Changing National Security Challenges in the Trump Administration

By Hermann, Oliver | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring/Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Changing National Security Challenges in the Trump Administration


Hermann, Oliver, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Thomas E. Donilon

Former National Security Advisor

United States of America

Providence, RI, 18 November 2016

Thomas E. Donilon served as National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama until June 2013. In that capacity, he oversaw the National Security Council staff, chaired the cabinet-level National Security Principals Committee, provided the President's daily national security briefing, and was responsible for the coordination and integration of the Obama administration's foreign policy, intelligence, and military efforts. Donilon has worked closely with and advised three U.S. presidents since his first position at the White House in 1977.

Mr. Donilon is currently vice chair of the international law firm O'Melveny & Myers, where he serves on the firm's global governing committee, as well as senior director at the BlackRock Investment Institute. He is also a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonresident senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board and the Central Intelligence Agency's External Advisory Board.

Brown Journal ofWorld Affairs: With President-elect Trump currently putting together his administration, and given your experience leading the transition at the State Department for President Obama, could you talk a bit about how the presidential transition unfolds?

Donilon: Well, the transition is obviously critical, and there are different ele- ments to it. The first is personnel-it's a cliché, but personnel is policy. The president-elect will be looking for different qualities depending on his vision for any particular agency. The most important thing I think we can learn from the history of national security organizations is the importance of building a team. There's a lot of conversation about this term "team of rivals," but history shows that if you have a group of individuals who can work as a team-a group of individuals where everyone is committed to working through the process that is set up-that's the path to success in national security. And again, there are good examples of this. For example, I think that President George H.W. Bush's national security apparatus is considered to be among the best. His administration had a team that worked very well- coordinated by General Brent Scowcroft, who is regarded as the best National Security Advisor. He executed the National Security Advisor's role as a manager, as someone who was evenhanded and an honest broker. And you had very prominent cabinet officers in Jim Baker and Dick Cheney, with Colin Powell as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it was very much an effective team effort. That's the key: to purposely regard it as a team from the beginning. Secondly, the process is important. These foreign policy issues and decisions are so multidimensional, and so many aspects of them require so much foresight-so much anticipatory work-that you need to have a process with all the right people at the table. Historically, when you look at the most serious foreign policy errors, at the root of each you'll probably find a process error-where the right people weren't at the table discussing the right issues in the right order. So I'd say that personnel, a team, and getting the process right from the start is really critical. You also need to get the rules of the road down for exactly how decisions are going to be made.

Journal: Moving toward specific issues the next administration is likely to face, how do you envision U.S. policy toward a nuclear North Korea, especially given the sort of consolidation of power we've seen in China under Xi Jinping?

Donilon: First of all, I do think that North Korea will be a premier challenge for the next president-for a President Trump. It has various elements to it, but when a government is as unstable and isolated as North Korea's, has a stockpile of nuclear weapons, and has the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to the United States, it is really unacceptable as a security circumstance for the United States. …

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