«For tradition tends to invest accepted policy with the attribute of permanency, which only exceptionally can be predicated of the circumstances of this changing world.»
Α.Τ. Mahan, 1900
Geopolitics teaches us that countries have core interests and imperatives, and that their relative importance can shift with time and circumstances. Geopolitics does not dictate the response. This is where politics and policy assert themselves and where personalities become important. If one steps back from the current (contentious) political discourse, it’s hard to find a significant gap between the administration of former President Barack Obama and that of President Donald Trump when it comes to identifying the risks to American interests and security posed by North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State or even China. This is not to say that there are no differences, but rather that it’s often less about identifying what represents a challenge to U.S. strategic interests than about how to deal with them. In this, the difference between the two administrations appears rather stark.
Obama entered office with the intent to rehabilitate what he and others saw as a damaged U.S. image abroad. They believed that U.S. influence and thus power had been undermined by the Iraq War and by the general impression that the United States was an unrestrained cowboy nation. They saw that United States had lost the cushion of global sympathy that followed the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The Obama administration pursued a foreign policy framed in terms of international cooperation and collaboration. It was a policy that the current administration argues led to weaknesses in the overall U.S. strategic position abroad and at home. The Trump administration is calling for a revival of American power, economically and militarily, under a mantra of America First.
The approaches are rather different, though perhaps not quite the polar opposites some would argue. Nor is this a unique situation in American history. While not a perfect parallel, it is instructive to look back a few decades to the 1970s, when U.S. power was seen to be waning due to the failure in Vietnam, domestic social instability and the political crisis of Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the United States pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union and sought to rehabilitate the international U.S. image through a reduction of military forces abroad. Cooperation and collaboration were seen by the administration as the best policies to preserve American influence and international security, particularly given the social and economic problems at home.
The Call of Neoconservatives
But detente was certainly not universally accepted as the “right” path. Both within and on the fringes of the “establishment,” there were rising voices warning that detente, that the reduction of U.S. military forces and that arms control agreements with the Soviets were not securing peace, but were weakening U.S. power and giving the Soviets time and space to outpace the United States. Washington was being duped into giving up its military strength, for little reward. This counter to detente was voiced strongly by many of those from the neoconservative movement, driven by the so-called neocons seeking to revitalize America’s military, economic and political might, and to reclaim a place for U.S. primacy in the world system.
It was Ronald Reagan who capitalized on this, characterizing Carter as weak, calling for a revival of American greatness and urging a more robust military and stronger nuclear deterrent and ballistic missile defense. The Iran crisis was seen as proof that America had grown weak, that there was little respect for American military might and thus that overall U.S. security was now at risk abroad because others were more willing to challenge and directly confront the United States. Inside the U.S. intelligence community, another contrary line was also underway, and assessments of Soviet missile and nuclear capabilities were radically revised, setting off alarm bells about the pace and scale of Soviet advancements.
There certainly were counterarguments and warnings (in some cases, ultimately proved correct) that these new assessments were far more dire on paper than in reality and that there was a major overestimation of Soviet strength and American weakness. But Reagan and the neo-conservative camp won out, and the response was a fairly significant shift in U.S. international policy, in defense budgets, in trade policies and in Soviet relations. The transition from Carter to Reagan was stark. Rather than offer them detente to ease nuclear tensions, Reagan labeled the Soviets the “evil empire.” Rather than further reduce military forces abroad, the United States increased defense spending and attention to nuclear and missile programs. Rather than be a cooperative power, the United States reasserted its own interests, challenged institutions such as the United Nations and set an agenda based on realist views of U.S. national security.
The Carter-Reagan Swing
And the Carter-Reagan transition, with its significant shift in national security focus and in defining the ways to deal with key issues, was in some ways a repeat of a similar dynamic after the discovery of the so-called missile gap with the Soviets two decades earlier. In that case, John F. Kennedy claimed that it was Dwight D. Eisenhower (a general, of all people) who was weak on defense and who had let American power slip. Kennedy came in seeking to shake things up and to invigorate America, launching into the space race as a way to avoid falling further behind the Soviets. It’s a recurring pattern in American history, where leaders blame their predecessors for policies that ultimately led to weakening U.S. power and influence. Obama argued that America was less respected because of the perceived unilateralism of the administration of President George W. Bush. Trump has argued — and did so again Dec. 18 in his national security speech — that America is less respected because of the perceived capitulation of the Obama administration to other country’s interests and desires.
The Carter-Reagan analogy holds, at least superficially, with the tradition when moving from Obama to Trump. And Trump has, not coincidentally, drawn on many of the same slogans, the same imagery and the same concepts as did Reagan. There is attention to American manufacturing, to tax reform, to the Make America Great Again slogans, to calls for updated and expanded nuclear arms, to questions of the viability of arms control treaties with Russia, to a push for increased military spending and to challenges to global institutions and agreements that appear to disadvantage the United States. Trump has surrounded himself with the new version of the neocons, has taken a more assertive stance toward North Korea and Iran, and has targeted trade agreements that he and his advisers see as constraining U.S. interests.
The Trump Way
With Trump’s speech Dec. 18 on national security, his administration will in many ways be following an expected path. His administration identified an overall weakening of U.S. global security, standing and strength, blamed it on the previous administration’s focus on global cooperation to the detriment of U.S. military might, and proposed to redress it. North Korea, Iran and terrorism (Islamic State/al Qaeda) are critical immediate concerns, but the strategic “gap” with the Chinese and Russians is the deeper concern. If there is a view that this gap needs to be narrowed and that past more diplomatic and cooperative efforts contributed to the gap, then we can expect further shifts in how the United States deals with these countries, with its partners, with friends or with just passing acquaintances on the periphery of Russia and China. And perhaps this view will shift how the United States sees the responses of some of its more reticent partners, such as Europe.
At a time of extreme media polarization and of cries of imminent Armageddon, it’s a good moment to step back and consider strategically, and to think about the many alternative voices that have been raised over the past eight to 24 years about the direction of U.S. policy and priorities and about how to remedy them. Consider all the cries of too few ships in the Navy, the arguments against additional nuclear missile agreements or the challenges to “appeasement” policies. These voices were always there; they now have a champion in Trump. Assertions that the actions of the current administration go against the national security establishment or against the foreign policy establishment miss the reality that neither of these “establishments” has a singular voice, nor have they historically. There are always dissenting voices, counterarguments and challenges to the accepted methods to address policy challenges.
This is neither a critique of nor an argument in favor of the current administration’s assessments of priorities or ways to deal with them. Rather it is a call for sober reflection and for recognizing that the way things were done for the past eight years, or 20 years, or 50 years are not necessarily the only way to do things. Presidents and administrations are often seeking to change things, to differentiate themselves, to refocus the priorities of the nation. And the world system around the United States is constantly evolving. The trick is not to criticize because things are different but to step back and assess policies for what they are, for their risks and opportunities and for their implications at home and abroad. If modern U.S. history teaches anything, it’s that change is the norm and that the policies of today may create the problems of tomorrow. But it also shows the overall resilience of the United States and of its underlying political and social systems, even amid wrenching changes.
* Rodger Baker leads Stratfor’s analysis of Asia Pacific and South Asia and guides the company’s forecasting process. A Stratfor analyst since 1997, he has played a pivotal role in developing and refining the company’s analytical process, internal training programs and geopolitical framework.