The Trump administration certainly has its work cut out in their quest to create a cohesive, clear foreign policy strategy. Let me set the scene outside of the United States: While personally moderating a key panel at the Munich Security Conference last week on the future of the alliance that included Defense Ministers from five NATO nations (the U.K., France, Netherlands, Canada and Turkey), I could detect the nervousness in their voices.
Europeans over the weekend cited President Donald Trump’s highly ambivalent commentary on Russian aggression, the potential jettisoning of the two-state solution in Israel, and the dramatic volte-face on challenging China’s “one-China” policy. The Europeans were particularly rattled by a sense that support to NATO was purely transactional — essentially conditional based on how much they chipped in to the alliance coffers.
Vice President Mike Pence, who was at the Conference to assuage fears over the President’s comments on NATO and a host of other matters, had to face a tough but telling question from a European reporter: Should we believe you or the President? And in Iraq, Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis faced similar confusion, being asked by one Iraqi journalist, “Are you here to seize our oil?”
At this moment, it feels as though U.S. foreign policy is charging into a highly dangerous situation, with waves about to come crashing down, and little thoughtful leadership on display. I wrote about this in TIME, which you can read here.
However, with all of its challenges, a silver lining in this rather gloomy global cloud is the administration’s top-notch national security team, strengthened further by the addition of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor.
Gen. McMaster is a terrific pick. He has deep operational experience, is an intellectual without peers, and a creative thinker. While he believes in American exceptionalism and meeting problems with power, he understands that military might is not always the answer.
Gen. McMaster is also wise. He’ll try to work win-win solutions and make compromises when necessary, however won’t back down on key issues. I spoke with MSNBC about McMaster and you can watch that interview here. I echoed these comments on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, which is available here.
With the combination of Gens. Kelly, Mattis and McMaster, I haven’t seen a better team person-for-person in a long time. I discussed this on NPR’s Here & Now, and you can listen to that interview here.
Now that the team is in place, here’s what needs to happen next: solidify U.S. policy positions on key issues, jumpstart a belated effort to fill second- and third-tier federal jobs, and start rehearsing the White House’s responses to likely challenges around the globe. I offered this advice during a speech at West 2017, the premier naval event of the year. You can read a recap of my speech here.
I’m cautiously optimistic that Kelly, Mattis and McMaster will provide some coherency and consistency in the Administration’s foreign policy messaging. However, the $64,000 question is: Will the President listen and follow it? I hope so.
As always, thanks for reading.
Dean Stavridis with his basset hound, Lilly.
Dean James Stavridis is the 12th leader of The Fletcher School since its founding in 1933. A retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander.
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