Staffers on the U.S. National Security Council are currently putting the finishing touches to the Trump administration’s congressionally mandated National Security Strategy. The strategy is supposed to describe America’s interests, identify the threats to those interests, and describe a strategy to counter them. But Trump’s National Security Council faces a unique problem: The greatest threat to America’s national security is not some foreign enemy. It is the president of the United States. This calls for innovative strategy — so here I imagine what the “adults in the room” might write if they were to acknowledge this unique challenge.
The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy
By “The Adults in the Room”
The U.S. government is more internally divided about defining U.S. interests than at any time since World War II. The president and some around him believe that the United States has been ripped off by the international order we created and led since the late 1940s. Mainstreamers inside the administration — including most of his cabinet and the National Security Council — believe the opposite. We — the so-called “adults in the room” — have not resolved this issue. We have had some success in persuading the president to include alliances and a healthy global economy as U.S. interests, but it has been a struggle. We do not know if it will hold. For the moment, we are reassuring the world that U.S. interests are steady — the security of the homeland and a healthy international system that promotes peace, prosperity, and freedom.
The Rogue Presidency Threat
The greatest threat to U.S. interests today is our boss, the president of the United States. He is temperamentally, cognitively, and ideologically unique. There has never been a president like him before and we are unlikely to see his kind again. He is quick to anger, he refuses to listen to advice, he is almost completely ignorant of world history, his visceral impulses are at odds with longstanding U.S. strategic doctrine, and he is overly influenced by cable news, the fringes of the Internet, and the last person he talked to.
If the rogue presidency is not effectively managed, it could quickly lead to the unraveling of the American alliance system, a new global financial crisis, and the return of major power conflict in the resulting strategic vacuum. Already, the president has left the United States largely defenseless against Russian political warfare and is turning a blind eye to domestic terrorism.
While we remain focused on our internal challenge, we must also be aware that the external dangers that existed on Nov. 8, 2016, have not gone away. The United States must deal with Russian aggression, terrorism, chaos in the Middle East, Chinese revisionism, and North Korea. However, even here, the rogue presidency looms large. It has the capacity to render useless our response to these threats by undermining U.S. foreign policy from within. Dealing with external dangers requires a strategy to deal with our internal problem.
Our Strategy: Containment
Our goal is to maintain a sound American foreign policy. Regime change is off the table. We recognize that Donald Trump is the democratically elected president with the legitimate authority to set policy and we have no desire or intention of subverting that. Our strategy therefore is to contain the most dangerous elements of his presidency.
The key to our strategy is to surround the president with mainstream foreign policy experts and officials. President Trump’s penchant for retired military officers provided the establishment with a route into his administration. We gained ground over the course of the year when Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster replaced Michael Flynn as national security advisor and John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff. Kelly’s appointment in particular ensures there is literally an adult in the room with the president most of the time. These incremental gains mean mainstreamers now effectively control the national security bureaucracy, which allows us to marginalize radicals and control the flow of information, the inter-agency process, and formal policy options to the president.
Having in the back of their minds the specter of a vainglorious, dim-witted monarch, the founding fathers did in fact design a system to help contain a president like Trump – at least in a world in which the president did not have unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons. Since World War II, the executive branch has steadily accumulated power. The time has now come to consciously cede power back to the other branches. This has been a critical component of containment thus far. Congress has introduced new sanctions on Russia and rejected the budget-slashing of the State Department. The courts played a crucial role in watering down the Muslim ban. However, these are blunt stopgap measures. In time, the president can work around them if he finds competent bureaucratic champions.
The harsh truth is that the rogue presidency retains many assets, chief among them being the president’s ability to say whatever he wants and to fire any of us at any moment. To effectively contain the president, he must believe our foreign policy is his foreign policy. For tactical purposes, we will rename traditional U.S. foreign policy as “America First.” We will argue that to serve Americans first, we must work with allies, support a healthy global economy, and uphold our values. We will ruthlessly exploit the Firster faction’s lack of expertise and preparation to absorb and conquer their slogans. They may partially define what we say, but we will completely define what we do. We hope that a series of successes will prompt the president to unthinkingly embrace our framework.
We will refrain from any public criticism of the president. We will self-consciously damage our own reputations in defending him at times when he does not deserve it. The president demands public displays of loyalty and we will pay him that tribute, not for him but for the greater good.
All these efforts are for naught if our internal focus results in crises and setbacks overseas. That is why we must ensure that our efforts to contain the rogue presidency also mean crafting positive policies to deal with North Korean nuclear missiles, Russian aggression, instability in the Middle East, and other dangers. We will use President Trump’s fondness for personal diplomacy to reinforce our alliances, we will rely heavily on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and we will set aside any policy differences we have — such as that between neoconservatives and realists — to focus on what we have in common.
The rogue presidency represents an unprecedented test of America’s national security and foreign policy institutions. We are confident though that that in the end they are stronger than their leader.
Thomas Wright is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power (which was reviewed in the first Texas National Security Review roundtable).