Loose Cannons, Generals and US Foreign Policy In The Trump Era

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Dec 11, 2016 12:38 PM +05:30 IST
Loose  Cannons, Generals and US Foreign Policy In The Trump Era President-elect Donald Trump (L) and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
  • President-elect Trump seems to be hiring US Army and Marine Corps generals in key advisory roles.

    While its impact on US policy is debatable, what’s common to Trump’s picks is that they all disagree with President Obama on his policies.

    Under Obama, India-US relations reached new heights. India shouldn’t take that for granted, and must instead stay prepared for any eventuality.

President-elect Donald Trump has a few more weeks to remain in the ‘loose cannon’ mode before he is fully accountable for what he utters. For over a year, he has been trumpeting his wares, his mind and his ideas, on a nation which is in a state of regression. The entire Trump phenomenon arose from a sense of insecurity brought on by the failure of post-Cold War international configurations that the United States (US) sought to create. The so-called restructuring of the new world order at a time of fundamental change in the way the world exists and does business could not succeed. The Information Revolution and the resultant globalisation hasn’t given the dividends that were sought by a superpower like the US.

In fact, in an era when the US is still counted as the only superpower, there is an internal weakening in its fabric, leading to a loss of confidence among its people in the American Dream. The economic meltdown of 2008 added to its woes, and the military deployments in Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq, the former a strategic compulsion and the latter a strategic blunder, only weighted the sinking ship. The social fabric of the US, formerly its strength, suddenly has become a weakness.

The arrival of Trump at such a crucial juncture in US and world history, when the world is seeking a mature approach towards the persisting problems of communal confrontation and phenomena such as terror and radicalism, could not have been more tragic.

In India, we may gloat about our success and the fact that an Indian American hand also facilitated Trump’s success; the emergence of Indian American personalities in the soon-to-be-created power centre of the Republicans seems to also overawe us. The impact on India-US relations may well have a telling effect – Indian American political personalities are not known to display any loyalty to their former homeland. In fact, in the case of personalities such as Bobby Jindal, the opposite is known to be true.

Trump’s utterances continue to project the extent of his ignorance in matters strategic, especially if they concern the military domain. Out-of-the-box ideas and introduction of volatility in the leadership style are fine if the strategic leader has a firm hold over history and an understanding of the nuances. Trump, probably on advice, is obviously following a strategy of gamesmanship, needling opponents, forcing them to respond to reveal their core concerns and display their limits of tolerance. His telephonic conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first recorded conversation between an American President and a Taiwan head of state since 1979, has irked China. Ever since the US decided to improve its relationship with China following the pathbreaking diplomatic efforts of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the principle of One China has been adhered to – with no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, the US has maintained a special relationship with the island state and treaded a careful path, something that is only now coming into focus.

On Iran, Trump’s views are well known and supported by his advisors; the 15 July 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement does not meet approval among any of them. The future of Iraq and Syria, as well as the situation in West Asia, will be dependent on US’ attitude towards the Iran nuclear deal.

The President-elect is known to have been guided to some extent during the campaign by a set of US Army and Marine Corps generals who are emerging from the shadows. Among the ones likely to be advising him as part of his core team are General Michael Flynn as Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor and General James Mattis for Defense Secretary. More uniformed officials from the four American armed forces, including General Stanley McChrystal, could find plum, influential jobs running intelligence agencies or offering advice. The New York Times observed that the single thread tying them all together is that they all had issues with President Barack Obama.

Trump seems to perceive the idea of a political opposition as one with a literal 180-degree opposition. Expectations always remain that a presidential candidate once elected would quickly adjust himself to the ways of the establishment and proceed cautiously in terms of pursuing change. But one example from history of single-minded pursuance of change as a policy was Nixon with his approach to China; ping-pong diplomacy took just five months to commence after his inauguration.

Observers are terming the entry of US Generals into advisory and strategic decision-making roles as dangerous because that would inevitably lead to a more robust policy of the use of hard power. However, the New York Times, quoting Stephen K Bannon, the President-elect’s chief strategist, says “the incoming administration was looking at potential cabinet officials with combat experience so that people who had fought in wars would be making decisions about whether to commit the country to more of them.” Military leaders of the Marshall, Eisenhower and Powell variety drew much respect when saddled with political responsibilities. Yet today, even military analysts are being critical. Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who authored two books on military strategy, speaks about the feasibility of too many military instruments in every consideration of international security.  Somehow, the perception of military leaders seeking conflict resolution through the employment of only hard power appears to have permeated the thinking of most academic and security related analysts. This is also the opinion of the political class and civil society in most nations.

To establish the truth or otherwise of this perception would need a separate essay. Currently suffice to say that military leaders are acutely conscious of the economic and social implications of the unrestrained use of hard power. Military institutions the world over, which teach and discuss strategy, usually emphasise on all instruments of conflict resolution. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Defence Studies and India’s National Defence College hardly carry much content about the military in their curriculum. Yet, somehow this perception prevails to the detriment of exploiting the strategic might and experience of military leaderships.

For Indian foreign policy specialists, analysts and those specifically focused on the development of the India-US strategic relationship, this would be a time for concern. If there has to be a marked influence of the US military on strategic policy formulation, then it is worth knowing that the US military has no particular affection for India. The slight disdain that exists, and many would take this writer up on it, is symbolically displayed in many a US training institution where both Indian and Pakistan Army personnel train. In all strategic seminars around the world, it is the Pakistan Army which finds favour with the US armed forces. India’s Soviet/Russia connect from the Cold War era and the US-Pakistan connect of CENTO and, also, the 1979-89 period of Soviet presence in Afghanistan inspires less confidence in India and more in Pakistan, at least within the US uniformed and intelligence community.

Former US President George Bush’s push for a stronger US-India equation received energetic support from President Obama in the second half of his presidency. Just when things seem to be looking upwards comes the new presidency of Trump. Continuity is usually the responsibility of non-partisan bureaucracies, but when the President-elect is veering towards hiring advisors who have had major disagreements with President Obama, the potential of continuity becomes questionable.

This is what Indian policy planners must be prepared for. They must work to prevent awkward perceptions from developing. The time to work on that is now, even before the inauguration. We may be sceptical about the alleged Trump-Nawaz Sharif telephonic chat and promises of a visit to Pakistan, but Pakistan’s strategic position in world polity must not be scoffed at. Indian efforts at isolating Pakistan on the issue of terrorism have been insufficiently supported internationally, and the US continues to play games in this regard. The strategic importance of Pakistan’s territorial space for all kinds of international players makes it a nation everyone wishes to befriend.

Trump may yet turn out to be an outstanding President, independent in thought and not tied to old-world equations. Yet, the uniformed intellectual community is definitely going to be a major player in deciding US security policy. If that is the case, India will have to redouble its efforts to stay where it has reached with President Obama and potentially engage in different dimensions beyond just the political and diplomatic contacts. Calling upon the Indian military and intelligence community to play a greater role in diplomacy may well be in order.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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