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Trump cabinet hopeful wants the 'Israel model' for US China policy

Trump cabinet hopeful wants the 'Israel model' for US China policy

Robert O'Brien just put forward a template, but its a proven failure

Analysis | Asia-Pacific


Former Trump national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien’s monumental and much discussed new essay inForeign Affairs may be the closest thing we are likely to get to an intellectual foreign policy blueprint for a second Trump term.

Over the coming years, it may well serve as the foreign policy template for future Republican administrations. In the same way George F. Kennan’s ‘X’ article (published in Foreign Affairsin 1947) and Paul Wolfowitz’s Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, otherwise known as the Wolfowitz Doctrine, served (for better, or, in the latter’s case, most certainly worse) as templates in past eras, O’Brien’s essay will likely define the terms of the foreign policy debate for at least the reminder of the decade — if not beyond.

The article, in keeping with shifting geopolitical realities, is heavy on Asia, light on Europe. It is also reflective of the thinking of a certain brand of Republican foreign policy realist, exemplified by the likes of Elbridge Colby and O’Brien (both of whom are reported to be in the running for top national security positions in a second Trump term) for whom China looms large — indeed, as the peer competitor the U.S. must prepare to confront.

O’Brien writes that, in his view, “Congress should help build up the armed forces of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam by extending to them the kinds of grants, loans, and weapons transfers that the United States has long offered Israel.”

Here, and without explicitly saying so, O’Brien seems to be referencing what in other contexts has been referred to as the “Israel model” of U.S. security assistance. The model is of course based on the way America’s security assistance to Israel functions: In the absence of any treaty obligation between the two nations, the U.S. provides Israel with generous grants, loan guarantees, military, economic and diplomatic support in return for (presumably, but in fact, hardly ever) cooperation and the furtherance of American national security objectives in the region.

Right now, even before the Oct. 7 attacks, that guarantee is in the order of $3.8 billion a year.

Recall that as the Ukrainian counteroffensive ground to a halt late last year there was a lot of talk in Washington about how to sustain assistance to Ukraine in the face of growing Republican opposition in the House. One way around the presumed opposition (opposition that never actually materialized in any meaningful way) was floated by Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan: the Israel model.

But there are drawbacks to the model, especially if we are serious about rethinking America’s role in the world in light of the extraordinary challenges we now face at home, including but not limited to, a border crisis and an opioid epidemic that killed over 80,000 people last year alone.

Over time, aid in the Israeli model becomes an expected part of doing business — still more, unlimited aid (which is what U.S. aid to Israel basically amounts to) creates perverse incentives for client states to act more recklessly than they otherwise might. One example we can point to is when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili felt he had the backing of the U.S. to bait the Russians into a war in 2008.

What has happened in the case of Israel is that over time, U.S. policy and media elites became wedded to the idea that Washington’s security assistance is not only necessary for the client’s survival — but that we somehow owe the client unlimited support. U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told a press briefing on Thursday that the administration views aid to Israel as “sacrosanct.”

In such a view of things, the interests of the client and the patron are not indistinguishable — to the detriment of the latter.

Given the drawbacks, perhaps there are other, less provocative ways of engaging or indeed containing China. George Kennan himself pointed another way forward. Writing in November 1996, Kennan noted with disdain what he saw as great portions of the world, “embracing almost all of Latin America, Africa and southern Asia, where the governments are led mainly by exploitative attitudes towards us—attitudes as devoid of any gratitude or appreciation for what we may give them as of any particular concern for the maintenance of our world position. To these, as I see it, we owe nothing but the dictates of our national interest.”

Warming to his topic, Kennan examined the case of China — then being pushed by the Clinton administration for membership in the WTO, a move that subsequently proved disastrous for the American working class. In China, Kennan saw “a country as the seat of a great culture which deserves our highest respect.”

“I would like,” he continued, “to see us treat them on the diplomatic level with the most impeccable courtesy (which they would understand) but to have, beyond that, as little as possible to do with them, and, in the areas where we have to deal with them, to treat them with no smaller a firmness than they are accustomed to putting forward in their relations with us.”

Distant but firm: Fine. But would Kennan have thought it in the American interest to become the armory of Asia? Yes, we must by all means compete with China, honor defense agreements with longtime allies like Japan and the Republic of Korea, but at the same time be wary of unnecessary provocations and commitments — above all, we should avoid the teleological assumption that China’s rise will be a violent one is not foreordained.

We need to be mindful, as O’Brien no doubt is, that America’s interests are indistinguishable from the interests of even our closest allies, much less a country like Indonesia, a majoritarian Sunni nation some 13,000 miles from our shores.

In the end, O’Brien has set out a formidable and indeed laudable goal of articulating a foreign policy of "peace through strength" for the president he once again hopes to serve. Yet serious questions remain as to whether the China policies set out by figures such he and Colby are ones that will keep the peace in East Asia in the years to come.

Then-U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien speaks upon arriving at Abu Dhabi International Airport, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates August 31, 2020. WAM/Handout via REUTERS

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