After spending the past few years worrying that they were presiding over a decaying empire, the architects of American power woke up the morning of November 9, 2016 and realized their latest nightmare had become a reality.
Donald Trump — in their estimation, a loose cannon who could accelerate the unraveling of the global order that the US has led and managed since World War II — would be the next president. The same man who accused allies of taking advantage of the US, praised rivals for their strong leadership, and repeatedly condemned longstanding pillars of US diplomacy would be directing the American empire.
On Election Day, Washington insider Daniel Serwer spoke for the establishment when he excoriated Trump as “erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic.” Only Hillary Clinton, with her “long track record well within the post-9/11 foreign policy consensus,” was properly qualified to “restore American authority,” he said.
“Those of us who enjoy foreign policy for a living — Republicans as well as Democrats like me — will likewise be almost universally relieved if she, not he, becomes president,” Serwer continued. “I’m allowed to say that, State Department people aren’t.”
In the months since the November disaster, establishment figures, both inside and outside the government, have heightened their criticism of Trump. Not only have diplomats staged a quiet revolt against the president, a number of former officials have taken to openly condemning Trump for damaging America’s foreign policy. The recent comments of former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas are illustrative: “The harm that we’ve inflicted upon ourselves has been because of . . . who we have in the White House running our foreign policy.”
For high-ranking officials in the State Department and the armed forces, the main concern is that Trump doesn’t recognize that the global balance of power is shifting. While the commander in chief frets about America getting bad deals, they’re focused on the challenges that China and Russia pose to the prevailing international order.
Over the past few months, a constellation of officials has tried to redefine Trump’s grand strategy while pushing the president to take more aggressive stances against Russia and China. Though it remains to be seen if they will succeed, Washington elites have racked up a string of victories — and they remain determined to lead the US into a new age of global dominance.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said this past summer at the Aspen Security Forum, “We need to make sure . . . that we don’t get to the point where people believe they can challenge us.”
Redefining "America First"
The foreign policy establishment scored some wins early in Trump’s presidency, convincing him to staff his administration with mainstream figures like Rex Tillerson (secretary of state), James Mattis (secretary of defense), and Mike Pompeo (CIA director).
But rather than sit back and relax after these appointments — and eager to dilute the influence of hard-right nationalists like Steve Bannon — they continued to apply the pressure.
The first order of business was spinning Trump’s “America First” slogan. The mantra wasn’t about isolationism and retrenchment, they insisted, but instead a statement of international engagement.
Trump himself had opened the door to this alternative interpretation during the presidential campaign. “Not isolationist, but I am America First,” Trump explained last year. “I like the expression.”
But establishment officials made sure there was no ambiguity on the question. In a May 30 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal aptly titled “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone,” national security advisor H. R. McMaster and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn framed Trump’s views as conventional foreign-policy commitments. The US would continue to secure its interests while “fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies.” Ultimately, the two wrote, “strong alliances bolster American power.”
Tillerson lent his imprimatur to this interpretation, telling a House panel in June: “We will continue our strong alliances and partnerships and maintain the friendships, relations that we have around the world.”
“America First,” he stressed, “does not mean America is stepping back or that we only worry about our own self-interest.”
In this way, Trump’s own officials have transformed one of the pillars of his election strategy. Arguing against a Bannon-style foreign policy, they have made clear that the United States won’t waver in its fidelity to the contemporary international order.
While many Beltway elites still question Trump’s commitment to the new interpretation, others are increasingly convinced he is slowly adopting a more conventional position. In June, former Reagan administration official Elliott Abrams argued in Foreign Affairs that the establishment has effectively bent Trump to their will on foreign policy issues.
“Of course, this could change,” Abrams wrote, “but based on early impressions, the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.”
More Planes, More Boats, More Guns
Alongside this rhetorical refashioning, establishment officials have renewed their efforts to bolster the armed forces. Unwilling to live in a world where the US does not dominate every potential war-fighting sphere, they have moved to maintain its military hegemony.
“For decades the United States enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain or realm,” Mattis told the Senate Committee on Armed Services in June. Unless Congress votes to spend more money on defense, he warned, the nation could begin losing ground to rising challengers. “Today, every operating domain is contested,” he said.
In this area, Trump has been happy to lead the charge. Throughout his campaign, he promised to ensure that the US armed forces retained its distinction as the most powerful military in the world. “Our military dominance must be unquestioned,” the then-candidate said in an April 2016 speech.
After the election, Trump quickly acted on his campaign vow, announcing his intention to make “a massive budget request for our beloved military” (as if the United States didn’t already spend more on defense than the next eight nations combined). Going forward, Trump said, “nobody is going to mess with us, folks. Nobody. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history.”
Administration officials rallied behind the president’s plans. The nation, Defense Department official John Roth promised, will have a “more capable, lethal, and ready force.” There will be “more aircrafts in the air, more ships at sea, more troops in the field, and more munitions on hand.”
Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined in the chorus of praise, asserting that the US needs “to be able to do what we have historically been able to do, and that is simply to project power when and where necessary.”
Despite any disagreements Trump might have with establishment figures, he’s shown himself eager to double down on one of the American empire’s central components.
While Trump could always be counted on to boost military spending, his willingness to take on ascendant international powers was less of a sure thing.
Initially, Trump was quite willing to challenge establishment thinking on China. When he first entered office, he rocked the mainstream by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multinational trade deal designed to constrain China’s economic power and reinforce US dominance in the Asia Pacific region.
Beltway officials were up in arms.
“There’s no doubt that this action will be seen as a huge, huge win for China,” said Michael Froman, who negotiated the TPP for the Obama administration. “For the Trump administration, after all this talk about being tough on China, for their first action to basically hand the keys to China and say we’re withdrawing from our leadership position in this region is geostrategically damaging.”
Across Washington, politicians and bureaucrats alike piled on, lambasting Trump’s decision. During an April congressional hearing, Arizona senator John McCain asked a number of former officials if they would “agree that the abandonment of TPP was one of the biggest mistakes we have made.” Former Bush administration official Victor Cha answered in the affirmative, citing the move’s “strategic implications,” and former Defense Department official Kelly Magsamen called the decision “a disaster.”
But while it remains unclear what Trump really thinks about China, members of his administration still have their eyes on the country. High-ranking officials, answering critics that claimed the president abandoned a major tool for trimming China’s sails, insisted that they were looking for alternative ways to get the same results.
The decision, Mattis cautioned in June, “only directs us to bilateral approaches and other multilateral approaches that we will engage in.” American allies like Japan have also made sure that Trump — or a future president — can exhume the TPP and move forward with the trade deal.
In addition, Trump’s administration has taken a number of steps in line with establishment thinking on China. Over the past few months, the White House has announced a new arms deal that will provide more than a billion dollars worth of weapons to Taiwan, placed sanctions on Chinese companies for their dealings with North Korea, and sent naval destroyers on patrols through islands that China has claimed in the South China Sea.
Regardless of its initial decision to withdraw from the TPP, the administration’s actions indicate it has no intention of handing over leadership in the Asia Pacific to China.
“We should be under no illusions,” Mattis recently told a Senate panel. “There are areas where . . . strategically, we need to confront China.”
The administration has also switched its position on the other major establishment concern: a resurgent Russia.
While Trump’s friendliness toward Russian president Vladimir Putin sent chills up the spine of the political mainstream, Trump has found it difficult to establish close relations with the Russian government. And members of Trump’s inner circle have largely taken adversarial positions toward the country.
The shift is a major change from the campaign, when Trump set off all sorts of alarms in Washington by calling on the Russian government to expose the emails that Hillary Clinton deleted from her private server. The Russians “hacked” Clinton’s server and “probably have her 33,000 emails,” Trump predicted. “I hope they do.”
Seizing on his remarks, the federal bureaucracy quickly turned the tables on the newly elected president. Before the inauguration, the nation’s top intelligence agencies issued a major report in which they asserted “with high confidence” that the Russian government had hacked the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in the hopes of helping Trump win.
Although there’s still some debate about whether these claims are true, the charges have made it difficult for Trump to forge stronger ties with Putin’s Russia, as the Bush and Obama administrations did when they first entered office.
In April, both Trump and Tillerson said relations with Russia were at an “all-time low.” Some administration officials have suggested the US will always have an adversarial relationship with Russia (“our values do not align, our interests are often at odds,” Defense Intelligence Agency director Vincent Stewart has said).
Other administration officials have gone further, saying that they are doing everything in their power to confront Russia. Nikki Haley has taken perhaps the strongest stance against Russia, spending much of her time — as she’s acknowledged — “bashing” the country at her UN post.
Finally, Congress has made sure that Trump cannot reset relations with the Russian government. New sanctions limit how the White House can deal with Russia for the foreseeable future.
As a result, the president has not been able to change or evade the establishment stance on Russia. Trump might still admire Putin, but mainstream forces have pushed his administration into a more adversarial posture.
“We’ve been in a new Cold War for some time now,” former Central Intelligence Agency official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen recently commented. “Any hope for a short-term improvement in relations is gone.”
The Future of US Empire
Shortly after the 2016 election, Barack Obama noted how hard it would be hard for his successor to drastically change the country’s foreign policy. “There’s enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news,” Obama said.
So far, he’s mostly been vindicated.
While the power struggle to shape Trump’s foreign policy will likely persist for some time — especially on issues like Russia — the DC establishment has largely reasserted their control over the policymaking process, pushing forward with its plans to ensure the US remains the primary architect and enforcer of global order.
Trump has dropped or weakened some of his most nationalist policies, and many of the advisers the establishment found most repellent — from Michael Flynn to Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka — have been forced out.
Further allaying establishment fears, a number of administration officials have signaled that they share the same ambitions for the world. Haley, for instance, has declared that the US will continue playing a powerful role in global affairs. “For anyone that says you can’t get anything done at the U.N., they need to know there’s a new sheriff in town,” Haley said.
Of course, establishment officials will still have to deal with the erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic rhetoric coming from the commander in chief. While Mattis has implored US allies to “bear with us,” others have found it difficult to deal with Trump’s tweets on sensitive issues involving the Middle East and North Korea. Reportedly, Tillerson once called Trump a “moron” after hearing the president’s thinking on Afghanistan. (He was then forced to humiliate himself by publicly praising Trump’s intelligence.)
But Trump’s outbursts notwithstanding, establishment Washington appears to have made significant gains in its ongoing effort to maintain Pax Americana. In many ways, the past few months have simply been a matter of the establishment adapting to the new president, reeling him back to its positions despite all the atmospheric bluster.
“I think, with respect to how we conduct foreign policy . . . in light of the fact that the president communicates the way he does . . . look, it’s just like anything else,” Tillerson recently said. “It’s part of the environment in which we work. We’ll adapt to it. We’ll adapt to it.”