National Security and Holding the Line Under Trump


As Donald Trump’s presidency begins, foreign powers are not the only ones scrambling to make sense of the new normal. Outside experts have attempted to provide a rubric or “moral guide” for potential political appointees debating whether or not to join the new administration. There have been debates over the correct course of action for principled senior officials who joined the administration, but do not share the president’s extreme views. Well before inauguration day some people were already thinking about how civil servants might dissent against illegal or unethical policies. Since Trump’s inauguration, federal workers have been seeking ways to push back against the new president’s initiatives and express disobedience without losing their jobs. Elected officials in Congress on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to adjust.

National security professionals outside of government are also struggling to adapt to a world where fewer people in positions of true power are interested in their ideas, experience, and recommendations. How should people who, regardless of party, are committed to pragmatic and principled foreign policies best approach this mission under a Trump administration? There is no simple rubric for when to work with the administration and when to actively oppose it. Both approaches have merit and each has yielded some success, at least temporarily, on issues likes torture, CIA black sites, sanctions against Russia, and the immigration ban. Reconciling these two competing impulses – to engage or to oppose – will remain difficult. It’s made even more complicated by Trump’s Manichean outlook and propensity to flood the system with tendentious policies and proclamations. As one of many national security professionals trying to find his bearings, I would argue that determining where and how to engage the administration to help shape policy and when to oppose it begins with recognizing the new ground on which we’re operating.

Over at Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl and Hal Brands identified a method to the madness in Trump’s grand strategy, which is centered on combatting three perceived threats: “radical Islam,” which the president defines broadly to include all Islamist groups and considers an existential threat; unfair trade deals and the trade practices of major competitors, most notably China; and immigration, which he frames as damaging the American economy, fueling crime, and enabling the spread of radical Islam. The Trump team’s response is a jumble of policies. One of the most notable is economic nationalism. The president has also shown his readiness to pursue a purely transactional approach to relations with all countries regardless of their values or pre-existing relationships with the United States. Fears of radical Islam combined with an aversion to immigration inform Trump’s “extreme” approach to homeland security. And the administration has advocated an even more muscular military that he wants to use chiefly against “radical Islam,” but might also deploy against myriad countries.

Although many of Trump’s policy prescriptions are dangerous, they are not all dangerous in the same way or to the same degree. National security professionals inside and outside of government will wrestle with when to try to mitigate the most damaging aspects of dangerous policies and when to man the barricades. Partisan politics will complicate these calculations. Deciding when to engage and where to hold the line requires recognizing how the foreign policy terrain has changed.

Traditional Terrain

The media tends to focus on major security challenges and high-level initiatives that consume the president’s attention and that of his senior advisors. But policy is often shaped and executed at the working level, where opportunities to engage positively still exist. Engagement could take many forms familiar to academics and think-tankers, including conducting specific research, launching projects to inform or abet certain policies, or simply organizing or participating in workshops. Big debates over both specific security challenges and foreign policy initiatives will also occur. Indeed, they are common during every administration and this one will have plenty of them. Some debates will take a familiar shape and play out much as they would under a more traditional administration. For example, it is easy to imagine debates over military spending breaking down along party lines, with Republicans backing the president and Democrats holding the line unless defense outlays are matched by more money for domestic programs. Similar conventional policy clashes could play out over whether to attempt to withdraw from or deliberately sabotage the Iran nuclear deal or work with Russia and the Assad regime against the Islamic State.

Heterodox Terrain

Other debates will occur over dangerous policies that stretch the boundaries of convention, but still occur within the traditional security paradigm that has shaped U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years. Trump’s threat to launch a trade war with Mexico in order to compel it to pay for a border wall is one example. His recycled threat to seize Iraqi oil is another. The Trump administration’s unfolding approach to China has been equally heterodox and potentially even more dangerous. Trump’s Secretary of State during his confirmation hearing suggested America might go to war to prevent China access to islands it has built in the South China Sea. The president’s spokesman appeared to reaffirm this position at a subsequent press conference. And then there’s Russia. The president has exhibited an almost inexplicable desire to court Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has played coy about removing sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine, prompting push back from Republicans in Congress among others. Trump may have walked back on the sanctions issues, but the state of his thinking on the issue is difficult to discern.

Terra Incognita

A third set of policy debates will be fought over the core elements of the liberal international order, which is threatened by the president’s “America First” agenda. The current global order and America’s position in it were experiencing strains before Trump took office. Indeed, a backlash against globalization marked by a growing wave of populist discontent was among the trends that smoothed his path to power. Revisionist powers like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran were already challenging U.S. hegemony and attempting to undue the rules-based order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. Yet, until recently, the debate among U.S. foreign policy hands was over how best to preserve this order and maintain America’s leadership role in it. This is no longer the case. Trump believes that America “gets a raw deal from the liberal international order” and is hostile to the institutionalized alliances and agreements that undergird it. In lieu of an open, rules-based liberal order, he embraces mercantilism and populist nationalism. If Trump’s “America First” agenda is enacted, the United States would become just another country competing in an increasingly zero-sum environment where might makes right. It is not an exaggeration to say that by advocating this agenda, Trump ushered in a struggle for the soul of American foreign policy.

From a security perspective, the most acute threat comes from Trump’s readiness to blow up the web of alliances that have helped to prevent great power conflicts and contributed to America’s comparative advantage. Yet the United States would not need to tear up its treaties with Japan or South Korea or pull out of NATO in order to do potentially irrevocable harm. For example, America never recognized the Soviet seizure of the Baltic republics during the Cold War. By leaving open the question of whether the United States would come to their aid now or letting Russia off the hook for its illegal annexation of Ukraine, Trump could seriously undermine the NATO alliance. His public aversion to the European Union and enthusiasm for Brexit stokes the type of hyper nationalism that fueled numerous small wars and two really big ones.

Domestic Terrain

Make no mistake: Now more than ever, domestic policy is a matter of national security. Trump’s potential to undermine the freedom of the press, rule of law, and faith in the democratic process are existential threats to the United States. The president declared war on the media and personally attacked individual journalists, including singling out one reporter during a speech to the Central Intelligence Agency. He has also alleged massive voter fraud to explain his losing the popular vote. No evidence of fraud exists, but this has not stopped the president from launching an investigation that could be used as a cover to suppress voting in states that opposed him. After stalling throughout the campaign on his tax returns, Trump’s team announced that he will never release them. The president has continued to retain a private security detail, whose use of force has been questioned, in addition to his Secret Service detail.

Trump imposed a de facto religious test on immigration to the United States by banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, while giving Christians preference when making exceptions. He fired his acting attorney general, Sally Yates, after she refused to defend his immigration executive order on the grounds that it was not legal. In his official statement on the firing, the president alleged that Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice”. After James Robart, a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush, temporarily blocked the seven-country immigration ban from being enforced, the president took to Twitter to personally attack him too. Trump went so far as to question the judge’s authority and to tweet that Robart had “put our country in such peril” and therefore should be blamed if “something happens” (an allusion to a terrorist attack). The administration is complying with the temporary lifting of its travel ban despite the president’s histrionics, but Trump is creating conditions for a Constitutional crisis by questioning the authority of the judiciary.

Anyone who has studied authoritarian regimes will be familiar with these types of actions. Yet one need not have spent time studying or living in autocracies to recognize the dangers associated with them. Trump’s actions strike at the heart of the nation because they suggest a president who may not honor the Constitution or the checks and balances it mandates and individual rights it guarantees. If Trump’s “America First” agenda catalyzed a struggle for the soul of U.S. foreign policy then his actions on the domestic front have sounded the bell for an even more consequential battle: whether the country will remain a nation built upon the ideals of freedom, justice, and liberty, or succumb to the tyrannies that the founders tried to guard against.

Navigating the New Terrain

Most national security professionals, whether they are non-partisan or lean left or right, operate within a certain paradigm. There is a bipartisan consensus on maintaining the post-World War II order abroad and for upholding the rule of law and protecting civil liberties at home. Arguments within this paradigm may be ferocious, but they historically focused on how best to achieve common macro objectives. This is no longer the case.

We are faced with a president and a coterie of non-Senate confirmed advisors who want to remake America in his authoritarian image and may attempt to destroy the rules-based global order. Trump not only seeks to shred institutions and faith in them, but is also thin-skinned, intemperate, and demanding of unconditional loyalty. Thus, it is almost impossible to separate the man from his agenda or the way he is pursuing it. Where does that leave national security professionals committed to advancing U.S. national interests regardless of who is in the White House? There are no easy answers. Based on the above rubric, it is possible to posit several propositions.

First, there will be plenty of areas that still fall in the traditional terrain where national security professionals can plug as usual. Some of them will be more partisan then others, but that’s nothing new. Even some of the more heterodox policies Trump might pursue could offer opportunities for conventional engagements. It is unrealistic to assume that a small cabal of advisors in the White House will be able to manage the entire national security portfolio. Many of the individuals at the assistant and deputy assistance secretary levels will be Republican national security professionals who value the input of outside experts. The same remains true for staffers on the Hill and members of the intelligence community, executive bureaucracy, and military. The latter’s perspective is likely to carry considerable weight. It is worth seizing opportunities where they exist. In certain cases, national security professionals may also want to lean into the operational elements and technocratic issues that fall in these areas. Good tactics cannot save bad strategy, but the ways in which potentially harmful policies are implemented could mitigate their worst effects.

Second, if there was ever a time for national security professionals to reach beyond the beltway then this is it. The frustration with U.S. foreign policy and fears about U.S. national security that Trump tapped into are real even if the solutions he offers are snake oil. If we do not engage with voters weary of traditional foreign policy then we cannot adapt in the right direction. National security professionals must seek out or create opportunities to bridge the divide that separates us from the communities that the policies we advocate are intended to serve. This could be as simple as publishing more in local media outlets. But ideally it would mean public engagements at institutions like American Legions, Rotary Clubs, and Chambers of Commerce, or forging virtual relationships with local civil society organizations. Whatever the venue, the aim should not only be to explain our policy preferences, but also to listen, to learn, and to test the validity of our own dearly held positions.

Third, the evidence suggests Trump will do damage to America and its global position. The key then becomes to ensure the United States can recover once he is gone. This requires that we take steps to keep our country and the liberal international order resilient. Specifically, it is critical to hold the line on rule of law and individual liberties at home and the preservation of U.S. alliances and multilateral institutions that form the scaffolding on which the current international order was built. In the parlance of foreign policy, these are the vital national interests that must be protected by any legal means available when dealing with the Trump administration.

In some cases, this will require engaging in partisan politics. In others, it will necessitate putting aside party loyalty and forging bipartisan alliances. It is worth reflecting on the fact that a combination of pushback from Republicans, input from some senior administration officials, and a media outcry from outlets that Trump cares about probably helped to forestall policy shifts on torture, CIA black sites, and sanctions against Russia. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle in Congress, in State Houses, and in Mayors’ offices across the country also have an increasingly important role to play reassuring allies publicly and privately that America still values and supports them. These officials along with members of the private and non-profit sectors must also become ambassadors for an America that still embraces the norms and rules that undergird the international order. National security professionals have a responsibility to use whatever influence we have to encourage and support these communications. Those of us who engage with international interlocutors must also take every opportunity to voice our support for both the rule of law domestically and the continuation of a rules-based order globally.

As we saw over the past two weeks, sometimes holding the line domestically will mean participating in civil protests and supporting litigation in the courts. These actions have obvious domestic value while also signaling to the world that although Donald Trump is the president, many Americans do not believe he represents our values and are prepared to fight using all legal means to preserve them. Lawyers, civil rights activists, and civil society organizations will be at the forefront of these efforts, but national security professionals also have a role to play. For example, we can draw informed comparisons between Trump’s actions at home and those of authoritarians abroad and help dismantle arguments that autocratic policies will result in greater security and therefore be somehow worth the sacrifice in liberty. Experts who have studied civil resistance and non-violent movements in other countries can share lessons learned and help with mobilization efforts. Some of these measures are far beyond the types of activities in which national security officials normally engage. But these are not normal times. The terrain has changed.


Stephen Tankel is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. He previously served as a Senior Advisor for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.