Michael Desch, director of Notre Dame University’s International Security Center, is unusually plain-spoken for an academic. Asked last year at a Charles Koch Institute panel discussion whether NATO has outlived its usefulness to the United States, for instance, he said simply, “Yes.” (He then called it a “zombie institution” that deserves “a stake through its heart.” You can watch it on video.) He’s equally forthright about the North Korean threat. Reached for comment in early December, a day after North Korea tested its largest ICBM to date, he said: “Even if they can now reach the continental United States with a handful of missiles, we have far more missiles and other nuclear delivery systems that can reach them. In other words, deterrence will obtain.”
Desch credits at least part of his tell-it-like-it-is approach to working well away from the center of political power. “There’s a real advantage to being at a university in the heartland,” he says. “We’re not locked into that DC conventional wisdom.” The center that Desch now heads (he arrived in 2015) was established in 2008 to be a clearinghouse for research, discussion and rigorous analysis of new ideas regarding America’s role on a shifting world stage. Previously, Desch was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. We tracked Professor Desch to an airport lounge where he was awaiting a flight home to South Bend, Indiana, to watch the Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue their winning streak in NCAA football.
Your focus is developing an American foreign policy grand strategy. Does the U.S. have one at the moment? Are we seeing a Trump Doctrine emerging?
I would say that the Trump grand strategy, such as it is, owes as much to rational calculation as it does to idiosyncratic factors. Trump the candidate was almost alone among the Republican contenders calling into question some central premises of established foreign policy, in particular stating that the Iraq War was a mistake. That was a judgment based on the facts. He also called into question the lack of a contribution by our allies for their own defense, which is something we’ve been complaining about since the 1950s. But also, part of Trump’s formulation is that anything Obama did has to be wrong, so let’s do something different. That adds a wild card element.
The Obama years must seem quaint by 2017 standards.
Well, some people are even looking back to the Bush 43 years with nostalgia. I’m not one of them. George W. Bush, who I voted for in 2000, really took the country off the rails in a big way with the Iraq decision. Thus far President Trump has spoken more imprudently than I would like to see, but he hasn’t killed nearly as many Americans. Then again, he’s got plenty of time yet. I want to offer that only as a provisional judgment.
You’ve written that there are four types of strategy: primacy, collective security, selective engagement and restraint. If you could poll American voters, which of those do you believe a majority would prefer?
This is going to sound weird and a little wishy-washy, but I would say some hybrid of restraint and primacy, because Americans want a military second to none. They just don’t want it used with reckless abandon the way it has been.
In that sense Trump would seem like the perfect guy. He talks primacy— America first!— and yet he’s actually shown restraint so far. Except for the tweeting.
Yeah, he can’t restrain his mouth. To people in the restraint camp, or the realist camp, more generally, it’s a double-edged sword, because some of the things he talks about or seems to stand for is music to our ears. And then other things, like this preoccupation with Iran, has the potential of blowing up in our face. So it’s the best of times and the worst of times.
Globally, what evil is lurking out there that we may be ignoring while we focus on China, Russia, North Korea? Who’s making mischief while we’re preoccupied? Is it Central Africa, Indonesia, Philippines…?
No, no—I think the areas of the world we’re talking about are the right ones. We’re just talking about them in the wrong scenarios. The problem on the Korean Peninsula isn’t that Kim Jong Un is going to wake up one morning and attack the United States or even South Korea. I think the bigger problem is that he’s going to develop nuclear capability. That’s going to take care of his not going the way of Gaddafi, but it’s not going to fix the basic internal contradictions of his regime. Eventually that regime is going to implode, and when it implodes it’s going to create a huge vacuum that’s going to suck the United States, South Korea, and China into it. And I think we need to do a lot of the type of thinking that George H.W. Bush, Jim Baker and Gorbachev gave to German reunification at the end of the Cold War. So that’s the problem: the collapse of the North Korean regime, particularly a nuclear North Korea. It could be a source of conflict.
You seem pretty certain that the current North Korean regime’s days are numbered.
Yep. It may not happen in a year or five years, but from what we know of authoritarian regimes, the longer they go on, the more brittle they become. When they collapse, they collapse not with a whimper but with a bang. And the ideal scenario here is one of restraint. If Secretary Tillerson were to ask me what the outline, the grand bargain would be, I’d say: Look, reunify Korea under the South, denuclearize them, and get U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula. I think everybody could live with that.
Do you think our allies are losing confidence in us? Could we form a coalition today like we did with Desert Storm?
We could for the right issue. The Bush 43 administration was no model of multi-lateral diplomacy. I think in instances where we want to build a coalition, the urgency of the issue itself would ensure that people, for their own self-interest, would join the bandwagon.
Where are we with military spending. Too much? Too little?
Right now, I think we’re spending too much, and particularly the nuclear modernization program that President Obama proposed in his last year in office. Also, we’re maintaining a much larger expeditionary force than we need. We could save money there.
There was another ISIS-inspired attack recently in New York . That’s the sort of thing Americans worry about most on the global stage. No place seems safe. Is there anything in our planning that can ever address this?
You know, eight people killed in a terrorist attack is a horrible thing, but you’ve got to keep it in perspective. I’d actually put it in two perspectives. First, this wasn’t 9/11. This was not a mass casualty attack on multiple sites in the United States resulting in thousands of deaths. ISIS is not capable of that. Second, this was the sort of thing that’s very difficult to prevent. It comes on the heels of a mass casualty shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 American citizens. Fifty-eight dead people is an act of terrorism, but the difference is that it was committed by an American rather than a recent immigrant. So I really wonder about the state of our political debate. We’ve become very exercised about a much smaller attack inspired by a foreign actor, when you have this huge domestic attack. It’s like we don’t think level-headedly about the threats we face. I wish that we would take the view that the British did in the face of the IRA campaign. They kept a stiff upper lip and did what they thought was prudent, but also not excessive in terms of combating the IRA. They also understood that in the context of a war like that, things were going to happen. You learn the lessons from it, but you don’t also blow it out of proportion.