Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



All presidents, including Donald Trump after January 20, rely on the National Security Council (NSC) to help them make difficult decisions about U.S. foreign and national security policy. When a new president takes office, the character of the NSC will change to reflect his priorities. It's especially so when the new chief executive represents a different political party.

Mr. Trump's selection of his national security team suggests he desires competent, experienced people heading the departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security. His choice for national security adviser has extensive experience in military intelligence, and his selection for Director of National Intelligence is a former senator with experience on Capitol Hill.

Critics express concern that three of Trump's choices are senior military men that suggest hard-line policies against adversaries like Russia and China. The doubters say two other choices are, like Trump, billionaires who could put business and financial considerations ahead of the nation's security interests.

Rex Tillerson, current president of Exxon-Mobile Corporation, General James Mattis, former top commander of U.S. forces in South Asia, General John Kelly, former commander of U.S. forces in the Western Hemisphere, and Dan Coats, a former senator, are the key members of Trump's team. Tillison is slated to be secretary of State, Mattis will head the department of Defense, Jones will be in charge of the Homeland Security department, and Coats will be Director of National Intelligence. These are experienced, successful leaders in their professions.

Senate confirmation hearings for NSC selections will give the public a clearer view of their strengths and alleged weaknesses to fill these important cabinet positions. What seems apparent is that Mr. Trump intends to pursue a harder line in foreign and national defense policy than did Barack Obama, who preferred not to use, or threaten to use, military force to support his diplomacy.

A major question that remains unknown until after January 20 is this: How will he use his national security team to advance U.S. national interests with our adversaries, Russia, China, Iran, and perhaps Turkey?

Regarding Russia's Vladimir Putin, will President Trump persuade him that Ukraine and the Baltic States cannot be subverted without triggering a confrontation with the United States? Will Rex Tillerson, who has dealt with Putin as a businessman, convince him that Russia risks war if he attempts to turn Estonia or Ukraine into client states?

Similarly, will Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei be persuaded by Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis that the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf will fire on the next Iranian ship that interferes with its transiting in international waters? Will U.S. forces oppose Iran's Revolutionary Guards' blatant efforts to undermine America's allies in Iraq and Syria?

As for China, will President Trump persuade Xi Jinping that North Korea's nuclear threats will not be tolerated; that its development of an IBM threatens Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. will trigger a military response? To the south, will General Mattis be authorized to sail an aircraft carrier through international waters in the South China Sea in defiance of China's claims of sovereignty and its harassment of U.S. ships?

In the Western Hemisphere, especially in Central America, will General Jones, as Homeland Security secretary, be instructed by the president to put a stop to the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border, and to deal more effectively with massive drug smuggling that affects national security?

Finally, will Mr. Trump confront Turkey's Recep Erdogan who is becoming an autocrat in this key NATO country? Erdogan recently joined Vladimir Putin in brokering a peace settlement in Syria without U.S. participation. He has the capability to threaten Europe, especially Germany; by turning loose additional thousands of Syrian refugees that cannot be accommodated in Turkey. Will Trump threaten sanctions and loss of security guarantees if Erdogan persists in his pro-Russia anti-U.S. policies?

These are momentous foreign policy decisions that face the Trump administration on January 20. Few doubt that the new president will follow a more robust foreign policy than did Barack Obama. Still, the key questions remain: How much tougher and will Trump be, especially on Russia, and when would he employ military power to back up his new diplomacy?

File last modified on Monday, 3-JAN-2017 8:45 AM EST

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