LONDON – Are you watching this, today? Does Brexit have your attention? If you’re reading this in Defense One, you’re likely a national security professional of some kind, or at least a fanboy or fangirl of foreign policy. And if you’re scared by the Brexit vote and Trump’s parallel middle-finger message to the world, then it’s time you stop blaming the masses who support them and start blaming yourself.
Here’s a suggestion for you. Read on, and learn why Americans and Britons are feeling so disconnected from your sage national security advice. Then close this page and start talking to your neighbors, your family, your friends about what you do and why it’s important — and why the policies you want will make America great again. Because that’s what Donald Trump is doing. He’s including them. And you’re not. Not well enough, at least.
In London in April, nearly every security leader at the Aspen Security Forum: Global event opposed leaving the European Union, and all but dismissed the prospect. Why would Great Britain give up a seat at the global intelligence and security table and start over on its own? A vote for Brexit would cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. (The nose being integrated law enforcement, intelligence, and military security operations.)
Sound familiar? In the United States, nearly every serious national security leader in Washington is against a Commander in Chief Donald Trump. Even the GOP leaders coming out to vote for their nameless “party nominee” say they worry most about Trump’s national-security stances, like banning Muslims, being willing to use nuclear weapons against the Islamic State, scrapping NATO. In the past week, neocon godfather Robert Kagan began organizing for Hillary Clinton while conservative author Max Boot whaled away at Trump in a Los Angeles Times column:
“Trump is an ignorant demagogue who traffics in racist and misogynistic slurs and crazy conspiracy theories. He champions protectionism and isolationism — the policies that brought us the Great Depression and World War II. He wants to undertake a police-state roundup of undocumented immigrants and to bar Muslims from coming to this country. He encourages his followers to assault protesters and threatens to sue or smear critics. He would abandon Japan and South Korea and break up the most successful alliance in history — NATO. But he has kind words for tyrants such as Vladimir Putin.
There has never been a major party nominee in U.S. history as unqualified for the presidency. The risk of Trump winning, however remote, represents the biggest national security threat that the United States faces today.”
And yet, Trump lives. And Brexit happened.
Why are you still shocked? You haven’t seen this coming for more than a year? A decade? Two decades?
Here’s the skinny. “There is a parallel between the Trump phenomenon and the Brexit phenomenon,” says Steve Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, and the foremost surveyor of public attitudes on foreign policy issues. “The recurring theme is the sense that there are decisions that are being made that don’t serve the interest of the people,” he said. Furthermore, “The process by which choices are made isn’t democratic, isn’t oriented to the common good,” and simply doesn’t consult the people. “So you get people trying to decide between Trump or [Bernie] Sanders,” he said, candidates with polar opposite policies but similarly anti-establishment.
In other words, it’s not that they don’t agree with some of your policies. It’s that they were never asked. They’re not part of your system and they feel they are being asked to sacrifice for something they had no part in. You elites want America leading the world on everything, it seems to them, and none of you asked the masses, who feel they’re paying for your globalization fantasy in high taxes, unchecked immigration, unsecure borders, lost jobs, and every other complaint you’ve heard. But some of you think they’re just plain isolationists and that’s not it, either.
“Isolationism isn’t the right description for what they’re talking about,” says Kull. “It’s anti-American exceptionalism.”
Voters for Trump – like for Brexit – who seem to be among the most nationalistic are willing to give up some American power in the world in exchange for a better America back home. Kull said he repeatedly hears in focus groups the complaint “that we subordinate too much to maintain this world order,” and “We’re doing more than our share.” What he hears is: “‘We’ve been spending too much on the dreams of the foreign policy elite, their narrative, their preoccupation of being dominant.’ [Trump] says I’m ready to give that up so as to keep our resources.”
Wake up, Massachusetts Avenue.
If you think your positions on national security are right – meaning, good for the country – then you need to do a much better job of convincing the American electorate. White papers, conferences, and policy summits (like we at Defense One proudly stage) help you do some of your job in town. But outside the Beltway, the country doesn’t hear you and feels left out. Find a way to reach them, and you just might be able to change their minds. Or, better yet, not have to.
Kull’s team long ago realized if you asked the general public their thoughts on complex foreign policy issues, most are unqualified to give a response. But if you educate them, they make decisions far more aligned with the elites. Kull’s group set up “citizen cabinets” in eight states that have put 7,000 people through a sort of hybrid workshop debate, with good results.
“We brief them on an issue, we present them all the arguments pro and con, and then make the recommendations based on tradeoffs” on complex issues like Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. What happens? Kull’s teams found “they are able to handle it very well.”
He said the format was especially useful to get true public opinion on the Iran nuclear deal. Kull said polls were returning “incoherent” results; the change of a single word in the question could produce vastly different results. But put through a citizen cabinet, voters began to trust the policy options present to them more.
That helps get by the original bias against elites making all the choices. Kull said people would say, of TPP, “They’re ready to sacrifice middle class interests to corporations, so I’m going to resist the kind of thing that corporations like.” On immigration, for example, the suspicion is that U.S. elites have created policy that is letting in cheap labor to serve corporations, and that doesn’t serve the interests of working class. But if someone – ahem – would just explain to plain folks what’s behind these policies, on global security matters those that go through the exercise prove to be more willing to cooperate w other nations on issues, or work through the United Nations, and give up some America First-ness in exchange for getting other countries to pay up more.
“Trump is playing on that. He’s speaking to that,” Kull said.
He certainly is. In his morning-after statement about the UK vote, Trump said: “They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy. … Come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first. They will have the chance to reject today’s rule by the global elite, and to embrace real change that delivers a government of, by and for the people.”
Hear that? He’s offering Americans a way into the process, and for many voters that’s more important than his actual policies.
“It’s not that they agree exactly with his foreign policy, where he ends up—this America first posture that has an isolationist tone there,” Kull said. “They don’t want to end up there. They do want to be engaged, but there’s something they don’t like about how it’s done. It’s subtler.”
A few of you get it. This weekend, TruCon is happening – the annual Washington conference where Truman National Security Project members from around the country discuss their policy goals before heading back into their communities to spread a liberal-left version of foreign policy, national security, and other issues. But Truman fellows, arguably, are the elites – an exclusive membership club of about 1,500 people designed to teach and breed public officer holders and other leaders to spread their gospel. Left or right, it’s a good start for anyone interested in seeing the spread of national security to the masses, and it’s based off an older Republican model of good-old-boy networks. But it’s not nearly enough.
I’d look to another successful network: the U.S. military. The military spends millions on recruiting, and for good reason. From ROTC in high schools to NASCAR hoods, NFL stadiums and recruitment offices in every strip mall, career fair, and job board they can find, the U.S. military is out there shaping American minds. Now try to imagine the security national-security version of that.
American school children learn about U.S. government. But not all are required to learn about U.S. global leadership. They are not required to take courses in current events, foreign policy, international relations, global institutions, nongovernment organizations, the Middle East, China’s rising power, economics, military history, development, poverty, transnational diseases, global climate change, foreign markets, diplomacy, foreign languages and cultures. The list goes on.
According to Kull’s research, if Americans were allowed to go through a “citizens cabinet” for so many of these issues, then they’d likely come out the other side far more often agreeing – and voting – alongside the national security elites, instead of rejecting them.
Pick up your jaws and stop Twitter-shaming voters who don’t agree with you and wanted out of the E.U., or who see a way into the system through Trump. Most Americans aren’t on Twitter either, by the way, you’re just talking to yourselves, there.
If you want Americans (or Britons) to be more aware, involved, and trusting of your leadership on national security issues, start something that would change the foundational beliefs of Americans. Start a movement; a better conversation. Make your case and talk to the people more than you talk to each other. But you’d better do it outside of Washington. There are a lot of Americans outside of Washington. Just stop acting so surprised.