Sign up to our newsletter Back to news
Loose Cannons, Generals and US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era
President Elect Donald Trump has a few weeks more to remain in the ‘loose cannon’ mode before he is fully accountable for what he utters. For over a year he has been trumpeting his wares, his mind and his ideas on a nation which is seriously in a state of regression. The entire Trump phenomenon arose out of a sense of insecurity brought on by the failure of post-cold war international configurations that the US sought to create. The so called restructuring of the new world order at a time of fundamental change in the way the world exists and does business could not succeed. The Information Revolution brought the power of networks in its wake leading to the flattening of the world. The resultant globalization hasn’t given the dividends that were sought by a super power such as the US. In fact, in an era when the US was still counted as the only superpower there was an internal weakening in its fabric leading to loss of confidence in the ‘American Dream’ by its people. The economic meltdown of 2008 added to the woes and the military deployments in Af-Pak and Iraq, the former a strategic compulsion and the latter a monstrosity of a strategic blunder, only weighted the sinking ship. The social fabric of the US, formerly strength suddenly became a weakness. The arrival of Donald Trump at such a crucial juncture in world and US history, when all are seeking a mature approach towards the enduring problems of communal confrontation and phenomena such as terror and radicalism, could not have been more tragic. In India we may gloat over the success and the fact that an Indian American hand also facilitated Trump’s success; the emergence of Indian American personalities in the about to be created power center of the Republicans seems to also overawe us. The impact on Indo US relations and the strategic partnership may well have a telling effect and Indian American political personalities are not known to display any loyalty to their former homeland. In fact in the case of personalities such as Bobby Jindal the opposite is known to be true.
Trump’s utterances continue to project the degree of his ignorance in matters strategic, especially if they concern the military domain. Out of the box ideas and introduction of volatility in the leadership style is fine if the strategic leader has a firm hold over history and understanding of implications of nuances. Donald Trump, probably on advice, is obviously following a strategy of gamesmanship, needling opponents, forcing them to respond to reveal their real core concerns and display their limits of tolerance. His telephonic conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first recorded between an American President and the Taiwan Head of State since 1979, has irked China. Ever since the US consciously decided to improve its relationship with the Republic of China (ROC) following the path breaking diplomatic efforts of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the principle of One China has been followed with no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, the US has still maintained a special relationship with the island state and treaded a careful path, something only now coming into focus. On Iran his views are well known and supported by his future advisers; the 15 Jul 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement does not meet the approval of all of them. The future of Iraq, Syria and the situation in West Asia will be dependent on the attitude adopted towards the deal.
The President Elect is known to have been guided to some extent during the campaign by a set of US Army and Marine Corps Generals who are emerging from the shadows. Among the ones likely to be advising even currently and would in all probability be a part of the core team are Gen Michael Flynn as Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor and Gen James Mattis for Defence Secretary. More uniformed officials from the four American Armed forces, including Gen Stanley McChrystal could find plumb and influential jobs running intelligence agencies or advising. The New York Times observed that the single thread which seems to join all of them is that they all had issues with President Barak Obama. Trump seems to carry the idea of a political opposition as one with a literal 180 degree opposite opinion. Expectations always remain that a presidential candidate once elected would quickly adjust himself to the ways of the establishment and proceed cautiously as far as change is concerned. One example from history of single minded pursuance of policy as a change from a predecessor was that of President Nixon in his approach to China; ping pong diplomacy took just five months to commence after inauguration of Richard Nixon.
Observers are terming the entry of US Generals into advisory and strategic decision making roles as dangerous because that would inevitably lead to a more robust policy of involvement of US hard power. However, the New York Times quoting Stephen K. Bannon, the President-elect’s chief strategist, states that “the incoming administration was looking at potential cabinet officials with combat experience so that people who had fought in wars would be making decisions about whether to commit the country to more of them”. Military leaders of the Marshall, Eisenhower and Powell variety drew much respect when saddled with political responsibility. Yet, today even military analysts are being critical. John Nagl, one of the authors of Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations, mentions the feasibility of too many military instruments in every consideration of international security. Somehow the perception of military leaders seeking conflict resolution through the employment of only hard power appears to have permeated the thinking of most academic and security related analysts; this is also the opinion of the political class and civil society in most nations. To establish the truth or otherwise in this perception would need a separate essay. Currently suffice to say that military leaders are acutely conscious of the economic and social implications of the unrestrained use of hard power. Military institutions the world over which teach and discuss strategy usually emphasize on all instruments of conflict resolution. UK’s Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) and our own National Defence College hardly carry much content about the military in their curriculum. Yet, somehow this perception prevails to the detriment of exploiting the strategic minds and experience of military leaderships.
For Indian foreign policy specialists, analysts and those specifically focused on the development of the Indo US strategic relationship this would be a time of concern. If there has to be a marked influence of the US military on strategic policy formulation then it is worth knowing that the US military has no particular affection for India. The slight disdain that exists, and many would take me up on this, is symbolically displayed in many a US training institution where both Indian and Pakistan Army personnel train. In all strategic seminars around the world it is the Pakistan Army which finds favor with the US Armed Forces. India’s Soviet Russia connect of the Cold War and the US Pak connect of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and then the 1779-89 period of Soviet presence in Afghanistan inspires less confidence in India and more in Pakistan, at least within the US uniformed and intelligence community. President George Bush’s push for a stronger US-India equation received energetic support from President Obama in the second half of his presidency. Just when things seem to be emerging comes the new presidency of Donald Trump. Continuity is usually the responsibility of non-partisan bureaucracies but when the President Elect is veering towards having maximum advisers who had major disagreement with President Obama the potential of continuity becomes questionable. This is what Indian policy planners must be prepared for. They must work to prevent awkward perceptions developing which may become embarrassing compulsions. The time to work on that is now, even before the Inauguration. We may be skeptical about the alleged Trump-Nawaz Sharif telephonic chat and promises of a visit to Pakistan but Pakistan’s strategic position in world polity must not be scoffed at. Indian efforts at isolating Pakistan on the issue of support to terrorism have been insufficiently supported internationally and the US continues to play games in this regard. The strategic importance of Pakistan’s territorial space for all kinds of international players makes it a nation everyone wishes to befriend.
Donald Trump may yet turn out to be an outstanding President, independent in thinking with much greater application of mind and not tied to old world equations. Yet, the military intellectual community is definitely going to be a major player in deciding US security policy. If that be so India will have to have to redouble its efforts to remain standing where it has reached with President Obama and potentially engage in different dimensions beyond just the political and diplomatic contacts. Calling upon the Indian military and the intelligence community to play a greater role in diplomacy may well be in order.
Lt General S A Hasnain,
PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM (Bar), VSM (Bar), Visiting Fellow, VIF
13 December 2016