A Master Brander enters the world of international security.
In October 2015 Bill Clinton, appearing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, was asked by Colbert to explain the apparent momentum gathering around Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination. Back when it was still mandatory in polite circles to deride and dismiss the very idea. Clinton’s insightful answer, though, was that Trump was a “Master Brander”, and that the essence of the Trump brand could be a simple, macho, “I make things happen” appeal. Trump’s expert use of his personal brand has since been widely cited in dissecting the reasons for his extraordinary election win.
Think of the US-led international security order, for a moment, as a brand. Like any brand, the post-WWII American security architecture consisted partially of a complex of accepted and reproducible institutional facts. Formal treaties, informal hand-shakes, rhetoric and assurances, underpinned by the physical presence of US military personnel and hardware which included the existential threat posed by America’s nuclear arsenal. All sitting under the relatively uncomplicated strategic rationale of the threat of Soviet expansionist aggression. Complexes of institutional facts, like brands, always derive at some point from physical facts. The things people accept and reproduce about the world have a strong abiding relationship with the world that just is. It’s just that often that connection is inarticulate. With the passage of enough time, however, that relationship becomes absolute.
The end of the Cold War posed a grave challenge to the American brand of international security leadership. After 1991 the US temporarily recast itself as global security ‘manager’. Not quite the same ring as ‘Defender of the Free World’. The next decade combined a confusing array of branding messages. A display of overwhelming military superiority in defence of Kuwait, while a brutal dictator remained in place. A tactical embarrassment in Mogadishu. A conspicuous non-intervention in Rwanda. The cautious and reluctant application of air-power in the Balkans. It wasn’t until the galvanizing impact of 2001 that some continuity returned, but subsequent events and actions taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations have not forestalled the precipitous corrosion of the brand. America’s allies, competitors, rivals, and enemies have taken note.
The brand analogy is not as trivial as it sounds. Outside of an actual shooting war, contests for influence based on security are essentially narrative wars. The nuclear threat that defined the Cold War was a contest of competing narratives about the capability and will of either side to commit unthinkable destruction, while both were equally horrified at the idea. Still, enormous economic resources were deployed to insure the capability and many a small or proxy war was fought to communicate the will. The post-9/11 international security landscape is now basically a three-pronged narrative contest about counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency, cyber insecurity, and yes, still nukes (more ‘usable’ nukes). This landscape is even more defined by doubt and uncertainty than the previous era. With the advent of cyber, perhaps any era. Cyber weapons, in contrast to nuclear weapons, are at their most powerful when doubt about their existence and capabilities is overwhelming. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the US to deploy its offensive suite because cyber weapons are self-depleting. An exploited vulnerability becomes known and patched very quickly and thus, no longer a vulnerability.
Brands are essentially an aggregation of multiple disparate ideas connecting to reality in sometimes inarticulate ways. That this new era of strategic competition is struck through with doubt may have some interesting ramifications for the American security brand. The Obama doctrine in contrast, and in aggregate, provided US rivals and enemies with a level of certainty about American (in)action. Russia and China took the opportunity, rare in international relations, of a window of increased certainty to take calculated risks from which they have demonstrably benefited. It’s not disputed, on the other hand, that a big part of Trump’s shtick is a manufactured unpredictability. In addition, recent actions in Syria and Afghanistan are clearly designed to signal the United States has dispensed with the Obama era’s overtly prudent stance on the use of demonstrative violence. Obama was no dove, but his brand of violence was one for the shadows.
Proof of the centrality of the narrative war will be evident to anyone following the threads of the online information war that sprung up immediately after the cruise-missile strike in Syria, and the MOAB strike in Afghanistan. This was a demonstration of force by the US Navy and Air Force, with a distinct subtext regarding the level of precision-strike available to US leaders, particularly against hardened and underground targets. Russian media was quick to down-play their efficacy. Half the missiles apparently went astray, and of course the Syrian Air Force was using the base 24 hours later. US forces have used the public domain repeatedly over the last decade or so to showcase their high-tech prowess. In one example, footage was released in 2014 by USCENTCOM of an F-22 striking ISIS targets in Syria with a remarkable level of precision. In the footage, the first two missiles penetrate the target while the following two missiles enter through the apertures created. It was the combat debut of the $150 million Raptor, with the strike that included a Navy cruise-missile barrage reportedly costing $79 million. Media reports questioned the necessity of using the Raptor while other cheaper 4th generation platforms as well as unmanned drones might have sufficed. The fact remains that these demonstrations have a subtext regarding the nuclear counter-force mission, and US capacity to strike hardened and underground targets. The B61-12 was recently tested again for good measure. Nuclear aspirants have been duly advised. Mature nuclear states will have taken note.
If we were to understand US security policy as a branding exercise, how might our assessment of the skill set of Donald Trump, the ‘Master Brander’, and its appropriateness at this particular juncture in history change? In what ways, if at all, did the Syrian and Afghan strikes alter the calculus of the North Koreans regarding their proposed 6th nuclear test? And what do we make of their failed (?) missile test? We’ll likely never pin down these connections. If North Korea tests a bomb or missile in the near term, given the well understood risks of even a limited strike by the US escalating out of control, how might an offensive cyber operation be considered? Is it an ideal alternative to a kinetic strike, given the strategic alcove the Trump administration has talked itself into? Do they even have an option? Or is keeping the cyber powder dry so-to-speak an imperative?
Some are suggesting Trump’s team is actually getting this right. Mattis and McMaster are irreproachable characters. Kissinger has said, somewhat cryptically, that Trump had an ‘extraordinary opportunity’ and could go down as a ‘very considerable President’. He and others have described a security vacuum on the international stage left by the previous administration. If Obama’s cool-headed rationalism regarding the limits of American power, and his determination to resist ascribing a US role in everything amounted to ‘leaving a vacuum’, what does that tell us about the nature of international security? One unchanging observation seems forthcoming. The last thing anyone wants to do is actually test the physical facts that underlie the institutional facts of the security order. Testing it means coming face-to-face with power, not just stories about power. But this means that opting out of aspects of the perpetual narrative war that we find irrational or unnecessary or, as Obama argued, presupposing of endless cycles of violence, is actually an error that could incite worse outcomes. Trump has internalised the lessons of brand success. His career has literally lived, almost died, and been revived by their tenets. He is already flying closer to the sun than any of his predecessors. It’s far too early to assess Trump’s impact on the security order and America’s place in it. The re-branding of American power is nonetheless clearly underway, and its in the hands of somebody who knows a thing or two about it.