Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Crisis and Conviction: U.S. Grand Strategy in Trump's Second Term

  • Patrick Porter
| Aug. 06, 2018

In the spring of 2014, before Donald Trump’s presidency was even a rumor, I began an article about the sources of U.S. grand strategy. By “grand strategy,” I mean a state’s way of orchestrating means and ends to achieve security over the long haul. I argued that the habitual ideas and pervasive influence of the U.S. foreign policy establishment make the fundamentals of American statecraft hard to change. What former advisor Ben Rhodes called the “Blob” and what former National Security Council official Michael Anton called the “priesthood” defines and dominates the ecosystem in which foreign policy is made. It exerts its influence through its expertise and its advantageous structural position as a “revolving door” between government, academia, think tanks, foundations, and corporations, reinforced by the feedback loop of allies’ demands for American patronage. In turn, the establishment successfully advances the view that the only prudent and legitimate grand strategy for the United States is “primacy,” the pursuit and sustainment of unrivalled dominance.

Accordingly, the conservative force of tradition would constrain even revisionist presidents intent on change. Prior choices — over military power, alliances, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of American capitalism — would probably persist. Grand strategic change is possible. But it requires two interacting elements that come together rarely: a major strategic shock and a determined president willing to bear the costs of overhauling American security commitments. Until those forces convene, the United States has a powerful default setting of “leadership,” despite disappointing wars, economic crises, and increasing public fatigue with the burdens of hegemony.

Then Trump came to power. Trump provides us with a live experiment that tests the argument, or at least the proposition that short of a major shock and a committed agent of change, the existing strategy will endure. How well does it stack up? Here, I offer two hypotheses. First, despite his aggressive words, his maverick deeds, his authoritarian tendencies, his allies’ doubts, and critics’ lamentations, Trump hasn’t yet altered U.S. grand strategy in its fundamentals. That doesn’t mean he has personally converted to tradition. Trump is still Trump. But so far, he has been constrained. He is not a determined-enough agent of revision to destroy what he inherited. The structure of American power-projection persists. However much he commands center stage, Trump is not America. Even this flame-throwing “outsider” is counter-balanced by the weight of congressional will, the cumulative advice and pressure of Cabinet, the security bureaucracy and the CIA, and the appeals of allies. Violating conventions and slobbering admiringly over international rivals is not the same thing as overhauling a grand strategy at its foundations. That task would take more resilience and more time commitment than the president has shown.

Secondly, though, this may change. If Trump is re-elected in 2020 — a distinct possibility — there is a chance that we will see both forces of change come together. If we see a fundamental shock that discredits the status quo and weakens the authority of the establishment, the environment will become more receptive to fundamental change.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Porter, Patrick.“Crisis and Conviction: U.S. Grand Strategy in Trump's Second Term.” War on the Rocks, August 6, 2018.

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