Donald Trump’s comments on national security topics both during and after his presidential campaign have been as confounding to Republican national security experts as they have been to their Democratic counterparts. Whether it is Trump’s continued praise of America’s adversaries like Russian President Vladimir Putin, or his attacks on stalwart allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump’s rhetoric has significantly heightened global uncertainty regarding where America’s foreign policy could go.
Nevertheless, once Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, the crushing weight of his new responsibility as commander-in-chief will, hopefully, give him cause for reflection if it hasn’t already. If he does choose to pause and consider some foundational principles for how to approach his role as the head of America’s armed forces, he would be wise to keep some of the following in mind.
Use military force sparingly
The role of commander-in-chief is singularly unique in American life. No other person in the country can order America’s men and women into harm’s way. That authority should only be used after the most careful and detailed deliberations. Military force should never be approved unless there has been a careful exploration of the possible consequences. Those who volunteer to wear the uniform represent the best of the United States, and their sacrifices ought never to be taken for granted.
Trump as a candidate was as politically confounding to Republicans as he was to Democrats, and he regularly shifted positions depending on the particular debate or exchange with a rival. Trump would be wise, however, to refrain from shifting positions rapidly in the national security realm. In some ways, national security perceptions are similar to global markets – consistency and predictability are often rewarded. Staying close to historic alliances and partnerships, like the NATO alliance or our treaty allies in Asia, are good, solid bets that will pay solid dividends. When in doubt, stick with America’s long history of friendship, shared values, and shared sacrifice with our allies.
People are policy
The Trump administration is behind where they need to be in terms of making key national security appointments. With some notable exceptions (like nominating General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense), many of his appointments are either political loyalists or Wall Street executives. Trump would do well to focus many of his middle management national security appointments on those who have a background of service in national security.
Whether it is the Pentagon, the intelligence community, or the State Department, these are massive institutions that require deep expertise to run effectively. Congressional staffers who have worked on the relevant oversight committees are an excellent source of potential political appointees, as are many of the think-tanks in Washington that are staffed with many experts with decades of public service. Strive for a healthy mix of national security insiders and outsiders.
Take credit for maintaining some current policies
Trump will have just as much opportunity to succeed in national security as his predecessors. Unlike in some of the domestic issues that will define his presidency (e.g. health care, immigration), Trump can succeed by building on some of Obama’s successes rather than reflectively taking the opposite approach. Whether it is the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal that prevented any Iranian rush to nuclear arms, the move to reinforce the NATO alliance with additional U.S. forces, the ongoing campaign to destroy ISIS without surging U.S. ground forces, or the choice to focus more military and economic attention on the Asia-Pacific region, Trump could choose to continue policies that have kept America safe, and take full credit for doing so.
After eight years of economic growth and the absence of massive new military interventions, Trump would be wise to consider holding the tiller steady and only changing course rapidly if there is a very compelling non-political reason to do so.
Don’t equate America’s national security with your own political success
It is clear that Trump’s political persona is rooted in placing himself at the center of any perceived competition. Those who praise his ideas are considered friends, while those who criticize are labeled enemies. But in the national security realm, America’s competitors are generally strategically and political savvy. They will find ways to appeal to Trump’s personality and will use all manner of tools to attempt to manipulate the president and his advisors in ways commensurate with their own interests.
To guard against this, use the intelligence community to analyze the behavior of our possible adversaries. Develop a detailed national security decision-making process to ensure Trump is aware of all sides of an issue. Never assume international leaders wish America the best just because they tell the president what he wants to hear.
Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President of the Center for a New American Security. He served as special advisor to the under secretary of defense for policy at the US Department of Defense between 2009 to 2011 and director of strategic planning for the US National Security Council between 2011 and 2012.