As we turn the calendar to a new page, we behold the specter of 2018 staring right back at us, as if to say: “If you have any idea what is about to happen, you best let me in on it—for my little blocks are stark-raving blank save for numbers, some standard holidays, and mostly Viking-origin terms for the days of the week.” I feel the calendar’s pain, but I care more about my own and that of other humans now that we are more or less one year into the age of Trump.
So what have we learned during the past year, and how does it hold up with our expectations as the calendar turned to 2017, post-election but pre-inauguration? Alas, the question begs a problem for most of us. Human cognitive gymnastics being what they are, our memory of what we really thought a year ago is not as reliable as we might suppose. All memories get edited in the interest of emotional self-protection, even in relatively disciplined minds. The urge to cognitive consistency, present in all of us to one degree or another, tends to work back on memory to efface the most embarrassing misprognostications we hatch. So unless we have a precise written record of what we thought, trusting our memories may calm our egos more than reveal our acumen, or the lack thereof.
As it happens, I’m a lucky guy: I have such a record thanks to a proprietary quick-reaction memo I was asked to write for a friendly allied government. Submitted on December 6, 2016, the memo consisted of two necessarily speculative but not entirely fanciful parts: a process analysis, followed by a substantive analysis. The latter I revised after a decent interval and placed in TAI.1 The former, after an even more decent interval, I offer here in mildly revised form. The revisions are of two limited sorts: I have deleted certain passages useful as background for non-U.S. national readers but that are superfluous for present purposes; and, more, important, I have lightly annotated the text with self-scrutiny a year on. Almost nothing else has been changed.
December 6, 2016:
Never before in post-18th-century American history has the prospective foreign policy of an anticipated Administration been festooned with so much uncertainty. As of this writing in early December, about six weeks from Inauguration Day, we know a good deal less than is typical for a transition period, and that is for four interlocking and mutually reinforcing reasons.
First, the President-Elect is an outsider to government like no poseur outsider has been in recent memory. Americans as an electorate have evinced an anti-authority, anti-Federal government bias since at least the 1786-87 Shays’ Rebellion, and except in times when perception of a national security emergency has persuaded voters of the need for experienced and sober souls to be in charge, they have often inclined to vote “against Washington.” In the postwar era, for example, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and even Barack Obama all sought to cultivate an anti-establishment veneer to one extent or another in order to get elected. Americans tend to admire individualist free thinkers who puncture the stale air of routine, and—reality being both forgiven and ignored as required—like to think of themselves as being among them.
But none of these or earlier “against Washington” candidates was remotely as innocent of political experience as is Donald Trump. This means that Trump cannot draw on a significant personal network of associates with experience in any aspect of governance. He is therefore reliant on Republican Party personalities to bring those people to him, and in this respect he can turn to only a limited fringe of such personalities because most of the GOP intellectual and political elite refused to support him during the campaign.2 In previous transitions going back at least ten election cycles, the coherence of the parties’ elite yielded a fairly short list of possible cabinet-level appointments even to self-styled “outsider” victors. Anyone familiar with the scene knew the list. That is not now the case. So we face a situation in which a few familiar names, like Rudy Guiliani and Mitt Romney, are mooted for Secretary of State despite the fact that neither one has the requisite relevant experience for the job.3
Second, and much related, the key appointments in the foreign policy/national security field are likely eventually to have outsized decisional authority in a Trump Administration. Trump’s knowledge of foreign affairs is so meager that even he, at some level, has to know that he cannot actively manage the job. At age 70, too, his energy level, proudly admitted lifelong lack of a reading habit, and hence any willingness or capacity to learn new and esoteric subjects is questionable.4 We should in time, if not at first, expect a decisional metabolism akin to that of the second Reagan Administration, where large numbers of consequential judgments were delegated to lesser officials, sometimes to the surprise and alarm of those officials.5 After all, Trump’s main concern is a realignment of domestic politics; most foreign policy issues, aside from trade, are liable to be mainly props used for signaling purposes.
This likely presidential decisional metabolism has several implications with respect to process. One is that the “permanent government,” the civil and foreign-service professionals who constitute the institutional policy memory of government and know “how to make the trains run on time,” are liable to be left alone to ensure some degree of continuity. That will certainly be the case for some months after the inauguration for the simple reason that the Senatorial confirmation process is so slow that key Schedule C appointments will not find their desks until late spring at the earliest. But it may be the case thereafter, too, depending on the disposition of their cabinet-level bosses—and again, we don’t yet know who they will be.6
This is good news in some respects, but not in others. Bureaucracies are good at ensuring basic competence and stability, but not at adapting to new circumstances. Decisions can and will get made at intermediate and lower levels, but even these decisions will be afflicted by an uncertainty drag. Bureaucracies are risk-averse, and the interagency process is inclined by nature to exude a certain amount of friction and stasis. These tendencies will be magnified by a general, if uneven, lack of direction from above.
There are, however, two conditions in which continuity cannot be expected: crises, and Oval Office initiatives in foreign/national security policy usually having to do with politics and sometimes with campaign promises. So by way of process we may expect a schizophrenic phenomenon: continuity most of the time in most issue areas, especially those with inherently low political profiles, punctuated randomly with “monkey-in-the-machine-room” interventions of mostly unpredictable provenance.
By their very nature, national security crises end up in the Oval Office, and no one can know how Donald Trump will react to them. No one knows, either, if the National Security Advisor-designate, Michael Flynn, possesses the chops or the tenured rationality to handle them wisely and safely. He was dismissed from his tenure at the Defense Intelligence Agency for erratic behavior, extreme views, and a tendency to suppress all opinions (and sometimes facts) with which he did not agree. His capacity to be a fair and effective convener of Departmental positions is much in doubt, and his inclination—born of his intelligence agency experience—to keep options and information at “close hold” at Departmental expense, especially in a crisis, may be assumed.7
As to Oval Office initiatives in foreign and national security policy, we do not yet know how seriously and with what level of confidence and sophistication candidate Trump made statements about the U.S. alliance structure, about the liberal international trade order, about Russia, about relations with Mexico as concerns U.S. immigration policy, and so on. It would be rash to dismiss everything he said as mere rhetoric, and to assume that he has never thought beyond the proverbial second paragraph about any of these things. On some of these matters he has a long history of consistent statements.8 But that could be the case, given Trump’s manifestly narcissistic personality, of which more in a moment.
In any event, if the campaign rhetoric’s bite turns out to be a lot less ferocious than its bark, it would not be the first time presidential candidates shifted gears and even direction once in office. Bill Clinton was against NAFTA as a candidate before he was for it as President; that was just image management or, as we may also put it, lying. Remember, too, that Barack Obama was determined to shut down the temporary prison at Guantánamo Bay, and said so volubly. But once in office he did not do so, not because he lied on the campaign trail and not because he lacked authority—as several apologists have since falsely claimed—but because he changed his mind about the wisdom of persisting in the face of congressional roadblocks once his considerable intellect had digested the relevant facts to hand.
In mid-November, while abroad, President Obama quipped several times that the realities of the office, and of the world it faces, have a way of limiting and disciplining what Presidents think they want to do before they actually come to sit in the President’s chair. That is true, and it could happen to President Trump as well. Even in the foreign and national security policy domain, where a President has more leeway as Commander-in-Chief than he does as chief executive in domestic policy, it is not easy to suddenly or dramatically change policy in the absence of a major external shock. We don’t know yet if he will really want to do that, or if he can.9
A third, again related, source of uncertainty has to do with Trump’s aforementioned personality. It is impossible to clinically assess anyone’s personality remotely, and medical professionals rightly frown on the hobby. Nevertheless, Donald Trump is a public personality who has been on the American scene for long enough that a reasonable consensus about what kind of person he is cannot be shunted aside. He is by one insightful assessment a typical American type: a “magnifico.”
Americans are spellbound by magnificos because they entertain us with their grand pretensions and larger-than-life ways. They are big dealers, gambling with abandon and a smile. They are permissive, spending freely and consuming lavishly. They eschew self-restraint, preferring instead to strut and swagger, brag and charm, display and self-promote. Not all magnificos involved in politics have been rich or nationally famous. But Trump is a special kind of magnifico, one who knows little about politics and whose family-business orientation has shielded him from the normal management education that business executives who run large corporations typically get. When you fail at managing a large corporation, especially one with vested shareholders, you’re out of that corporation; and if you fail repeatedly, you’re completely out of that line of work. But Trump went bankrupt at least five times and stayed in, because he refused to fire himself. There is no accountable management structure in his business, and there are no shareholders as such. There are only partners of various descriptions, some of which since the mid- to late-1990s have been Russian oligarchs up to all kinds of fraudulent activities.10
As such, instead of incubating the kind of experience that gives rise to humility, a penchant for planning, and caution, Trump has incubated a kind of natural narcissism in which no mistake is ever really punished. As much or more than most magnificos, therefore, Trump remains a present-oriented, seat-of-the-pants decision-maker. He appears to have no moral or intellectual center, only a transactional modus operandi. He does not appear to plan well and he does not look back with regret; he is ever in the moment.
Closely related, his assessment of other people appears to be based on first and superficial impressions, leading him to quickly trust people he has barely met, upon whom he heaps lavish and unreasonable praise, and to excoriate anyone who betrays or disappoints him with outsized emotional venom. He trusts himself to quickly flash on decision points with great confidence, and when things go wrong he inclines to blame others, upon whom he vents volcanic anger.11 It is safe to say that, at least since America became a great power at the end of the 19th century, no one of this description has ever gotten anywhere near the Oval Office.
What does this mean? It means, for one thing, that we do not know how deep Trump’s convictions about those foreign policy-related subjects he talked about during the campaign are. We do not know how much he really grasps about the issues, or from whom he got the policy sound bytes he used during the campaign. We therefore do not know how easily a briefing by a government expert, in the intelligence community or from inside the cabinet (say by General Mattis if he becomes Secretary of Defense), that runs contrary to his understanding could sway his view. Trump seems to agree with the last person he talked to about any given subject on which he does not have a firm conviction. The stability of his superficial views before being elected President may be owed to the fact that he did not tolerate let alone seek out the presence of anyone whose views differed from his own. He will find it harder to sustain that kind of intellectual isolation and shallowness in the Oval Office.
It is true, of course, that few Presidents come to office with what we could reasonably call a grand strategic concept. Few American politicians have ever thought that way, which aligns with the fact that the United States lacks the kind of formal grand strategy tradition common to many European and Asian polities. Some new Presidents have principles, some have certain instincts based on their accumulated if informal conclusions about human nature, and some have a bit of both. But only for those who have a mature strategic concept do the pieces and implications of the whole gain solid anchors. Absent some sort of conceptual framework, or enough of the right kind of education to derive such a framework upon necessity, convictions about policy become more or less a series of one-offs, each susceptible to different degrees to doubt and overthrow. Donald Trump evinces even less of a strategic concept than has Barack Obama, whose possession of one has from time to time been exaggerated, mostly by skeptics or partisan adversaries who invented a “doctrine” for him in order to have something coherent to criticize.
What happens to a non-systematic thinker when two (or more) views he holds turn out to conflict in practice? Trump wants to create American jobs, but he wants to curtail the liberal global trading order to do so. In the short term there may be no conflict here, but in the slightly longer term there will be—since the U.S. economy is structurally more dependent on exports than it used to be. So, for example, what if for herd-like reasons we need not examine now, huge flows of capital leave emerging markets (and other markets) to enter U.S. capital markets in anticipation of a boom?12 That will harm other economies and, eventually, harm export-dependent sectors of the U.S. economy as well. How does a non-systematic thinker make tradeoffs between policies that seem desirable but that have incommensurate outcomes? He does it unsystematically; he does it by taking a whiff of the political winds. This is an unpredictable process leading to inherently unpredictable outcomes. In other words, uncertainty and unpredictability inhere in Donald Trump’s very personality.
The fourth and final source of uncertainty has to do with the world, not with Donald Trump. We—the West broadly defined in a way not to exclude geographical/ethnic outliers like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Israel—stand at an historical hinge. The main elements of Western civilizational modernity as a mode of thought are threefold: the rise of individual over communal agency; the emergence of secular space out of 16th-century sectarian arguments among Christians; and the Whig idea of progress as a union of science made practical with the moral betterment of humankind. These elements both made up and were subsequently shaped as they passed through the prism of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment in turn formed the conceptual basis for both the modern Western state and the modern state system erected by the West—both of which were radically distinct from their medieval predecessors that presumed communal agency, the unity of all forms of art and politics with religion, and the cyclical “chain-of-being” character of social time.
In other words, the post-Westphalian state’s legitimacy and the Western-hewn global order with it know only Enlightenment predicates upon which to base themselves. And in the more “advanced” states of the West—the United States and Western Europe—these predicates are weakening.13
First, a reaction has set in against exaggerations of individual agency—market fundamentalism from the Right and self-expressivism from the Left—such that the social/communal idea is again waxing strong. How else to explain how an avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, could get as far as he did in the 2016 election campaign, or how the Democratic Party can preach “you didn’t build that” to general if not universal assent, or especially the rise of identity politics in which group rights and characteristics take pride of place over those of individuals? The mantra that human beings are “social animals”—which is and has always been true, of course—now resounds from the academy and spreads unevenly downward, but spreads nonetheless. Americans today feel more “social,” then, but also far more narrowly and fractionally social. So much, then, for e pluribus unum.14
Second, while the principle of secularism in Western politics remains strong, and while the percentage of traditionally religious people in “advanced”-country Western populations continues to decline, secular humanism as the dominant de facto faith of the elites has acquired over time creedal rigidities that have rendered it in effect a non-deistic religion. The arts are now on the whole more closely wedded to the neo-pantheist elements in this crypto-religion, especially as regards environmental beliefs. That goes for music, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and theater—all of which in ancient times were part and parcel of religious expression in the West. Indeed, the human urge to the monadic gathering of all forms of human emotional expression under the godhead remains strong; the individualistic tenor of the modern period, which gave rise to a modular arrangement between faith and art, is the only notable exception in recorded history—and that seems to be fading back toward the historic arc of cultural normality.
Third and most important, while scientists and public faith in science used to be the avatars of progress, now increasingly the dark sides of scientific innovation gain pride of place. New forms of determinism have replaced the core Enlightenment predicate of human freedom, the most recent being genetics. Western scientists are now in the forefront of warning of impending doom, whether because of anthropogenic climate change, superbug pandemics, genetically modified food, artificial intelligence, or other supposed human-enabled pending catastrophes. The image of Western science is increasingly encased in the political imagination as a Pandora’s Box of trouble, but without hope as the last particle to flee entrapment, as in the original Greek myth. The result is a reversal of the optimism that characterized the Age of Reason, an ambient optimism that helped people endure the great disruptions and transformations that modernity imposed on them.
The erosion of the underlying predicates of modernity within the core of Western civilization is uneven, incomplete, and perhaps not irreversible. Moreover, many other parts of the world are just entering modernity, defined specifically as we have defined it here. The world as a whole is therefore running ideationally at variable speeds.
That said, the West’s internal sense of drift derives from these erosions, even though liberal Western elites are, as a rule, unaware of these deeper sources of political discontent and social unease. They incline to place blame for all the domestic woes that ail their nations on wishfully temporary economic perturbations, which they associate with the churn of technological change all bundled into a convenient word whose aura usually masks its actual function: globalization. This is a category error, and a serious one.
When it comes to global order, again, the elites appear to be oblivious to the deeper sources of change within the West, and so instead point to the rise or revival of forces from outside that are not and have never been inured to Western Enlightenment thinking: China, radical Sunni Islam, and to a considerable extent Russia, which always lay at the fringe of the West historically.
These same elites therefore incline to blame all external, security challenges on changes in the balance of power; the inconstancy of American leadership (especially over the past eight years) and its poor prudential judgment (especially during the eight years before that) in the face of those changes is but a supplementary argument. It is true that the balance of power has shifted during the past quarter century, but the general tendency is to significantly exaggerate the extent to which those changes are to America’s disadvantage. Looking objectively at the sinews of power, the United States remains the world’s only multidimensional superpower. Even in military measure, U.S. advantages have arguably grown in qualitative aspects relative to all would-be peer competitors—at least for the time being.15
This common assessment also misses the main point in what has changed. What has changed has to do not mainly with American power but with the will of the American political elite, and, closely related, the willingness of the majority of the American people, to support the kind of international activism that has characterized the U.S. role in the world since the end of World War II. The collapse of will has three interlocking elements: the rising costs of maintaining the incumbent strategy set against perceptions of domestic economic weakness; a lack of clarity as to the huge benefits to the United States of providing common security goods to the world; and, above all, a deep erosion in the premise that as a virtuous, even “exceptional” society, the United States deserves morally to play such a leading, rule-making role.
This is not the place to detail American grand strategy in the 20th century, but the trajectory of change needs perspective if we are to see it clearly. Suffice it to say that the United States has had only one grand strategy since becoming a world power with the denouement of the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of (Hawaii and) the Philippines: to prevent a hegemon from monopolizing the resources of either peninsular Europe or East Asia.
Before World War II, the means of implementing the strategy consisted of staying out of all avoidable great power conflicts (we still argue about the wisdom of U.S. participation in World War I), riding the coattails of the Royal Navy, and increasing self-help (Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet and the oceanic toggle-switch of the Panama Canal). That method collapsed into hegemonic war. After World War II, successive U.S. administrations found themselves forward deployed on the brackets of a war-depleted Eurasia. U.S. wealth and military power—especially the U.S. Navy and Air Force—were the antes that enabled U.S. policy to engage the geopolitics of Europe and East Asia, in both cases with willing allied partners. The purpose of the forward deployment was not only to deter would-be hegemons (Germany and Japan were replaced after 1945 by the USSR and the PRC) but also to suppress regional security competitions that could provide wedges for Soviet and Chinese advancement.
It is critical to understand that, after World War II, the liberal internationalism that attended the shift in the implementation of the twin anti-hegemon grand strategy into the forward-deployment mode was indelibly linked to the normative change in American society expressed in and through the New Deal. American exceptionalism understood itself after 1945 as connecting liberalism at home with liberalism in the world at large. The open trade and anti-Communist elements of American policy were not mere add-ons to a core geopolitical concept, but functioned as the mobilizing and sustaining ideological ballast that allowed the strategy to go forward politically from one Administration to the next.
Indeed, if you went down to Capitol Hill in the years between around 1948 and 1988 and asked politicians and their senior staff aids to articulate American strategy, most could in fact do so. Not any more. Once the Cold War ended and China entered its post-Maoist incarnation, the proper nouns associated with the postwar grand strategy disappeared. Americans, elite and otherwise, began to take for granted the benefits of the U.S. role as provider of common security goods, and then to deploy the hegemony of the unipolar moment toward the secularized messianic task of conducting foreign policy as social work leading, ultimately, to a this-worldly eschaton.
It was not to be. The erosion of the tenants of modernity, particularly Americans’ gradual loss of faith in the idea of progress, helped undermine the premise that their government was virtuous and deserved rightfully to play such a role. Trust in institutions fell, starting really from the Vietnam/Watergate era, and it has never recovered. Then mounting cronyism in American capitalism, joined to political-institutional shifts that contributed inadvertently to greater political polarization, incubated a vast pall of alienation, cynicism, and political passivity on the part of American society toward its governmental elites. The technology-driven political economy disruptions of the post-Cold War era exacerbated these trends, which the elites of both parties tried very hard to ignore.
Donald Trump is not responsible for creating any of this. But he is responsible for harvesting it politically in a way that has deepened the inherited problems. The insurgent political revolution that Trump represents—and it is misleading to call it anything less—is at heart anti-liberal. And since the global vision the United States has pursued since 1945 is inextricably linked to the liberal value set that guided every Administration domestically—not to exclude the Republican Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Administrations—an anti-liberal impulse at home cannot but undermine the conceptual architecture of the American liberal project in the world.
If the Enlightenment in all its major forms (French, English, Scottish) has had a single animating conceptual center, it is the idea of the non-zero sum nature of human society. By nurturing the cooperative aspects of human nature, people can limit the destructive excesses of the competitive aspects. That belief is at the core of the liberal project. If the U.S. government, at its highest levels, joins a trend that sees zero-sum, “social Darwinist” competition as the only aspect of human nature that really matters, all bets are off, internationally as well as domestically.16
In this particular regard, Donald Trump seems unable to wrap his head around the fact that were it not for the role the United States has played as security competition suppressor of first resort for so many years, the world total of military spending would be vastly higher than it is, and the world would be bristling with nuclear weapons arsenals for lack of the security extended under the U.S. extended deterrence umbrella. The result would be, for the United States, a need to spend far more money than it does today on defense, and yet Americans and American allies would nonetheless be living in a far more dangerous world.
The American people as a whole do not know any better thanks to the lack of leadership in recent years, not least the confused and confusing Hamlet-like lassitude of the Obama period, which failed to articulate the basic points. Even Hillary Clinton, in the recent campaign, notably failed to articulate anything like a defense of the traditional rationale for the U.S global posture. For political reasons she even caved on the trade agenda, which, in Asia, represented the underlying political foundation for an overdue redirection U.S. strategic investment toward that part of the world. This illustrates that the nadir of the U.S. global internationalist role has multiple and deep sources. But Donald Trump may be the man who finally flips the status quo on its hind parts, breaking its back so that it cannot readily rise again.
In short, we are confronted with a perfect storm of uncertainty. The new President is an outsider with no government experience, a man of uncertain intellectual and moral depth who must rely far more than usual on a fringe remnant of experienced Republicans who did not abandon him during the campaign to staff his Administration. The foreign/national security policy staffing and the likely passive attitude of the President toward most policy issues present us with a likely process metabolism in which lower-level continuity will oscillate wildly and unpredictably with reactions to crises and the political whims of a seat-of-the-pants personality in the Oval Office. So the government will go on implementing from habit and bureaucratic inertia a grand strategy that the President and the nation do not really understand and, if pressed, do not really still support.17
And all this comes at a time when the underlying intellectual and moral foundations of American strategy within the political elite—and the understanding of and support for them within the American body politic—are dissolving in a world becoming ever less bound together by the Enlightenment inheritance that has defined the global system for the past four centuries. This is a formula not only for uncertainty, but possibly for a slow-motion policy train wreck with global implications.
We’re back now to December 31, 2017. I did not get everything right last year, but I think I got the gist. You decide—I know you will. Otherwise, it is true, as one variety of relative optimists said at the time, that the American institutional vortex would prevent Trump from pushing the country over the guardrails. But it has proved untrue, as other relative optimists said, that Trump would be a normal President once the campaign frenzy wore off.
In some areas where continuity marked foreign and national security policy, as in the campaign against ISIS, we have reaped both the benefits and liabilities of what had been normal before the inauguration. The military campaign far outran political thinking, so as would have been the case in a Hillary Clinton Administration, ISIS has been de-territorialized but Syria remains a dangerous mess that presents no good options—and the original reasons for the rise of ISIS remain partly unaddressed (Iranian-Shi‘i hegemonist pretentions) and partly unaddressable (the fawning weaknesses of the Sunni Arab states) by a foreign culture from across an ocean.
But when it comes to tending the core alliance structure of the postwar U.S. grand strategy, we have witnessed significant if not fundamental erosion—an abstention of leadership, really—all in the thin name (or under the pretext) of trade imbalance complaints. In Asia, the Administration has junked TTP, scared the crap out of the Japanese and the South Koreans over the Nork problem with a diplomatic-rhetorical “bedside manner” reminiscent of the Grim Reaper on crystal meth, and collapsed its own hard trade line on China without having gotten anything in return that the Chinese government would not have done anyway for sufficient reasons of its own.
In Europe, Trump’s rise whetted the prospects of illiberal populists far and wide—though yet to no decisive outcome. More important, all the gaffe-squad backtracking and reassurances notwithstanding, serious people in Europe no longer depend on American backing for Article 5 NATO guarantees, with the result that Germany has been further thrust into a default leadership role for which it is neither desirous nor prepared. The rigors of that role in time can only erode the domestic normative foundations of the Bundesrepublik as we have come to know it since 1949.
Finally for now, elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and more recently Alabama all went against Trump and the Republicans, and the one legislative achievement of the first year—the tax bill—is wildly unpopular for all the right reasons: It is a plutocratic outrage. My hunch, however, is that none of this will matter much. The turning screw of American politics is far more likely to be affected by the outcome of a major military operation in our future—also called a war. As the substantive part of my December 6, 2016 memo suggested, the policy trajectory of the Trump Administration would nod toward war both over Iran policy and Korea. That has proved true. Whatever one may think about the merits and alternatives of such possibilities, the perceived outcome of a war (or wars) tends to be politically decisive. That is what will likely shape Donald Trump’s political future.
Is the Trump Administration bound to go to war before another year has passed—indeed, before the 2018 midterm elections? If the White House forces the premature collapse of the Iran deal, even against the counsel of its own Secretaries of Defense and State, it will face Iran with no NATO allies on its side, and the collateral damage to the alliance will make the fiasco of the 1973–74 period look modest by comparison even if no war occurs, but especially if it does. But I rate the chances of that happening in calendar year 2018 as below 15 percent. That fuse for war is relatively long, all else (like the maintenance of regime stability in Saudi Arabia) equal.
Korea is another matter. The sanctions now operative against North Korea are about as tight as they are ever going to be. If they don’t work to constrain the Norks, as seems more likely than not, then the fuse to war there looks to be much shorter. Starting a war and collapsing the North Korean regime would be the easy, if very unpretty, part. It’s the morning after that would bring the real trouble.
Of course no one knows if there will be a war next year, or, if there is one (or two), how it would play out. If I’m still around in December 2018, we can review the bidding then. For now, what else is there to say but “Happy New Year”—hopefully.
1“Same World, Lonely World, Cold World,” The American Interest (March/April 2017), which was translated as “Les options stratégiques de Trump: continuité, solitude, ou réalisme,” for Commentaire, Numéro 158/Été 2017.
2As it happened, Trump turned to Wall Street for many senior appointments despite the virulent anti-fat-cat rhetoric of the campaign. Some non-fringe Republican hands accepted jobs in government for reasons anyone can guess, depending on the personality; but some who were willing (for example, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton) were spurned for highly unusual reasons as these things go: out-of-control White House vindictiveness and outsized mustaches. You cannot make these things up.
3As of early December 2016, Rex Tillerson’s name had yet to surface publicly.
4Trump does not write either. “His” book, The Art of the Deal, was written by Tony Schwartz, who later regretted his role. “I put lipstick on a pig,” he admitted. Some Trump supporters claim that his highly simple public vocabulary is a shrewd tactic in the arts of persuasion. If there were evidence that he spoke differently in private counsels one might credit the claim. But there is no such evidence.
5President Reagan sometimes trusted Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell so much that it made them uncomfortable. See Powell, My American Journey (Ballantine, 1995), p. 366. In several significant areas over the past year, this metabolism has yet to kick in. I still expect it to as Trump’s term proceeds.
6I underestimated the slowness of the appointments process, and did not anticipate the extent to which it would be deliberate in several cases—like that of the Sate Department—in order to paralyze the “administrative state” that formed the main target of Steve Bannon’s private strategy for government realignment. I sensed that Trump was unaware of how large the Prune Book was, but thought that the White House staff would find a way to pick up the slack. The result a year in has been a mixed bag: Schedule C slots are being filled, but many remain uncharacteristically empty.
7Gratefully, we’ll never know if Flynn had the chops. I do not have as high an opinion of H.R. McMaster as do some, but he at least is sane. See my review of Flynn’s book (with Michael Ledeen), “Field of Fright,” The American Review (FPRI), February 13, 2017.
8A useful record, compiled and published after I submitted my memo, is Charlie Laderman and Brendan Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a World View (Endeavor Press, 2017).
9My conclusion at this point is that in many policy areas Trump does want to change policy, but has encountered pushback, including from people he senses he needs for political reasons—particularly his Secretary of Defense and current White House Chief of Staff. The fact that people like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka have been sent packing does not mean, in my view, that Trump has been fully normalized as far as foreign and national security policy are concerned. My sense is rather that the pulling and pushing is not over, and outcomes may still be affected by decision points arising in ways impossible to anticipate.
11It seems to me that the Anthony Scaramucci episode of July 2017 fit this description to a tee.
12That did not happen. 2016 marked a huge exit from emerging markets into the United States, but the trend during 2017 was more mildly the reverse owing in part to still very low interest rates in advanced country markets.
13Earlier in 2016 I had written of this theme in four related essays: “The Nadir of Modernity,” The American Interest, August 5, 2016 (subtitled “Framework Issues”), August 10 (subtitled “Liberalism and Modernity”), August 12 (subtitled “The State of the State”), and August 16 (subtitled “Anti-Modernity Within and Without”).
14I was speaking figuratively at the time, but it turns out that the motto “e pluribus unum” has now been removed from Donald Trump’s presidential “challenge coin.” This I could not have anticipated, since it’s not been my custom to give thought to the design of presidential coins.
15One year later I would add that this may be changing faster than before as “fast followers” find ways to erode U.S. technological advantages in a new IT/AI (information technology+artificial intelligence) environment in which innovation outpaces the lag times still required to field major military platforms.
16Just a week after I finished my memo, a Washington Post reporter revealed that Trump and several other likely senior Administration appointees were devotees of Ayn Rand. This was shocking, disheartening, and frightening news. Why the reporter chose to wait until after the election to reveal this was also disheartening.
17As far as predictions go, I think this sentence sums up well the essence of the past year.