Donald Trump is now president-elect. Despite the bitter opposition that occurred throughout the campaign, all Americans should want him to be successful. This is particularly true for his most important role as commander-in-chief. President Trump will face varied national security challenges that are perhaps unprecedented in modern American history. Past new presidents had a more focused threat—Germany prior to World War II, the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War, al Qaeda in the aftermath of 911. But after his inauguration the new chief executive must deal with a variety of significant threats, all of which are complex, nuanced, and distinct in many ways.
ISIS and the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are an immediate concern. Despite what appears as impending success in both Iraq and Syria, ISIS or its surrogates (as well as al Qaeda) are operating in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia as well as conducting attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey, and Bangladesh. It is important to realize that the defeat of ISIS will not end the tragedy of the ongoing civil war in Syria. Furthermore, as ISIS loses territory and the Caliphate shrinks it will likely metastasize into a terrorist organization that will seek opportunities to conduct attacks around the globe.
In confronting this threat will the new president be able to work with the Congress on a new Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)? This was proposed by President Obama to Congress in February 2015 but has languished there ever since. Consequently, American military forces now conduct combat operations in all these countries using the legal authority provided by Congress in 2003 to attack al Qaeda in Afghanistan
Russian-American relations are at their lowest since the Cold War. Putin and the forces of the Russian Federation will likely continue their aggression in Ukraine and potentially Eastern Europe more broadly. Moscow will also pursue every opportunity to undermine NATO while seeking an accommodation with the United States and our European allies to end the sanctions that are taking a toll on the Russian economy. Oddly, particularly for a Republican president, the only policy that does seem clear from Trump's comments is a desire to improve relations with Russia and foster a joint effort against ISIS.
The American policy of strategic patience pursued by both the Obama and Bush administration towards North Korea has failed. Clearly, Pyongyang is pursuing not only a nuclear arsenal but the ability to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could directly threaten the United States. Economic sanctions have had no impact on Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, the status quo on the Korean peninsula is untenable. Increasingly it appears that North Korea will either collapse or seek direct military confrontation.
The president-elect did recently speak with the leader of South Korea to reaffirm American support. But his earlier remarks suggesting the United States would insist on greater financial contributions to defray the cost for our troop presence in Korea and Japan, have deeply worried our Asian allies. Furthermore, his suggestion that Seoul and Tokyo might well consider acquiring their own nuclear arsenals undermines long-standing American policy with respect to non-proliferation.
China continues to press its case to control the South China Sea and to challenge the United States as well as the countries in the region. Chinese military power, particularly at sea and in space, will grow and confront Washington in these areas. It is interesting, however, that Democrats and Republicans seem united in their acceptance of the so-called "pivot" to Asia. There is a clear realization that the 20th century was the century of Europe, but the 21st century will be the century of Asia. The new president must craft a holistic strategy that has a military, economic, diplomatic, and informational component
The proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMD will likely accelerate. Candidate Trump strongly criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement between the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Iran. He argued that if elected he would terminate this accord, and leading Republicans Congressional leaders endorse that policy. This will resonate well with Israeli President Netanyahu as well with as Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But it puts the United States on a collision course with Tehran as it would likely present Iran with two alternatives—capitulate or conflict.
In addition, real issues of nuclear stability exist in South Asia between India and Pakistan, while also looming on the horizon is the threat of a weapon or active material falling into terrorist hands. Neither candidate ever mentioned Kashmir once during the campaign. This ignores the fact that if there is a nuclear war in the next four years it is likely to occur following an incident in South Asia or along the border between India and Pakistan.
Finally, many leading risk experts argue that climate change is the major threat to American national security. "Between 2006 and 2015, 117 people in the United States died from terror attacks according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism. During that same period 1,130 people died from extreme heat as reported by the National Weather Service," wrote science writer Seth Borenstein on November 2, 2016. Experts have pointed out that climate change is a cause for regional conflicts and the continuing growth in refugees around the world. Despite these facts Mr. Trump has argued that climate change is a hoax.
The presidential campaign was very lengthy, yet how President Trump will deal with these challenges still remains opaque. His comments on national security have lacked clarity or a coherent strategic view. These varied challenges demand that the new occupant of the White House articulates an effective national security strategy and marshals the resources to sustain it. He must quickly answer some fundamental questions raised by his comments in the recent past: Will America retreat into isolation or will it continue to view itself as an indispensable nation in a very troubled world? Will Washington continue to preserve and promote the global institutions and international order that it has led since the end of World War II?
There are several things he must do as he leads his team through the transition and responds to these challenges.
First, he must quickly identify and select a qualified and experienced national security team. This will be difficult since the Republican "brain trust" in national security largely repudiated him in open letters released earlier this year. He must look beyond that and convince many of them to join the administration, particularly since as an outsider he will need their experience on how to make the process work.
Second, the new president needs to reassure our allies of America's support and role in the world. President-elect Trump's remarks that America's allies must do more to provide for their own defense has been raised by both Democratic and Republican Presidents for decades. Hopefully, his very direct, blunt comments will spur action in London, Paris, and Berlin. For our allies the challenge for America is the Goldilocks problem. Not too….not too cold….just right. In 2003, our allies worried (and rightfully so) that an overly aggressive America had invaded a sovereign country on flimsy intelligence and possibly set off chaos across the region with global implications. Eight years ago, the world applauded as the Nobel Prize committee in Norway awarded the Nobel Prize to a new young American president. This award was not for what he had done but for what he had promised to do. President Obama outlined a strategy as he entered the White House that would seek to retrench American power around the globe and better subscribe to international norms. Now many allies seem worried the United States is not aggressive enough--in Syria, in confronting both Russia and China, and in combatting international terrorism.
Third, the incoming president must seek a solution to the ongoing debate over the defense budget and sequestration while ensuring that emerging requirements for special operation forces, missile defense, and cyber are properly funded. Serious choices must be made with respect to sequestration. We are now robbing personnel and investment accounts to pay for readiness. American defense policy has a strategy versus force mismatch. The backlog of maintenance for nuclear forces alone may be $3.7 billion. During testimony recently, Senator Lindsey Graham asked the service chiefs if Congress and the Executive Branch were the greatest threats to American national security. The generals seemed visibly uncomfortable in responding.
Finally, President Trump must reflect on both the power and limitations of the office he is about to assume. During the campaign, candidate Trump periodically displayed a lack of knowledge about national security affairs. This was particularly true with respect to nuclear weapons and the nation's longstanding nuclear strategy based on deterrence. This has been unsettling to many foreign policy experts in both parties as well as our allies abroad. Mr. Trump must now take time not only to deepen his knowledge but also to reflect upon the potential consequences of nuclear conflict.
In its wisdom the Constitution of the United States also places limits on presidential power. The Congress controls the powers of the purse and must review and authorize all defense spending. Military officers pledge an oath to respect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not unswerving loyalty to the commander-in-chief. The Constitution further ordains that treaties signed and ratified by the United States are an essential part of the supreme law of the land. Military officers are legally and morally bound to adhere to that. Mr. Trump would be well served to ponder not only the power of the office he is about to undertake but also its limits.
The nation is divided but should take solace in the simple fact that democracy has worked. The people have spoken, and the current government is preparing for a peaceful, seamless transition. This is in many ways a hallmark of the democratic process. But the challenges for the new president in national security are daunting. It is a moment not unlike the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. "It was the best of times, tt was the worst of times..." America remains the master of its destiny and the most powerful nation on the planet. It is now up to president-elect Trump to ensure it remains that way for the next four years.