When ABC News’ Martha Raddatz asked four national security thinkers to list top priorities for the new administration, discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace “Passing the Baton” conference swung quickly to the pros and cons of disruption—specifically, President-elect Trump’s spontaneous declarations, via Twitter, on foreign affairs.
“I’m going to try to be polite,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the first of three panel discussions that made up part of the conference Jan. 9 and 10. “I’m very concerned about the tweets.” Policies are shaped by careful work and explained to other governments via diplomatic channels to ensure clarity and accuracy, she said. The tweets risk “destroying” systematic work of government systems, Albright said.
Admiral James Stavridis, the former NATO commander, said social media posts have a place in a communications strategy, but off-the-cuff presidential tweets could disrupt chains of command. “Let’s say a tweet appears that says ‘Hey, the next Iranian gunboat that crosses the bow of a U.S. Navy ship is going to get blown out of the water,’” Stavridis said. That “has an effect, all the way down to that young commanding officer” in “rules-of-engagement moments. … You potentially kind of create this short circuit,” he said. “I think it can be the same in diplomacy” or economics.
“Let me actually embrace the tweets,” said the Atlantic Council’s Frederick Kempe. “Unpredictability … can be useful politically “on many issues.” Still, “on the global stage, the U.S. has to be predictable. Its allies have to know where it stands. Its adversaries have to know where it stands.”
The “overarching” question for Kempe was, “Can we save, adjust, reinvigorate the global system of practices, values” that has included a cohesive Europe but is threatened by Russia and by upheaval from the Middle East? China’s role in weakening or strengthening a rules-based international regime will be critical, he said.
For Stavridis, cyber security will be a big challenge. “In cyber we have the greatest mismatch between the level of threat—which is quite high—and our level of preparation, which is quite low,” he said.
Senator Tom Cotton offered three “priorities that would fundamentally advantage the United States in strategic competition.” He suggested “substantial increases in our defense budget” and a “thorough-going review of our strategic posture,” notably in nuclear armament, because of recent Russian and Chinese nuclear-weapons developments. And, he urged, “accelerate the shale revolution in American energy production” to strengthen the United States as “a global energy superpower.”