Setting the Stage for U.S. Geostrategic Agenda
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
United States president Donald Trump faces a plethora of geopolitical and geosecurity issues with a new and untested foreign policy team – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser, Ambassador John Bolton. Both share common cause with President Trump on limiting the use of diplomacy in settling world affairs. They project the use of military power as a means to advance U.S. interests abroad. It is ironic that the Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, is an advocate for diplomatic solutions and resort to the use of the military as a final option. Trump’s significant reduction in the State Department’s FY 2018 budget, the decimation of diplomatic expertise and capacity, in collaboration with former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and the massive increase in the Defense Department FY 2019 budget reflect the thinking of Trump’s new foreign policy team – military-driven diplomacy and military use as an early option.
The military budget supports the U.S. National Defense Strategy, which states: “A more lethal, resilient and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order.” However, increasing the military budget while reducing the diplomacy budget belies the traditional understanding that the Defense Department’s “enduring mission is to provide combat ready military forces to deter war and protect the security of the U.S., which reinforces America’s traditional tools of diplomacy.” In the past, restraint on military action while ensuring that the President and U.S. diplomats could negotiate from positions of strength was the norm.
The major question facing the U.S. and the global community is whether the new foreign policy team can engage diplomatically on the urgent issues of North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. The current reality is that there are indications the Trump administration is stumbling towards tweet-based objectives rather than well-thought through strategies and the possible outcomes could prove disconcerting. There is a rush to set the table for Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; there is an urgency facing European partners on Trump’s stated intent to abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), the Iran nuclear deal. At the same time, most of the mandated Russian sanctions are still languishing, and the Trump administration continues to force isolation of Venezuela while threatening more sanctions against the South American country.
The decimation of the State Department’s diplomatic capacity and diminished cadre of expertise on these geopolitical and strategic interests underscores the concerns on these issues. Gen. Mattis has been quoted as saying, in 2013, that “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” On the flip side, Gen. Mattis also said, “The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget….” At this stage of the Trump presidency, we shouldn’t be surprised at the opposite approach. We have seen tweets preceding policy development followed by a scramble by the media and geopolitical analysts to make sense of what policy or action might emerge. Trump sets in motion diversion from domestic issues facing his presidency, or merely dangerously acting out of anger triggered by other peripheral issues. Either way, it is a rather unsound and dangerous approach to policymaking.
While there is focus on the immediate issues of North Korea and Iran, we should be wary of Trump’s policies towards China and Russia (not Putin). The FY2019 Defense Department Budget Request Overview, in line with the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), identified China and Russia as, “The central challenge to the United States prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by which the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Hmm! We should expect both Pompeo and Bolton to push for aggressive policies to contain Russia and China – traditional foes of the U.S.
Both Russia, in particular in Venezuela, and China pursuing “predatory economics” across Latin America and the Caribbean, will be in focus. We have already seen Trump’s sanctions policies against Venezuela and Russia, and trade policy with China having collateral damage to countries in the hemisphere. For now, Trump needs China to obtain any meaningful concessions out of North Korea. I don’t’ expect there will be further restraint in the post-Trump-Kim summit, especially if Trump comes away disappointed.
The Trump administration categorizes both North Korea and Iran as “rogue regimes” which “are destabilizing their regions by pursuing nuclear weapons or sponsoring terrorism.” The Defense Department has pledged to “sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, (and) defeat terrorism threats to the United States….”
More specifically, the threats by North Korea, as identified by the U.S., is that Kim Jong-un’s regime “seeks to guarantee regime survival and increased leverage through a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons and a growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan, and the United States.” I am not aware of the U.S. providing any public evidence that North Korea has developed and maintained chemical and biological weapons. However, considering North Korea is a closed regime with very little information accessible by the U.S. intelligence community, and given the known scientific capabilities of its scientists, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that the regime has developed chemical and biological weapons.
According to the Trump administration, “in the Middle East, Iran is competing with its neighbors, asserting an arc of influence and instability while vying for regional hegemony, using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a growing network of proxies, and its missile program to achieve its objectives.” As Trump said (April 27, 2018), “Iran will not be doing nuclear weapons; you can bank on it!”
[Forthcoming articles in The Ward Post, will further discuss these issues.]