The appointment of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is a clear sign that the president-elect is willing to break with the largely bipartisan internationalist foreign policy consensus that has underwritten American foreign policy since the end of World War II.
President-elect Donald Trump fundamentally is a departure from any of his Republican predecessors in both his outlook and tone. He’s neither the pure globally orientated real politick Richard Nixon nor the conservative internationalist Ronald Reagan.
Trump is Trump and his views of global affairs have been shaped by his own vantage point and experiences. Trump may meet with Kissinger, but it by no means is a sign that Washington is going back to the days of George H.W. Bush and James Baker.
A break from convention
Trump more so than any of his predecessors is driven by domestic priorities and isn’t enamored or caught up in the global winds and norms that still stirred and moved President Obama. While Obama was swept up in reacting to events such as the “Arab Spring,” a President Trump is more likely to put the breaks on foreign adventures abroad.
It would not be surprising if he appoints a strong secretary of state such as former Gov. Mitt Romney to lead the US’ global engagement.
Trump is not a hawk by nature but when it comes to protecting the homeland and ensuring America’s clear national interests abroad, a President Trump will be more forward leaning and pro-active than President Obama. His appointment of Lt. Gen. Flynn is an indication that as president his over-riding national security priorities are: Combatting terrorism, strengthening the US’ national security capabilities both at home and abroad, and ensuring the US has dependable partners abroad. This position arguably underwrites the US’ economic position.
A new team
While Flynn by no means fits the traditional mold of Henry Kissinger, his unconventional thinking fits well with the President-elect’s instincts and goals.
He’s not a conventional thinker and less likely to be constrained by the bureaucratic malaise and conventional thinking in Washington. This style may serve him well as a national security adviser focused less on being an inter-agency referee and micromanager but as a counsel to the president focused on accomplishing President-elect Trump’s key priorities.
Complemented by a strong cabinet including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a strong secretary of state and defense, Flynn could excel in focusing on pro-actively addressing the critical challenges facing the President and managing critical partnerships while avoiding the pitfalls of President Obama and his National Security Adviser Susan Rice whose National Security Council is distinguished more for micro-management than sound strategic planning.
It’s not a deep surprise that Obama’s National Security Council produced stale and unconventional thinking that missed the rise of Daesh. An effective president has an able cabinet he can trust to delegate to.
Tested in the first 100 days
President-elect Trump’s approach will without a doubt be tested. Few US presidents are able to completely isolate themselves from the torrential winds of global events. President Trump could be tested by a number of challenges and surprises from Iran to China.
Will President Putin actually work with President Trump in the way he’s publicly envisioned it? What happens if that relationship encounters speed bumps?
Trump’s own instincts and his appointments point in the direction of his administration being able to manage these strong headwinds and not get swept up into a series of interventions and confrontations. But, equally, his team could get drawn into some events more than others.
Syria will be a particularly difficult scenario. One cannot underestimate how difficult it will be to actually reach a deal with Russia and President Assad, if one is perused. Tehran, among many others, could easily spoil such a deal.
Equally so, Washington’s own national security interests need to be preserved and a settlement in the short-term could end up backfiring in the long-term for the US if not negotiated adeptly.
Equally so, Washington giving President Assad a completely free pass could also be a pitfall and the new administration should push for a settlement that addresses governance reform.
• Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.