U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is rumored to be on his way out. The reason appears to be McMaster’s endorsement of the view that the Russians engaged in a disinformation campaign designed to create instability in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump is highly sensitive to this claim because of the implication that the disinformation campaign helped him get elected. Whether or not that is true is unimportant for our purposes. Trump, like any politician, is sensitive to anything that challenges his legitimacy in office, and he expects absolute loyalty from subordinates.
Senior government officials come and go, and it rarely matters. One suit replaces another, and life goes on. At this moment, however, the fate of McMaster is somewhat more important. The job of the national security adviser is to coordinate all of the elements involved in national security, including the State and Defense Departments, the intelligence agencies and any other part of the federal government that touches on such matters. He is the president’s chief adviser in foreign policy, the channel through which the views of the departments and agencies are filtered, and above all, the person who enforces the president’s foreign policy throughout all relevant entities.
The national security adviser has become a particularly sensitive role. It is always hard to control the agencies, but at a time when the CIA and the FBI appear to be in occasional confrontation with the president over the Russia issue, it has become even harder. The intelligence and security agencies have to continue to carry out their primary mission – gathering intelligence and conducting counterintelligence – while also communicating their activities to the president. Given the tension, the president lacks trust in the intelligence and it’s McMaster who has to keep the system functioning while a confrontation with the president is underway. The riptides of politics are enormous.
Even more important, the United States is facing old and new foreign policy issues that are inherently contentious. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Trump administration’s various policies is the continuity they share with the policies of previous administrations. Rhetoric aside, the U.S. relationship with NATO and Russia is not materially different than it was during Barack Obama’s administration. The same is true in the Middle East, with insufficient forces pursuing an unclear goal. The U.S. and China continue to bicker over trade relations. And nothing violent has happened in North Korea, with the Trump administration pursuing the same cautious attempts to shape Pyongyang’s policies that were pursued by previous administrations.
Much of this continuity can be attributed to bureaucratic inertia. An argument could be made that all of these issues require more aggressive handling. But it is very difficult to move anything as vast and diffuse as U.S. foreign policy. Another reason for the continuity is that Trump appointed three people to run U.S. foreign policy who are inherently cautious. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resisted more aggressive policies when he was a top military commander during Obama’s administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson comes from outside of the foreign policy establishment and has had to catch up to its subtleties. He heads the department that is least respected by the Trump administration, with attempts being made to slash its budget and its staff.
McMaster is also a cautious and meticulous man. He is the author of a book called “Dereliction of Duty,” which eviscerated the Johnson administration’s handling of the Vietnam War and, in particular, criticized the spread of dishonest information. It appears that, for McMaster, orderly and honest flow of information must be maintained at any cost. The paradox is that the more information you have, the more unwilling you become to make major changes. But at the moment, the flow of information is far more important than innovations in foreign policy.
McMaster has been critical in creating processes that maintain stability. That isn’t to say there haven’t been turf battles over foreign policy. It’s rumored that Mattis and McMaster see some things very differently. Mattis is said to be more cautious on Korea, McMaster more aggressive. Such differences are common and healthy. In fact, they create healthy, creative tension between important foreign policy figures – far better than consensus.
The problem is that it’s difficult to imagine how the continuity of U.S. policy could be maintained if someone very different than McMaster took over his position. One of the things causing tension between the president and some of his advisers has been that the president wants them to be political, and they won’t be. That’s the case here and it’s the ability and willingness of McMaster to resist the temptation to become political – as others hadn’t – that has been a stabilizing force.
In general, our view is that the people running the government come and go, but U.S. foreign policy is driven by geopolitical necessity, constraining decision-makers from making many changes they might otherwise want to make. I will not argue that McMaster is indispensable. But with the president confronting the Russian disinformation issue, and with a range of foreign policy issues likely to shift of their own weight, any degree of instability in U.S. foreign policy could have an impact. North Korea, Russia, China and the Middle East are all under pressure, and the U.S. has thus far been restrained. At a time when the foreign policy institutions of the U.S. are themselves in flux, increasing that flux could have consequences.
This is not a world-changing event, but every event need not be world-changing. It is simply noteworthy in the sense that institutional instability can have some impact on regions that don’t need any more impacts.