With the accession of Donald John Trump to US Presidency, there could now be paradigm shift in the focus of American intelligence that would engage world attention. The new American leader’s unceasing skirmishes with the intelligence community could possibly accentuate in his early days of presidency but are also expected to taper off as he starts work with his new team to sediment his policy lines and re-establish American credentials in chosen zones of priority around the world.
The first task at hand could be to restructure the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created in the wake of the terror strikes in September 2001. Trump could possibly abolish or downgrade it to facilitate a direct cord of connects between the presidency and the intelligence and security services for seamless planning and well-monitored execution on ground.
President Trump’s sense of discomfiture with large existential ‘intelligence bureaucracy’ rolling out his global strategic schematics could take ‘direct monitoring’ to a noticeable new elevated level. Emerging priorities of a China-driven non-constant changing world order being suitably addressed could be a priority.
Trump’s ‘strategic quadrant’ to navigate a complex world outside North America, after their formal appointment, could be his Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson, Defence Secretary General James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn.
Amid new tensions in the American security and intelligence agencies, this high profile security team’s major concern would be to coalesce their temperamental boss’s world view with immanent capacities and forces on ground. These are in turn tempered by hitherto historically cultivated American alliances, including with Washington’s recognisable strategic partners within and outside of the NATO.
Such a thrust would be essential given the nature of feedback rendered by some experienced American pundits on US foreign policy. Trump had recently called upon the 93-year-old former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who significantly observed that “for the first time since the end of Second World War, the future relationship of America to the world is not fully settled”.
Whether such an outburst by a veteran master of global strategy was motivated by Trump’s lackadaisical assessment on NATO’s performance levels and machinations remains to be seen. Once the mandatory briefings and updating exercises are done with, questions of import needing answers would encompass US attitude towards Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Gulf Co-operation Council and Pakistan on one hand and India, Japan, South Korea and Australia on the other.
The UK and the European Union would continue to hold central focus for Washington, but Trump’s ‘security quadrant’ could also be tactically diverted to give equal priority to China’s real and virtual realm of unpredictability. This has been necessitated by China’s recent activities in the South China Sea.
The fact that a new set of tensions have now arisen for Taiwan, Vietnam and even India, could invoke incremental world focus on this region in the context of fresh curbs being surreptitiously imposed by China along vital sea lanes of communication.
Furthermore, any strategic future connects between South China Sea’s dynamics and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could in equal measure engage the US through rightful but risk-ridden interventions in times ahead.
If the first major press interfaces that Trump had since winning the election are indicative of the shape of things to come, media sensationalism could also at times take precedence over any calculated strategy to respond to these threat perceptions and linked realities. Hopefully, President Trump would soon realise that negatives of modern intelligence, including hacking and cyber world-linked threats, permeate the international gamut.
Often these emerge as more pervasive than the threat itself and are often laced with high vitriol emanating from combatants on both the sides. Lewd personal attacks are part and parcel of such campaigns that in turn magnify only the negatives.
The new President had his first taste of how the intelligence networks in the global space can hit back through devious devices like ‘systemic leaks’ when non-congruence between highest levels of authority in the capital and intelligence services sets to blur relationships and subsequently even policy formats.
President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump from their own diverse universes of command and control would accordingly soon realise that sustainably improving quality of bilateral connects is as difficult as ensuring that intelligence strategies among super powers credibly adhere to an optimal pathway from which both can benefit.
Mohan Das Menon
Former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat