An Excellent Niall Ferguson Essay on Grand Strategy… That Trump Will Not Read

By Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor


Niall Ferguson published a thoroughly interesting essay at The American Interest today. He clearly would like President-elect Donald Trump to read it; but if Trump’s reading habits can be guessed by other aspects of his demeanor, one can and should safely bet that the President-elect will not read it. And he’ll be the worse off for it.

Ferguson looks at Kissinger’s advice and analysis expounded over the course of several interviews and his 2014 book World Order. He dismisses the notion that Nixonian grand strategy would be of any use to President-elect Trump, and instead highlights Teddy Roosevelt’s model- and, silently, Franklin Roosevelt’s model- as a useful model of realist great-power statecraft and world order for the forthcoming President Trump to follow.

The strategy, as sublime as it is beautiful and as beautiful as it is complicated, would require a three-way entente with the world’s other great powers- Russia and China- and a general promotion of nationalist regimes and a de-emphasizing of liberal international norms, as well as something of a disenfranchisement of former U.S. allies. It would effectively abdicate the American-led liberal international system of 1945 to the early 2000s, and reorganize power along the basis of the present balance of power. This, of course, would likely lead to a less norm-driven world, but one in which all-out war between superpowers becomes next to impossible. The peace would be preserved, at the expense of the old alliance system.

This strategy is replete with flaws, one of the greatest being that it abandons the crucial U.S. asset of a loyal alliance system in favor of reaching accommodations with less-friendly regimes. No true conservative would so easily abandon communities and traditions cultivated over the decades. But it is a creative way of thinking about reorganizing power, and if the implications are troubling, it’s because the reader realizes all too well that such a rebalancing may be an option the United States has to pursue, to some degree.

It’s a great intellectual exercise that should be read by all future policymakers.

But it’s all for naught. Trump isn’t going to read it.

To the extent that Trump has thought about foreign policy, it’s been in the context of deal-making and financial transactions- good for business, not for strategy. To the extent that he has a doctrine at all, it’s a mix of instinctive Jacksonian hawkishness and a businessman’s penchant for “good deals.” There’s very little under that bouffant of orange hair that considers long-term commitments and grand world-historical trends in the world’s major theaters. He simply doesn’t have the experience in the diplomatic, political, and national security communities to have inculcated it, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have studied it enough to grasp international statecraft at an intellectual level. That leaves us with his instincts- and those instincts, tumultuous and vindictive as they are, do not appear sufficient for in-depth strategic thought.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, because there does seem to be a force within the Trump White House that has thought extensively about foreign affairs- Trump’s no-name political appointees to Cabinet positions and major agencies. Thus far, these seem to be hawkish nationalists who would torture prisoners and abandon allies at the first opportunity if they thought the short-term interest of the country required it. More worrisome, Trump’s been floating names like John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney for the position of Secretary of State. Just great- drop a few neocons in the mix and see where that goes.

Ferguson seems to have high hopes for the Trump presidency’s foreign policy. On one level, he’s right to hope- this election has thoroughly expunged the liberal internationalist/neoconservative elite that’s dominated foreign-policymaking since the 90s, if not earlier. We won’t be suspect to their excesses and biases and overextensions. On the other hand, they were professionals- they were skilled and principled- they knew how the ropes worked. The people who will staff the Trump administration do not seem nearly so seasoned and wise, and their ideas have not been tested in the field of practical grand strategy. When one elite falls, a new, equally talented elite must take its place. It appears that that place is now being filled by charlatans and snake-oil salesmen, at best.

In any case, Ferguson’s strategic outlook is an important one to be familiar with, and it’s worth reading and rereading by anybody who’ll be serving in the Trump Administration or whatever administration follows it. I sense that there won’t be enough organizational discipline for the Trump Administration to implement anything like a coherent and well-managed grand strategy, which means we might just have to buckle up for the storm and get ready for the world to darken over the next few years.

And that’s more than a shame.

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