13 January 2017

Trump and Grand Strategy

By Jon Herrmann

Conventional wisdom, with the notable recent exception of Sergey Aleksashenko’s Brookings Institution article, is that Russia is America’s main threat. Stories from the Washington Post to FOX News highlight President-elect Trump’s contrasting views on Russia. Stories from the Secretary of State nominee to hacking and related investigations focusing on Russia, what if there is another, overlooked side to the story?

Consider what the American public thinks of as major potential threats: China, Iran, North Korea, ISIS/Daesh, and more. Some sources even describe several of these as an alliance or at least a cooperative alignment. In light of these potential threats, how might a president-elect try to set the conditions to make these thorny issues manageable?

Bringing experts into the administration can help address varied challenges. This method has inherent side effects, however. One side effect is that these experts influence foreign policy priorities and grand strategy. The priorities expressed by President-elect Trump’s nominees for key positions are worth considering. For example, Politico has presented a case for General Mattis having a grudge against Iran. Newsweek has noted that while Mattis is concerned with Russia, he may be more concerned with ISIS/Daesh and similar groups.

Given Lieutenant General Flynn’s nomination as National Security Advisor, several organizations have also looked into his concerns. Foreign Policy has considered General Flynn’s concerns and noted the emphasis on ISIS/Daesh and related groups. General Flynn’s book, “The Field of Fight,” focuses on Middle East threats. The book may create the impression that Flynn considers these threats more prominent than Russia. According to foreign policy expert Max Boot, Flynn seems to get along well with Russian leaders, perhaps seeing them as allies against ISIS/Daesh.

Rex Tillerson is also under the microscope since his nomination for Secretary of State. Many publications have documented Rex Tillerson’s dealings with Russia and their potential future effects. Few, if any, sources can say what Tillerson considers a threat. The Post has noted Tillerson’s troubles with Venezuela, but that does not mean that Tillerson considers Venezuela a threat. Overall, the expected senior advisors to President-elect Trump seem most concerned about threats in the Middle East. Thus, in the tradition of realpolitik, they might advise more cooperation with Russia in the future.

President-elect Trump has described several threats to the U.S. but conspicuously left out Russia. Trump has indicated that he sees China as a threat to the U.S., at least in an economic sense. He has also described China as controlling North Korea and its stature as a threat. Further, Trump has depicted the threat posed by ISIS not only the Middle East but also in the U.S. by inspiring lone wolf terrorists. Based on these comments, one might make the case that President-elect Trump sees issues with Russia as a low priority. Higher priorities might include problems in the Middle East (ISIS/Daesh, al Qaeda-related groups, Iran) and issues with China (N. Korea, trade, South China Sea).

If President-elect Trump sees the greatest threats to the U.S. as being in the Middle East and eastern Asia, then closer ties with Russia may be rational. Closer ties could reduce Russian support to China and enhance U.S.-Russian combined operations against ISIS/Daesh. Few would say that Putin is friendly towards America. However, in 1943, few would have said that Stalin was friendly to America, either. Still, Roosevelt and Churchill allied with Stalin against Hitler. Might this be a similar case, of allying with a lesser evil to free up resources to counter threats perceived to be larger or more imminent? Alternatively, is it simply naïve, as Sipher and Hall suggest? It is a possibility worth considering.

LtCol Jon Herrmann is a career Air Force intelligence and information operations (IO) officer, with 25 years of intelligence experience and 18 years in the IO community. He currently works with 1st IO Command, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and teaches at the National Intelligence University.

CAVEAT: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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