Donald Trump made a big deal about his new National Security Strategy (NSS), touting a new era of stalwart vigilance when he delivered a speech earlier this week. His predecessors, he said, had frittered away American dominance. He, and he alone, as Trump likes to say, would restore it. Except, as his national security council spokesman Michael Anton, explained on Monday, when it came to the actual document:
‘I can’t say that he’s read every line and every word. He certainly had the document …and has been briefed on it.’
Hmmm. Give points to Anton for trying to put the best spin on matters without purveying any falsehoods. But presumably the president should be abreast of a document that, as the New York Times put it, essentially calls for a return to the cold war, targeting both Russia and China as adversaries. In his speech, however, Trump swerved markedly away from the tough notes sounded in the NSS to talk about the potential for peace with America’s adversaries.
The back and forth served to underscore once again that the Trump administration is a house divided on foreign policy, starting with the president himself. It zigs when it wants to zag and zags when it wants to zig. There’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing that talking with North Korea would be a good idea. Then the White House says it isn’t. And so on. What to do?
One of the things that has been missing in the administration is any outreach to the kind of wise men—George F. Kennan, Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford, Brent Scowcroft, and so on – that previous presidents would seek out for counsel. Dean Acheson met with his old nemesis Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, would provide Barack Obama with outside counsel. Henry Kissinger has been to the White House a few times, but there is no sense that the president or his advisers are really interested in outside counsel. It’s a remarkably solipsistic administration, but then again, given Trump’s congenital solipsism, this probably shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.
But it won’t do. To diss China, as the national security document does, and then to call upon it for help in containing North Korea is to elevate self-contradictions to an art form. My suggestion for at least one person that Trump should touch base with is Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg, the former CEO and chairman of AIG and currently the chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co. The ninety-two year-old business titan is close friends with Kissinger and has conferred with many presidents, including Richard M. Nixon and George H.W. Bush. He travels abroad regularly, including to China. I recently visited him in New York to interview him for the National Interest and Greenberg, who recently met with Chinese president Xi, made a number of important points.
He argues that Trump is making a mistake in vociferously stating ‘America First’ and that a shrewder policy would be to seek good relations with China while insisting that it use its influence to rein in North Korea. Greenberg, who fought in World War II, believes that in assessing North Korea it’s important to remember that ‘had Europe, France and the United States acted on a timely basis and stopped Hitler before he really started, World War II might have been avoided and millions of people would have been saved. Failure to act is not a great strategy.’
At the same time, Greenberg sounds an alarm about the state of America. ‘What is happening here? During my lifetime I’ve never seen the country so divided. Two totally different countries. We are declining until we get that turned around.’ Greenberg’s worry is that China will actually surpass America as a great power unless Washington can promote economic growth and improve the educational system:
‘We are living in an era where machines are going to take over human jobs. We have to change our education system. They are creating more jobs in China than we are in the high-tech era.’
So far, there are zero signs that the Trump administration is heeding such counsel. But if Trump truly does want to make America great again, he would do well to turn to an older generation of wise men. He could start with Hank Greenberg.