“One thinks of Vikings when the Norse are mentioned; most Norse, however, were traders and farmers. The people (at least as described in their sagas) seem to have been brave, fatalistic, ruthless and highly regardful of their honor.”
William Vollmann, The Ice-Shirt
To many members of the conservative foreign-policy establishment, the election of Donald Trump must have seemed like a Norse invasion. Numerous friends who might normally serve in any GOP administration, as national-security professionals, have asked for my opinion. So here it is: If the next president of the United States asks, and your own good judgment favors it, you should serve.
Barack Obama has indicated that he wants Trump to be a successful president, as opposed to a failed one. Foreign-policy conservatives can be at least as gracious. But in national security, the next administration can succeed only with the practical assistance of experienced professionals.
Obviously career civil servants, career diplomats, career intelligence officers, and career military will continue in their posts. There are also hundreds of top positions for any new president to fill in the departments of State and Defense, in intelligence agencies, and on the National Security Council staff. All presidents appoint political loyalists, and sometimes they have longstanding expertise in their area. But every administration also needs appointees willing to offer independent-minded advice, particularly when they think some specific proposal is mistaken or needs to be reworked. So if you are asked to serve, do so, and in a way that maintains your integrity at all times, just as you would under any administration.
What exactly will Trump’s foreign policy look like, in detail, across a wide range of issues? The truth is, nobody really knows. He has laid out some very broad themes and priorities and made a few striking speeches, combined with extemporaneous statements during the campaign. As he says himself, he is comfortable with unpredictability. He may delegate considerably to the relevant departments and agencies. After eight years of administrative hyper-centralization under Obama, such delegation would make sense.
Looking toward 2017 and beyond, there are multiple possible outcomes and scenarios. The negative ones have been thoroughly discussed this past year, including by yours truly. But anyone who has interacted with real-estate developers knows they tend to take maximalist positions up front, under the assumption that everything can be negotiated. One hopeful possibility, therefore, is that the president-elect is not actually about to implement every off-the-cuff statement from the past 18 months.
Take for example Trump’s earlier campaign-season comments on NATO. He has since declared in his post-election meeting with Obama that he’s determined to maintain America’s alliance commitments overseas. That’s a good thing, and we should say so. Trump has also consistently said that he wants America’s European allies to pay more for their own defense. Any U.S. citizen would want this. If the final outcome of all the current consternation is that our NATO commitments remain solid, with increased spending from European allies, then I think we Americans would welcome it.
It would certainly be worth considering how to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the Obama administration.
It would certainly be worth considering how to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the Obama administration. In 2009, a charismatic, successful, and immensely self-confident presidential candidate entered the White House with strong views and limited background in foreign-policy matters. International competitors pushed back in unexpected ways. It didn’t work out so well.
At the same time, if the disconnect between broad swaths of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite and the American public wasn’t humbling enough this year, then it should be. The people have spoken. Trump was on the ballot. The experts were not. The president will now choose whom he likes.
On that very point: The reaction in some circles to Trump’s election has been a little hysterical. It would be one thing if this result represented the extinction of American democracy. But this is ridiculous. Whatever the many concerns about Trump — and I fully understand them — we live and will continue to live in an exceptionally rambunctious and free republic where the courts, the press, the Congress, and the people will all continue to have their say. In fact, they just did. So it’s a bit rich now to hear liberals and progressives voice apocalyptic concern over the dangers of executive authority. Liberals have been championing executive authority for over a century. How many opposed it when Obama was in power? A principled but limited minority.
Fortunately, in spite of “progressive” executive attempts over the last eight years to circumvent Congress, our legislative branch still holds considerable influence. We’re all going to count on that now — including the willingness of principled conservatives to stand up for what they believe in. There are plenty of strong-minded voices for a serious national-security policy among Republicans in both the Senate and U.S. House leadership. House Speaker Paul Ryan laid out one such agenda this summer, quite independently of the Trump campaign. And the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, is an excellent Viking who fears nobody. May he live to be a hundred.
One of the most encouraging related trends in recent years is the emergence of a new generation of younger congressional Republicans with solid foreign-policy instincts, etched with personal military experience. This includes for example Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, along with the newly elected congressman from Wisconsin, Mike Gallagher. Gallagher won by 25 points in a district that was supposed to be a nail-biter. He will rise.
Viewed as a whole, the Republican party has many tribes, and this is not going to change.
Viewed as a whole, the Republican party has many tribes, and this is not going to change. The one that surged to new influence under Trump is dedicated to conservative nationalism. As many of us know from personal experience, heartland conservatives are regularly misinterpreted by the urban Eastern elite. Their politics are based on a fierce love of country, and on a desire to keep it as it has been, rather than transforming it along left-liberal lines. In foreign policy, conservative nationalists focus on interests and hard power. They tend to be skeptical of new interventions in the abstract. But once entering a fight, they can be relentless. I understand this impulse, respect it, and in many ways share it. But in itself, it’s incomplete, and it’s not a foreign policy. It needs to be effectively leavened and fused with a number of conservative internationalist insights, as well as a number of realist ones. That’s what every successful Republican president has done.
Some of Trump’s criticisms regarding the entire post–Cold War era — namely, that the U.S. has too often been interventionist yet indecisive or ill prepared in its military actions overseas — dovetail with common critiques from foreign-policy realists. And in this, he is not wrong. Indeed, Obama’s un-realist foreign policy has left us in a rather precarious position. There is consequently a need to push back against a number of serious competitors overseas. Prudent conservative internationalists can contribute by helping to ensure that this is done in a way that is effective, from positions both inside and outside the executive branch — and by speaking up where they disagree with the president.
Liberal critics should remember, however, that what conservative internationalists believe most prudent and effective is robust American leadership, bolstered deterrence, strong alliances, vigorous counterterrorism, decisive success in wartime, and a U.S. military second to none. Insofar as Trump pursues this — and when all is said and done, he may — then of course they will support him. Conservative internationalists also believe in the non-military aspects of American leadership, including diplomatic and economic-policy tools. And they’ll continue to speak up for them, too.
For fellow Republicans, whatever positions people took over the past year, the questioning of motives has got to stop. All fought for what they believed in. Nothing that was said can be unsaid. But the issue of who will be president has been settled by American voters. The new administration is going to need some practical help and advice, both from inside and out, precisely in order to achieve conservative goals.Trump has now reached the presidency. Let’s stop underestimating him. Let’s give him a chance. I hope he succeeds.
Altogether, this election year was exceptionally ferocious, from start to finish. You might even say it had Viking-like qualities. No quarter was given, or asked.
But here’s the thing about Vikings: They fight like hell. And then they go have a beer. It’s our idea of heaven.
Perhaps these different tribes can now work together to make their country safer. I certainly hope so.
Either way, no regrets. I’ll see you in Valhalla.
— Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today and Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II.