The United States is so divided that the election of a new President has become a cause of mourning for half the population. To me, Donald Trump’s election feels like Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush over Al Gore — only worse. It’s impossible for people like me to forget how Trump claimed this prize. But there are ways to forgive him.
The Arms Control Enterprise is all about ironies, both cruel and surprisingly positive. Earlier, I had offered the hope that a newly elected President Hillary Clinton and a Democratic-controlled Senate might set the table for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I didn’t fully factor in Clinton fatigue, Russian hacking, James Comey, and Julian Assange.
President-elect Trump and a Senate narrowly controlled by Republicans could make CTBT ratification happen with ease. No other move would so clearly upend the campaign image of Trump’s impulsive finger on the nuclear “button.” Trump could also cut spending for nuclear excess far more easily than Clinton and work out a deal with buddy Vladimir Putin for another round of strategic arms reductions. Put another way, perhaps Donald Trump could pull a Ronald Reagan on us. Or do none of the above, while ripping up the Iran agreement for good measure.
Reagan and Bush 43 could avail themselves with the company of experienced dealmakers to offset ideologues. During this campaign, Trump, the nominal author of The Art of the Deal, has projected little sense of need for help in this department, while drawing unfortunate company to his side. Now, much depends on the company he keeps on national security issues as President.
Reagan’s breakthroughs came when the dealmakers around him beat down the ideologues. There was always a “Being There” quality to his presidency. Reagan didn’t immerse himself in particulars, and yet he and Mikhail Gorbachev broke the back of the arms race. There was no bigger and more pleasant surprise in the history of the Arms Control Enterprise.
The presidency of George H.W. Bush demonstrated mastery in foreign affairs. Bush 43’s presidency was a different story, a sad tale of accepting terrible advice from experienced power brokers. Stunned by 9/11, unfettered by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and enthusiastic about democracy-building, Bush led the country into a reckless, tragic war in Iraq, opening cauldrons of factionalism and extremism in the greater Middle East.
So, what will it be — bad outcomes or pleasant surprises in the Trump presidency? Arms control obstructionists and deconstructionists might think they’ve found a new soul mate in the White House, but they – and we — have no idea what to expect from the Trump administration. Even his homilies on nuclear issues backfired on the campaign trail, as he conveyed little understanding of these topics.
All we can say with certainty is that a president who knows little of the world – and who has not cared to learn much more during this long campaign – will assume office in desperate need of wise counsel, which he may or may not accept. Trump has said many reprehensible things during his run for the White House. Hope resides in the possibility that he never really meant much of what he said, or that he can be persuaded to repackage these pronouncements by the harsh realities he is about to encounter, with the help of sensible counsel.
The procession of Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 relied on the counsel of Bigfoots like James Baker, George Shultz, Paul Nitze, Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Frank Carlucci, and Robert Gates. This cohort, some of whom also worked for Democratic presidents, is behind us. Their shoes haven’t been filled.
There is a parallel diminishment of national security experience and talent on Capitol Hill. If Trump offers Senator Bob Corker the job of Secretary of State, the next person in line to run the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be Jim Risch, an American First-er in the tradition of another Chairman from Idaho during the interwar years, William Borah. Borah opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations and hewed to isolationism as war clouds gathered in Europe.
This is not just a Republican or a Democratic problem; it’s an American problem. Trump’s consiglieres are Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. On national security, he speaks highly of “America’s angriest general,” Mike Flynn, and John Bolton. If we are fortunate, Trump will seek and persuade the likes of Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, to join his team.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 30, 2016.