A stranger at the feast

No deal for the deal-maker.

For more than three decades, Donald Trump has dreamt of making a deal with Russia (then USSR) regarding nuclear weapons. Team up on non-proliferation, and then set about disarmament. Or something. Multiple motivations have been at play. Among them are Trump’s self-assessment as having an innate talent for deal-making, his assessment that Washington’s security community elites are talentless public sector ladder-climbers, his stated fears in the late eighties of accelerating and proliferating nuclear technology and its potential in the hands of madmen, and an impatience with the arcane world of nuclear deterrence.

Michael Flynn, quite late in his career, situated himself as something of a rogue in relation to America’s security community establishment on a number of positions. Evidently, his views on the prospects of a grand American re-alignment with Russia for combating Islamic extremism seem to have dove-tailed nicely with Trump’s long-standing quest, as well as the world view and predispositions of others in the Trump team, notably Bannon. Hence Flynn’s elevation to national security advisor, his behind the scenes work with Russia, and his now public and incredibly ham-fisted downfall as a result of the non-disclosures to the Vice President and President.

The unfortunate problem for this freshly minted administration is that this rogue position, smuggled into the WH behind Trump’s Trojan Horse and Bannon’s vaunted but quickly unravelling cloak of darkness and distraction, is badly misconceived. Very briefly, Islamic extremism is not a strategic threat to the US, any military alliance with Russia to ‘defeat’ it would be pointless and dangerous, and a broader strategic alliance would be a staggering over-estimation of a declining Russia. An additionally weighty problem is that the Pentagon, the US intelligence community, and most of the bureaucracy, otherwise known as the ‘deep state’, simply has no intention of being either co-opted or railroaded to this position. It won’t happen. The sheer operational clumsiness with which this eclectic mix of rogues, ideologues, and snake-charmers is executing The Plan (sic) makes for short shrift. Most expect the unravelling to continue.

Whatever glimmer of hope existed that Trump’s unconventional approach to both domestic and foreign affairs might usher in, perhaps by default, a welcome return to some form of pragmatic realism seem dashed, notwithstanding Mattis’ steady hand recently in East Asia and with NATO. Further US consolidation in these critical regions is needed in concert with greater burden sharing by frontier partners. The good news is, opportunities abound to further embed and enmesh allies and partners in functional and resilient networks that promote strategic stability.

Trump’s dissatisfaction with the nuclear status quo in 1987 seemed genuine. No-one would begrudge an out-of-the-box thinker a shot at evolving such an unsustainable situation. Plenty of well-intentioned, smart people have tried. Most have disabused themselves of the fantasy. Theorists long ago dismissed the power of individual agency at this level. The intent in Trump to get that shot has evidently endured for three decades, and the imperious braggadocio too. The unravelling of his administration would need to be stemmed fast. The disentanglement of Trump’s nuclear dream from Bannon’s neo-reactionary agenda would also seem a prerequisite, as would a much clearer-headed assessment of Russia’s intentions. These aims might already be beyond reach. Trump’s nuclear dream is one of his most unimpeachable instincts, even if it is a fantasy. The state’s power is a well-attended feast. Some part of Donald Trump might already be feeling like the stranger. All over again.

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