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What role will the presidential transition play in U.S. defense strategy?

The transition from a Trump administration to a Biden administration is likely to bring changes at the Pentagon, Department of Defense, and could impact defense strategies both at home and abroad. Mark Cancian, Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the International Security Program, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    To learn more about the presidential transition and what role it might play on defense strategy and capabilities, I spoke with Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the International Security Program.

    There has been some concern about quite a bit of shuffling of leadership at the Pentagon in these last few days, even since President-elect Biden has been declared. What are the things to look out for?

  • Mark Cancian:

    Well, there has been a lot of turbulence at the top in DOD, and that's unfortunate because it does weaken the decision-making apparatus in the Department of Defense. But we should keep in mind that the military is still there. The senior military officers who have been there for many years are still there. So they will provide continuity, not just in the last two months of the Trump administration, but into a Biden administration. I think the Trump administration has actually lost an opportunity to influence national security events during its last two months, because you have a lot of people who are new at their jobs, don't know the staffs, don't know the processes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are there things that President-elect Biden should be most aware of, most concerned about, and take action quickly on?

  • Mark Cancian:

    Probably at the top of the list is the relationships with the allies. We are blessed with having a lot of wealthy allies and we should take advantage of that strength. And that requires reestablishing relationships with both the European and the Asian allies. Trump had pushed them to contribute more to their defense. And every president, secretary of defense in the last 70 years has done that. I mean, that's not unusual. But he took a very transactional approach and most experts are very uncomfortable with that. So I think that would be one of his first things.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How does Joe Biden re-establish trust with countries who look to America as that consistent baseline?

  • Mark Cancian:

    In terms of re-establishing trust I think he's going to call a lot of foreign leaders when he takes office to tell them that he wants to have better relationships. And there are always a series of meetings, NATO meetings and overseas trips where he can do that person to person.

    Important to keep in mind that Trump has not abrogated treaties with the exception of the intermediate nuclear forces treaty in Europe. What he's abrogated are executive agreements. And what I would say to any administration is if you want something permanent, make it a treaty, make it bipartisan. It's very tempting to sign an executive order that establishes some foreign policy priority. The Obama administration did that a lot, the treaty or the agreement with Iran as an example, but that may only have the shelf life of your administration. So if you really want a permanent, you need to make it bipartisan. And that's hard.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What should President-elect Biden's first priority be?

  • Mark Cancian:

    I think the re-establishment of relationships with allies is a top priority. He also has some campaign promises that I think he will implement very quickly, for instance, at the Southwest border. You know, you have military activities going on down there. I think he will pull those back. There are some personnel issues, for instance, on transgenders that the Democrats have, you know, vowed to lift the restrictions. So I think it will do a bunch of those early on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the disagreements that we hear the Defense Secretary Esper had was on whether and how to withdraw troops from overseas. Are there any things that we should be concerned about in terms of where America is engaged right now and the consequences for that during this transition?

  • Mark Cancian:

    Well, President Trump has been quite emphatic since he campaigned that he wanted to pull U.S. forces out of the Middle East in what he regarded as the entanglements of the conflicts there. Ironically, you see the same thing from the Biden administration and the Democrats. They talk about ending the forever war. So I think the two parties are really in sync here. The issue is about how you do it, the pacing. So the thing to watch for is whether there's any precipitate action in the last two months.

    Now, I don't think that there will be, because, of course, the military is still there and they will be advising the president that you can't just tell 5,000 troops in Afghanistan to get on the airplane and come home. So I don't think that that will happen very precipitously.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We've seen tension between the administration and the armed forces on whether or not they should play a role in civil disturbance in, on American city streets. If that happens, what does the military do?

  • Mark Cancian:

    Well, the military does have a role in suppressing civil disturbances and there are authorities that the president can use. We saw that in the summer, but we've also seen over the summer that those actions, those missions should be done only in extremis when law enforcement organizations are not able to handle the civil servants. And even if we're going to use the military, we should use first the National Guard and in a support capacity, if that's at all possible.

    And I would emphasize that what we learned in the summer should be applied now to any disturbances that occur between now and the inauguration. That is, that it could be that there were some violent disturbances, although we haven't seen those yet. But we should leave those to law enforcement and leave the military out of it, if at all possible.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mark Cancian, thanks so much.

  • Mark Cancian:

    Happy to do it. Thanks for having me on the program.

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