Two Dumb Ideas and the Trump Team’s Grand Strategy

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)
Foreign policy wonks are offering the president bad advice (Wikimedia Commons)

A time-honored tradition in the foreign policy commentariat is the habit of anyone who studies foreign policy for a living–from undergraduates at USC to PhD’s in International Relations and former Undersecretaries of State for Communications Policy– to put on their courtly robes, pretend to be the President’s National Security Advisor, and write him a wide-ranging and theoretically-informed manifesto on how he ought to govern the world.

Sometimes, their distance from actual policymaking leads these temporary NSA’s to construct grand new castles in the clouds, beautiful in form but wholly unrealizable in practice (and when their implications are considered, truly terrifying in scope and implication.) Other times, temporary NSA’s are so fully enmeshed in the policy world that they are incapable of speaking anything offensive, interesting, or true- their works tend to be resounding glorifications of things the way they are, offering no distinct direction away from official orthodoxy.

The goal of any young intellectual and writer ought to be to be enough of a pragmatist that their visions and ideas never approach utopia; yet to be enough of an original and a critic that their tracts never veer towards insipidity. As a little exercise, let’s look at two examples of works that break either rule in either direction, bearing in mind that the authors seriously thought these would be useful to policymakers when they published them.


The British intellectual and Kissinger biographer Niall Ferguson wrote up a fascinating treatment of realism at The American Interest sometime after the election of Donald Trump and before his inauguration. Ferguson’s general argument in “Donald Trump’s World Order” is that President Trump, with his unsentimental strongman tendencies and opposition to both the nation-building of George W. Bush and the multilateralism of Barack Obama, ought to translate his instincts into a realpolitiking foreign policy:

“Trump conceives of an international order no longer predicated on Wilsonian notions of collective security, and no longer expensively underwritten by the United States. Instead, like Roosevelt, Trump wants a world run by regional great powers with strong men in command, all of whom understand that any lasting international order must be based on the balance of power. “

What does this mean in practice?

Among other things, an abandonment of multilateralism in all its forms, from NATO to the United Nations to regional partnerships and trade agreements; an alignment of American diplomacy away from Europe and Japan, and towards China and Russia; an allowance of regional balances of power to determine justice in the strategic theaters of the world, without direct U.S. commitments in anything deemed strategically uncritical; and most blatantly, a worship of strength and order as the legitimating principle, unchecked by any principles of freedom of justice otherwise conceived.

In short, Niall Ferguson recommends an abandonment of the liberal international system in entirety and a replacement with what former Secretary of State John Kerry might, this time accurately, call “behaving in a 19th Century fashion.”

If Trump took Ferguson’s advice, it would be absolutely silly.

There’s a liberal conceit that political realists, especially foreign policy realists, are cynical, Machiavellian billiard-ball-movers intent on reducing power to a science and sacrificing every dignity and right to a broader design. That’s a reduction of political realism to the level of parody, and it certainly doesn’t describe the great realists Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, or their modern descendants like Robert Gates.

But that parodic caricature may well describe Niall Ferguson, at least in this essay.

The true conservative preserves, rather than “restores.” Something that all the great American realists of the 20th Century had in common was their insistence on the preservation of the liberal international order, and its reformation and adaptation. They neither were deluded by liberal dreams about the basic naturalness of liberal internationalism and the goodness of man, nor did they seek to expand the liberal international order so dramatically as the internationalists preferred. The liberal order was not their god- it was a means to preserving and partially institutionalizing the international peace and relative harmony that would keep their states, societies, and peoples safe and free to live their ways of life. Not being constrained to legalism or the letter of the law, they were able to adapt that order and America’s relationship to it to adjust to the winds of international change- Nixon and Bush Sr. most recently and dramatically.

What Ferguson proposes for President Trump is a full-on rejection of the liberal international order and its replacement with a barbaric system of strongman rule, based on the first principle of force. It is paradoxically both revolutionary and reactionary. It is revolutionary in that it would overturn an order that American blood and treasure has spent at least seven decades protecting, and that American and British blood and treasure have built slowly for centuries. It is reactionary in that it harkens to a golden past of power-concerts and great statesman-diplomacy, a world that even Bismarck, Palmerston, Castlereagh, and Metternich never knew. In Ferguson’s preference for radical change and radical restoration, he stands with de Maistre and Robespierre, not Burke and Adams.

It may be true that the liberal international order as it stands now is so fundamentally rotten and broken that it cannot be saved in its current form, as some have argued. Nonetheless, what can be saved should be saved- and mere vulgar Machivallianism and realist-nationalism as a replacement for an international order the British and Americans have spent centuries building, would be reactionary, rather than conservative.

For all his essay gets wrong (and I get the impression Ferguson was writing it as a thought-exercise more than as a serious proposal) Ferguson does bring up some very crucial points. American diplomacy these days has a quiet whisper of regime change under its breath vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes, and this is both detrimental and unconducive to domestic reforms. The notion that we ought to build an Authoritarian Entente is perhaps too far; the notion that we ought to respect authoritarian regimes as legally moral equals is not.

Additionally, Ferguson rightly highlights the need for a reappraisal of the balance of power. Europe is weak and decadent; Russia and China are strong and legitimate. International institutions as they are designed today, for whatever reason, still echo the balance of power of 1945, with only marginal updates having been made every few decades. It would perhaps be prudent to redesign these institutions in such a way as to recognize the real underlying power structures and contain and balance them a little bit better.

Despite these two points, though, I think the spirit of Ferguson’s essay interprets realism very wrongly.


If Niall Ferguson’s essay goes too far in the direction of radical change, and shouldn’t be treated as a serious policy option for the Trump White House, it’s equally possible for a foreign policy analyst to advise the exact opposite approach- to do nothing to fundamentally reform American foreign policy in this changed and changing world. It’s possible to be a strategic stand-patter in 2017, however unadvisable that might be. Regardless of all the evidence laid out, someone might still decide that the hegemonic and liberal internationalist policies of the Post-Cold War were basically right, and deserve updating and use today.

That’s more or less the position Hal Brands, Paul D. Miller, Peter Feaver, and William Inboden stake out in a new report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, entitled “Critical Assumptions and American Grand Strategy.” Despite the title’s implied focus on checking “critical assumptions” amid new evidence, they ultimately conclude that tweaks around the edges to the Clinton-Bush-Obama strategic and rhetorical traditions are sufficient, and are not in need of true reform. They counsel the Trump Administration against a course of retrenchment and recommend resurgent internationalism, with six cautiously-worded sentences written in insipid “Bureaucratese,” as it’s called, as their final recommendations on how to maintain liberal internationalism today:

  • Embrace the need for constructive and fairly significant adaptation.
  • Pursue offsets and hedges.
  • Double down on positive trends.
  • Understand that more resources will be necessary.
  • Consider “what-ifs” and make contingency plans.
  • Engage in more explicit, frequent, and sophisticated assumption-testing exercises.

Never has a less disagreeable sextet of proposals and guidelines been published. I’m sure the Pepsi advertising team has produced a report with similar wording, in the wake of their recent commercial controversy; and United Airlines probably issued the same memo to their security employees after the scuffle with a passenger on an overbooked plane went viral.

In other words, nothing of policy substance is actually said in these six sentences. The background assumption behind that, then, is that the basics of American grand strategy since Bush 41 are in no need of fundamental change, only better management and implementation. (I’m told that this means people in government will actually read the report.)

This is unfortunate, because the rest of the meat of the report is actually quite good, composed of Aquinas-like pairings of assumptions and rebuttals to those assumptions. The authors do very accurately paint the problems with prior U.S. foreign policy alongside its benefits. As a document of geopolitical analysis, the report does well; as a document advising future policymaking and adjustments to the aforesaid geopolitical trends, the report falls on its face.

There are at least five major changes in international affairs that make the late 2010s different from, and needing a different grand strategy than, the 1990s and 2000s; these trends became evident throughout the administration of President Barack Obama and have only been consummated since 2014. These trends all fly in the face of the CSBA report’s fundamental argument that the old grand strategy can and should be maintained in slightly-tweaked, updated form.

These trends are American exhaustion and internal division, the rise of illiberal ideological challengers (if only functionally rather than formally,) the return of great regional powers to significant regions of Eurasia, the cessation and reversal of globalization, democratization, and liberalization, and the proliferation of mass-casualty terrorism to ungoverned regions of the world. All of these trends require different tools and strategies of statecraft than Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush brought to the table.

And embracing the need for adaptation, pursuing offsets and hedges, doubling down on positive trends, employing more resources, making contingency plans, and engaging in assumption-testing exercises won’t change those trends. At best, they will help policymakers manage the liberal international consensus a little bit longer; but they’re generally not helpful, and some form of retrenchment to order and adapt to a decentralizing world of great powers will be necessary.

The one big thing that the authors of this report get right is that fundamental revolution in foreign policy a la what Niall Ferguson recommends is not only inadvisable, but unnecessary.

However, the authors seem to be blind to even the need for reform, despite reform shouting out to them through all their studies of alterations to fundamental assumptions. If the ideas to reorient American foreign policy do emerge from somewhere, it won’t be from this report.


What is needed is something more along the lines of a “Defense of the West” strategy, a preservation of the liberal international system in America’s alliances, made possible and stable through the broader integration of non-Western powers into a new, pluralistic and post-liberal global order.  This, in fact, looks something like Henry Kissinger’s outline in World Order–regional blocs of power fused into an amoral world order, none imposing its will upon the others, all sacrificing their hegemonic and universalistic ambitions at the altar of world order and world peace. This would neither forsake what has been built of liberal order, as would Ferguson’s Authoritarian Entente, nor continue futilely expanding the liberal order to the far reaches of the globe, as would Brands and company’s Liberal Internationalist Hegemonism.

It’s not fully clear that President Trump’s team is pushing towards this, but it certainly isn’t pushing against it at the moment.

Which brings us to another question- what the heck is going on the National Security Council right now?


Despite all the supposed Trumpian isolationism and Trumpian realism the folks at The American Conservative and The National Interest, respectively, think they’re seeing, (and which the liberal press seems to be seeing, too,) it should be clear to most observers that, functionally, President Trump is basically maintaining standard Post-Cold War hegemonic and internationalist policies, albeit with his characteristically brash populist flare. He looks a little more like a President Bush than a President Obama in his willingness to back up words with weapons- witness the strikes on the Syrian airfield, the first battlefield deployment of the “Mother of all Bombs” in Afghanistan, the ongoing showdown on the Korean Peninsula. He looks a little more like a President Obama than a President Bush in his simultaneous drawdowns of international activity and apparent post-hegemonism in rhetoric- note his coziness with the Russians and Chinese, and the conspicuous lack of fuzzy rhetoric about democracy and human rights. Regardless, there’s nothing new here. Trump is acting like a normal President in foreign policy, even a realist one. (And I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

Many of us- myself included- worried about a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy towards unpredictability under Trump. The various letters signed by prominent neoconservative foreign policy thinkers testified to this concern.

But experience has not born out these fears, most likely, I think, due to Trump’s selection of a prudent “Team of Realists” to execute his decisions. Sure, decision-making power is now formally centralized in the White House, and Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis haven’t been particularly vocal or open about foreign policy leadership. But Steve Bannon has been marginalized and General Mike Flynn was ousted, having been functionally and formally replaced by the boring playboy Jared Kushner and the all-around-sober General H.R. McMaster. The President is being advised by sane human beings- and as Ambassador Cofer Black once told me of Presidential decision-making in foreign policy, “everything will be ok, as long as their advisors are top-notch.”

Tillerson and Mattis are running things fairly smoothly, predictably, and, I might include, prudently. With McMaster at the President’s ear rather than Flynn, a voice of prudence counsels the most powerful man in the world. The world indeed seems on the verge of crisis with every tweet and statement; but the nukes aren’t flying just yet.

Maybe this is a radical claim, but I’ll make it anyway– the Trump Administration, though probably not President Trump himself, is adapting American grand strategy fairly well for a world beyond the Post-Cold War. The Administration is preserving what is best of “Same World” while softening the landing and preparing us for competition as global trends unfortunately and inexorably drag us into a “Cold World.”  Things are not as bad as they seem in Washington.

Now if only the administration can internally produce a document that is both conceptually interesting and pragmatically relevant encapsulating this temperament. We shall see if anything happens on that front.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Luke Phillips

Luke Phillips is a policy researcher and political writer interested in economic policy, government reform, American political and intellectual history, federalism and administration, foreign policy and grand strategy, and political theory. He is based between Southern California and Washington D.C., and has been active in California state politics.

Phillips has been involved in policy research, commentary publishing, and politics for some time. He has done stints and projects at the Richard Nixon Foundation, the John Hay Initiative, Mike & Morley LLC, The American Interest magazine, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, and various California Republican campaigns, including Duf Sundheim’s 2016 bid for the U.S. Senate and David Hadley’s brief 2018 campaign for Governor of California. He has been involved in various center-right blogging projects over the years, including The Progressive Republican League, The New Hamiltonian, and most recently, The Hamiltonian Republican. He keeps a personal blog on politics, history, ethics, and philosophy called “A Biased Perspective.” Outside of writing and politics, Phillips has marched in the University of Southern California’s Trojan Marching Band, sang in various Catholic choirs, and worked as an OA Trail Crew Foreman in the Philmont Scout Ranch Conservation Department. He is an avid hiker, a mediocre ukulelist, and an occasional poet.
Luke is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. He commutes regularly to the Washington D.C. Metro Area, where he will be relocating in 2018. Phillips is an Eagle Scout, and a member of the Hertog Foundation Alumni and the USC Unruh Associates.