be fought. The laws of war and peace will become more allusive if the Trump Administration continues to expand the military-industrial complex into all areas of policy-making. If the national security process is being upended, there exists less actors of influence, whether that be U.S administrative apparatus or doctrines of international law facilitated by the United Nations, that can balance the emergence of a new use of force doctrine.