It’s hard to know how President Donald Trump and his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, will respond to the kinds of unanticipated international events that have often upset even the best-laid plans of new administrations. But their books provide useful insights into the instincts and approaches that will guide them.
A very distinct worldview emerges from Trump’s book, which was originally published in 2015 (with the far less sunny title Crippled America) and then substantially revised and reissued during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump is a popular nationalist rather than an ideological one. He sees the United States as a community of people with shared customs, a shared history, and shared values rather than as a nation founded on a unique and particular set of ideas. In Trump’s view, the country must compete more vigorously in an international system in which all states naturally seek their own economic and security interests. Trump does not instinctively embrace the idea of a global liberal order based on economic interdependence and free trade. He evinces even less interest in the concept of a global cosmopolitan order buttressed by a universal commitment to human rights and democratic ideals.
Flynn shares Trump’s vision of an inherently chaotic and dangerous world. The first and most immediate threat comes from violent jihadism. Trump and Flynn both downplay the distinctions between Shiite and Sunni radicalism: Iran may be fighting the Islamic State (or ISIS), but in Trump’s and Flynn’s eyes, the two powers are more similar than different. Iran resembles what ISIS might become if it achieved true sovereignty, won diplomatic recognition, and settled down to build a collection of allies and sympathizers around the Middle East and the world.
China occupies second place in both men’s rankings of the top threats to U.S. interests and security. Russia places a distant third, and the hope of enlisting Moscow’s help against both radical jihadism and China might explain why Trump has positioned himself for yet another U.S.-Russian “reset.” Still, for Trump and Flynn, Russia’s alliance with Iran poses a major obstacle. (They appear far less concerned by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s attempts to undermine the NATO-backed European order.) The question of whether Russia can be pulled away from Iran is likely to occupy many minds in the early months of the new administration.
Trump’s elevation to the White House represents a profound break with the intellectual atmosphere and policy assumptions that have shaped two generations of American statecraft. Supporters of sustaining the liberal order have long argued that doing so, although difficult and expensive, represents the most practical and cost-effective method of furthering U.S. interests. Whether that logic will force itself on Trump and his team remains to be seen.