Verbal battles, turf fights, and policy arguments between Secretaries of State and Secretaries of Defense are commonplace in American history. Think: Don Rumsfeld vs. Colin Powell earlier in the George W. Bush administration. Think of the hawkish Madeleine Albright vs. the dovish William Cohen in the Clinton administration. George Shultz vs. Casper Weinberger in the Reagan Cabinet, Henry Kissinger at State vs. James Schlesinger at Defense under Nixon and Ford. Check the history of the Truman administration, and you’ll find that Defense Secretary Louis Jordan and Secretary of State Dean Acheson were at each others throats.
That’s why it was such a rare occasion when the current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, guest speaker at the May 5th dinner of the Brookings Institution’s Board of Trustees, had this to say about his respect for and working relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
“The fact that our respective bureaucracies know that Condi Rice and I get along goes a long way towards making sure that serious attempts are made to reconcile differences and coordinate policy.”
Gates acknowledged that such friendship and mutual respect between the heads of the two Cabinet departments have not always been the case in the past few decades.
“Not even the most enlightened or well-crafted interagency structure will work,” Gates declared to the Brookings audience, “if the Secretaries of State and Defense can’t stand each other and won’t work together, as too often has been the case during the seven presidencies in which I have served.”
The Defense chief, who might have been expected to devote a large portion of his talk to the need for increasing the Pentagon budget to meet modern international challenges, instead devoted a large portion of his speech to the need for increasing Condi Rice’s State Department budget to meet modern international challenges.
“America’s civilian instruments of power, in particular the State Department, have suffered from chronic under funding for decades, and were virtually gutted in the 1990’s,” Gates declared. “Today, the entire Foreign Service – 6600 men and women – would not be enough to crew one aircraft carrier strike group.”
The Pentagon secretary told his audience that there is “strong support” in the military services to build up the State Department’s capacity. He noted that at another Brookings event last year, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen said he’d be willing to give part of the Navy’s budget to the State Department, if it was spent properly.
Gates told the Brookings Trustees dinner that the government faces the larger issue of reorganizing its national security and foreign policy structure to meet the challenges of the 21st Century world. The last major overhaul of that structure was in 1947.
The Pentagon Secretary said the Defense Department is funding a study to address this issue. And he added that such private efforts as Brookings’ 21st Century Defense Initiative “represent an excellent source of independent expertise.”
The obvious mutual respect and friendship between Gates and Rice send a strong message to their underlings: “Follow our example. Work together, with civility, in the national interest.”
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.