It’s an open question how serious President-elect Donald Trump is about policies that he’s advocated – such as saying sayonara to Japan and South Korea if the two countries don’t contribute more resources to their own defense, or abandoning the nonproliferation policy by giving them the green light to develop their own nuclear weapons to counter those that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is developing.
Trump, after all, like the late Kim Jong-il of North Korea, is mainly a showman. If he’s a policy wonk, reading books and think tank reports on difficult international questions, we haven’t heard about it. Clearly he admires his self-image of a tough negotiator who shakes things up. But would he persist single-mindedly in carrying out policies that, so far, are no more substantial than marketing slogans?
Since we’re not in a position to answer definitively, the first signals to look for are the names and backgrounds and views of the top people he taps to run, day to day, the US political/military relationship with the rest of the world. But even there, we may not learn much since many of the most prominent names in foreign/defense policy – those names that we can associate with particular policies – are not likely to be part of his hiring pool.
Notable during his campaign was the fact that relatively few prominent people endorsed him. Pretty near the entire Republican senior foreign policy establishment publicly dissed him.
In August Chris Nelson of Washington’s Nelson Report came up with a list of three people described as Trump’s Asia policy brain trust. Focusing as I do on Pyongyang, I emailed the one who was most identified with North Korea policy, William C. Triplett II, a retired aide to the late Senator Jesse Helms. Triplett never replied and I’ve heard no more about his chances to land a cushy White House, State or Pentagon job. (His book on North Korea, for whatever the fact is worth, doesn’t minimize the North Korea threat. Its title: Rogue State: How a Nuclear North Korea Threatens America.)
Although Trump’s victory speech included the words, “I am reaching out to you for your guidance and your help” to unify the country, the president-elect is not known to be the forgiving sort. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to beg his many public detractors – especially those Republican foreign affairs specialists who signed a manifesto opposing his candidacy – to let bygones be bygones, now that he’s won, and offer their expertise to him.
For the top jobs he may well pick from his tiny band of loyalists: a one-time presidential contender like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, say, for secretary of state. If Trump especially wants to endear himself to the most conservative congressional Republicans he may go for a hardliner such as former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who wants the job and has supported him vocally.
Beyond that, there’s still a wide bench of career professionals in the State Department Foreign Service and in the military who are in the habit of carrying out presidential orders.
For example, a whole generation of rookie diplomats came of age working in and on the Vietnam War – even though not a few of them privately opposed the war. They saw their role as carrying out policy, not making it.
Soldiers, to an even greater extent perhaps, are trained to leave to politicians the decision on when, where and whom to fight. There should be plenty of buzz-cut warriors ready to put on suits and ties and do Trump’s bidding, considering that pre-election polls showed they widely favored him.
So if Trump pursues unsound policies, are we doomed to watch helplessly as some previously anonymous subordinates help him trash the current world system?
Here’s the good thing about career professionals, if indeed that’s where Trump looks for more of his personnel than is typical for new administrations. Such appointees would follow the boss’s lead – unless and until he ordered something a lot of them saw as truly stupid, in which case they might use the relationship they’d built up with him through their previous obedience to try to persuade him to rethink.
The most notable such case in recent memory happens to involve Korea. Democrat Jimmy Carter during his 1976 presidential campaign voiced his determination to bring US troops home from South Korea, which then was ruled by a former general turned dictator and human rights abuser.
Military and State Department veterans, seeing South Korea as a political and economic work in progress and fearing that US troop withdrawal would permit North Korea to swallow up the South, hunkered down and thwarted Carter at every turn. Eventually, in 1979, in a face-saving maneuver he agreed to “postpone” carrying out his plan.
The next year Carter ran for a second term – and lost.