Seven weeks past an election that stirred talk of U.S. isolationism, national security aides from the incoming, outgoing and previous administrations held private discussions January 9 that found a broad point of consensus: The United States must lead more, not less, in the world. The meetings, among more than 80 past, present and future officials and independent foreign policy analysts, opened a bi-partisan conference on national security issues convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and five foreign policy think tanks. Strikingly, after a sharply divisive election campaign, “the mood in the room was collegial” between figures from the two administrations, an attendee said. Across the lines of party and administration, participants declared themselves “committed to the success” of the incoming Trump team, he said.
The two-day event, called “Passing the Baton,” continues today with an on-the-record conference that is being livestreamed. USIP is hosting the discussions along with the American Enterprise Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation.
The Jan. 9 discussions, held under the “Chatham House Rule,” which keeps the identity of specific speakers confidential, were attended by USIP experts who served as rapporteurs, describing the themes and tenor of the talks. The participants gathered over dinner in several groups led by figures such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former National Security Advisors Stephen Hadley and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Participants from the incoming administration included National Security Advisor Designate Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, his intended deputy K.T. McFarland, and Thomas Barrack, chairman of President-elect Trump's inaugural committee.
While the talks touched on individual headline issues of national security—Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and terrorism—the real questions were broader: What should the U.S. role be in an international system that is moving away from the 70-year-old framework that American power and policies helped establish after World War II? And what will be the place in any new framework for values such as democracy or free markets? While the talks re-affirmed that the next administration's foreign policy will be significantly different, the conversation included no calls for an American withdrawal, even partial, from the world stage.
'Asymmetric' Threats and 'Fragile' States
Speakers voiced a broad sense that the U.S. is not fully prepared for the mutations in the international architecture. These include growing “asymmetric” threats—big and non-traditional risks posed by small actors—some of which the U.S. and its allies may barely recognize. U.S. protections against cyberattacks were discussed at length. Speakers wondered how vulnerable may be the U.S. financial system, or basic infrastructures such as the global positioning system (GPS), which “the U.S. military uses like air,” a rapporteur reported. At least one participant asked whether the government may need a cabinet officer to jump-start cyber defense.
A rising threat is “fragile” states—by some measures 50 or so countries around the world where ineffective governments are failing to meet their people's needs, settle internal conflicts and sustain their own legitimacy. Fragile states are where the world's war and poverty are concentrated, meaning that the United States and allied donor nations need, for their own stability, to help fragile states improve their governance. Only that can prevent the wars, massive refugee flight, epidemics of disease and other crises exported by fragile or failing states. While extreme cases may require the “hard” security help of military interventions, the solutions mainly come through the “soft power” of more just and inclusive politics and active civil societies, some speakers noted. Yet U.S. and international resources are invested much less in soft-power capacities.
Policy Change—and Partisanship
The discussions predictably underscored that policy changes are coming under the new administration—but not necessarily on every issue that ignited election-campaign argument.
“I heard a healthy undertone,”one rapporteur said, including readiness from both sides of the political party divide for a re-thinking of foreign policy issues that have seen sharp disputes. Incoming officials expressed “care about which fences you tear down, because you can see that they were put there for a reason in the first place,” he said.
The broad policy changes discussed include those reported for months: a critical examination of U.S. alliances, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and a focus on strengthening the economic basis for U.S. engagement with the world. The Trump administration will try a tighter melding of national security, trade and economic policies. Plans for increased defense budgets raised queries in the discussion about how U.S. spending will be prioritized.
Republicans, Democrats and independents among the speakers agreed that the new administration and Congress must revive a degree of bipartisanship in foreign policy that has eroded. America's foreign policy debates have been “more partisan than is safe” for national security, one rapporteur recounted. “This needs to be addressed early,” said another. Only bipartisan policies can build the staying power—over decades or a generation—required to defuse or prevent complex crises that can threaten stability abroad and U.S. security, participants said. It is an argument also made by former Secretary of State Albright, a Democrat, and former National Security Advisor Hadley, a Republican, in an opinion essay for Politico Magazine co-authored with USIP President Nancy Lindborg.
After the “fog of democracy”—heated rhetoric and frequent confusion amid the election campaign—some of the Jan. 9 participants urged the new administration to hone a clear message about its strategic vision, and a clear communications style to deliver it.
“A bit of uncertainty about the U.S. direction is not a disaster; it can be an asset in negotiations” with other actors, a rapporteur said, reflecting the discussions. “But we should avoid any degree of uncertainty that might lead our allies to start hedging their support for the U.S.”
A clarity of vision and communication also is vital at home, speakers said, to make a domestic case that America's engagement, and the international institutions through which it works every day, are good for Americans' collective welfare.
“Americans need to understand that these are problems that, even if the locus of them seems to be far away, they end up on America's doorstep,” Hadley said in an interview on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel previewing the “Passing the Baton” conference. “It's better if we're engaged in managing those problems and leading the global response early rather than late.” With a belated response, he added, “the costs are higher in terms of blood and treasure.”
For clear messaging, some speakers urged that President-elect Trump's habit of sending rather spontaneous Twitter messages should be curbed. Several reportedly stressed that President Trump should show he has absorbed the “dignity” of the office.
The positive mood in discussions included “some papering over of real differences, for example on Russia,” a rapporteur said. “There is still a chasm” between the views of opposing sides. But “there was comity. People in the room know each other. They're on a first-name basis,” the rapporteur reported.