Those individuals elected to the Presidency of the United States, especially in the post-Cold War era, focused their campaigns on domestic issues. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all constructed messages built around the economy, welfare, or the need to retrench from overseas missions. Their domestic focus, like many of those in the last half of the 20th century, was short lived as the weight of US responsibilities around the world began to become clear to them.
The Trump Era
The President-elect now joins this list. In keeping with the trend, Donald Trump’s campaign was dominated by domestic issues such as the economy, jobs and immigration. However, due to the increasingly volatile nature of international relations in the contemporary era, his foreign policy may yet define his presidency and have ramifications across the globe.
Integral to any President’s foreign policy success is the strength of those who advise him since the National Security Act of 1947 this has fallen mainly to those who sit on the National Security Council. The council’s membership is dominated by the most esteemed foreign policy contributors in the administration: The Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence, National Security Advisor, and CIA Director to name a few. To predict the nature of the administration’s foreign policy, a look into the characters chosen to fill these roles may offer some insight into how they will deal with likely situations such as the threat from Russia.
The US-Russian relationship may well define the Trump administration, and his National Security Council will aid him in constructing a strategy to deal with the Russian threat.
Policy surrounding the Russian Question will bring to the fore the most senior figure with regards to US foreign policy, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As a businessman and CEO, Tillerson built relationships around the world, including a close relationship with Vladimir Putin and navigated his confirmation hearing with the precision and calmness one would expect from a man of his background.
The new Secretary of State, although rhetorically tough on Russian aggression, is likely to be a major contributor to Trump’s seeming ambition to secure closer ties with Russia. He was quick to point out that this does not mean the US will not combat aggression, ironically the show of strength may ultimately improve relations and respect between the two nations, especially when dealing with a character like Vladimir Putin.
The Trump-Tillerson coalition will likely find another ally on the council in the shape of Trump’s chosen National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn. In his post-Military career, Flynn has had close personal dealings with Russia and is likely to side with the President and his new Secretary of State in wanting to improve ties between the two powers.
There are those, however, who may seek to block these initiatives, and their presence on the council will be integral to a healthy debate with regards to US strategy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired United States Marine Corps General, will likely lead this coalition. The ‘Mad Dog’ takes his place on the council with perhaps the most extensive gravitas of all of those in the cabinet and his dealings with the extensive egos will be interesting to watch develop.
On Russia, his Senate hearing confirmed his weariness of Russian aggression and sought to reassure sceptical members of the committee that he was willing to take necessary steps to combat such a threat. Furthermore, his ardent defence of the US relationship to NATO will further reassure US partners in Europe.
The CIA’s Input
In line with Mattis may well be the future Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo. As a Washington insider, albeit only since 2011, Pompeo will nevertheless bring much-needed experience to a council severely lacking in specific political understanding. Pompeo’s confirmation hearing secured his place on the sceptical side of the debate surrounding Russia’s intentions, and the need for closer relations. Mattis and Pompeo have both publicly issued harsh warnings with regards to Russian aggression and will provide much needed opposition in the council.
Often ignored within considerations surrounding the Trump team is the future Vice President. Jokes are often made about the extent of influence the Vice President can wield within administrations, but Mike Pence will remain within close proximity to the President and be situated at an influential seat on the council.
Moreover, his post-Trump political career was dominated by his public accusations against Russian aggression, and his worldview based on the necessity of US leadership on the world stage is more in line with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, unlike Trump himself.
A Potential Conflict Brewing?
The National Security Council will be integral to the decision-making process with regards to foreign policy in the new administration. Russia presents one of the major challenges that will define the Presidency of Donald Trump, and he has done well to surround himself with exceptional talent from business, the military and political insiders.
These actors bring to the table differing views that will make for lively debate surrounding the direction of foreign policy in the upcoming administration.