Learning on the Job Versus Deciding Between Retaining/Giving Up Global Primacy
Ehsan M. Ahrari
Every time it is hoped that things inside the Trump White House will get better, we are hit by the news of another mishap and reports of escalating chaos. The latest one is the report that Vice Admiral (retired) Bob Harward rejected Trump’s offer to serve as his National Security Adviser. A confidant of Harward described that offer to CNN as a “s…t sandwich.” At a more mundane level, Harward turned down the offer because he could not take his personal staff with him to his prospective job. That is an important reason for any top-level job, but especially for operating as an effective NSA. Now that Lt. General H. R. McMaster has become Trump’s newest NSA, an interesting question is whether he will have the autonomy to have his own staff. For President Trump, the dual crises for now are: learning how to handle crises as a greenhorn, while deciding whether to give up or retain America’s global primacy.
President Trump is now fully equipped to deal with current and future crises all over the world. There are negotiations to be conducted with Russia about how to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Kim Jong-Un has recently launched a medium-range missile and is reportedly either developing or about to launch a long-range missile. Just this issue requires the United States to develop and pursue a number of options, including interacting with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to persuade or to put pressure on North Korea for starting negotiations with the United States and South Korea. Since China is the chief supporter of the North Korean regime, a general understanding is that the United States’ best option is to interact with China on this issue.
However, President Trump strained US-China ties by appearing to abandon America’s long-term commitment to a “one China” policy, thereby alienating China. Only recently he called back President Xi Jinping and recommitted himself to that policy, and diffused tensions between the two countries.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly urged China to “use all available tools” to confront North Korea’s provocations. However, there was no chance that China would put pressure on North Korea. Tillerson should have known that, even though China is the number one supporter of North Korea, it cannot (and will not) put any pressure on the latter to make a deal with the United States. Any such deals have to be concluded directly between Washington and Pyongyang. Tillerson is brand new at his job and seems to have no clue yet as to how to deal with China or North Korea. He also needs a lot of help from all national security agencies. For this purpose, President Trump needs a highly competent NSA to coordinate with those agencies, prepare a comprehensive list of policy options on various heady issues of national security, and present them to President Trump for his decisions.
As President Trump was lamely telling the world during this impromptu press conference on February 17 that the White House is running like a “fine-tuned machine,” the entire nation watched on television a number of skeptical faces of journalists who had gathered there for that occasion. They were too polite to burst into laughter at a President who was either running his own strategic campaign or has been living in an imaginary world.
In the domestic arena and in the world at large, newspapers are full of headlines where Trump’s Secretary of Defense is telling his counterparts in NATO countries that the US is not ready to cooperate with Russia on military matters. Tillerson was informing the Russians that his country will cooperate with it “only in instances that would benefit the US and its allies.” Obviously, as Vladimir Putin’s “best friend for forever,” Tillerson has been backed into a corner. Even the Congressional Republican members are watching him closely to ensure that he is not about to “give away the shop” to his bud, Vlad! But President Trump has not been interested in criticizing Putin or Russia.
Only within a month since the beginning of the Trump presidency, Putin was reportedly concluding that the era of US-Russia cooperation under the new American President may not start anytime soon. Even that conclusion may not last long, because Senator John McCain, a frequent Republican critic of Trump, told the audience at the Munich Security Conference in Germany that the Trump team was in a state of disarray. At the very same gathering, Vice President Pence also told the NATO allies that “they have to step up financial contributions towards defence spending.”
What emerges from the preceding is that, at least during its first month in office, the Trump administration is creating the unprecedented picture of the United States as a confused superpower and an actor willing to give up that role purely based on Trump’s highly myopic conclusion that America Firstism, as opposed to global leadership and multilateralism, is the way to go. America’s allies are especially dismayed to receive that message while they also know that the US congress and its security agencies strongly disagree with that conclusion and have made it clear through their protestations and criticism that they will not adopt America Firstism at the expense of giving up its global leadership. Trump’s bromance with Putin, his support for Brexit, and encouragement of other European countries to leave the EU has infuriated and befuddled a number of European leaders so much so that a number of them “characterized the U.S. president as a threat to the union on par with jihadist terrorism and Vladimir Putin.”
Without realizing its significance or implications, Trump is willing to give up America’s role as the global leader for America Firstism, while regaining global primacy for Russia continues to be the chief stirring force for Vladimir Putin.