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Atlantic Council Panel: Pentagon Turnover Complicating Signals to Allies, Adversaries

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Monday’s removal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper adds more uncertainty as to what adversaries may try and what allies can expect from Washington in the always tricky transition of presidential power, national security experts at the Atlantic Council said Tuesday.

“These are not normal times,” Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said at the start of the online forum. In addition to the turnover at the Pentagon and the General Services Administration not allowing transition discussions yet, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is compelling Biden transition planners to concentrate on domestic issues — from medical supplies, to vaccine development and distribution, and rebuilding the economy as soon as possible after taking office.

Clementine Starling, an expert on European security issues, said that while Christopher Miller, who moved from director of the National Counterterrorism Center to serving as the acting defense secretary after Trump fired Esper, is know in the Pentagon, he is also viewed as pretty loyal to the White House.” Matthew Kroenig added that while the danger of something major happening — such as another Russia move like the seizure of Crimea or China taking military action against Taiwan — remains low, “the risk is higher now” that they could hand the United States a fait accompli.

Looking at what North Korea would likely do between now and inauguration day, Markus Garlauskas said, “I expect this strategic weapons test” of its new intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of carrying multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle warheads [MIRV] “to test the response” not only of a Biden administration, but also China.

Kirsten Fontenrose, a Middle East expert, said there is a question as to whether Israel or “the current administration will take action against Iran’s” nuclear program before leaving office, setting up the possibility of retaliation from Tehran.

This emphasis on domestic priorities translates into flattening or cutting the defense budget. The panelists agreed that the new administration’s definition of security spending would be broader than Trump’s. In addition to cyber and space, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, robotics, quantum computing, hypersonics, et al. would be emphasized for investment. Climate change would also be on the national security agenda, since President-elect Joe Biden said his administration would rejoin the Paris Agreement.

What all the panelists agreed on was that a Biden administration would look to cooperate and work more closely with allies and partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific to include the drawdown in Afghanistan and posturing of forces. This could reverse the decision to pull more than 11,000 American ground troops and Air Force units out of Germany and sending many of them back to the United States. What this possible change would mean for additional rotational forces going to Poland and other Eastern European allies is unclear.

Starling expects “a re-setting with key allies and partners will be a top goal.” It signals “a moving away from this transactional relationship” that marked the Trump administration’s dealings with all allies, she said.

Garlauskas and others also saw the contentious issue of burden-sharing “to be a lot less acrimonious” when it comes to NATO allies spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on security and Japan and South Korea quintupling their contribution to pay for American forces in their countries.

“I would be relieved if I were in their shoes,” he said about Tokyo and Seoul on dealing with Washington after January. Starling added that a Biden administration would also have a broader definition of burden-sharing than Trump’s.

On North Korea’s nuclear program, Garlauskas said a Biden approach would be “more realistic about what can really be accomplished in a single presidential term.”

For Europe, Starling and Leah Scheunemann, who also specializes in European security affairs, foresee the new administration acting quickly to set up an early NATO meeting to reassure allies on collective defense and Washington’s Commitment to Article 5, a section of the treaty that calls for standing by members if they are attacked.

Starling and others saw a President Joe Biden selecting Michelle Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration, for the top Pentagon post. Pavel described her “as an extreme consensus builder.”

As for Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, if it is former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the nomination could face a fight in the Senate, which is expected to remain in Republican control, during the confirmation process.

A meeting with nations in Europe and the Indo-Pacific that share the goal of countering China’s aggressive behavior economically, diplomatically and militarily is also expected relatively quickly. Kroenig said such a “summit of democracies” would put us on a much stronger base” in dealing with Beijing.

While the Trump administration recently tried to extend the Strategic Arms Limitation treaty with Russia and bring China into the negotiations, Kroenig expected the Biden team to extend the terms for another five years. It is due to expire Feb. 4.

China was not part of the original treaty and would not be included in an extension without negotiations. The treaty also did not cover newer versions of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that Russia has fielded. These systems and weapons would only be covered with new negotiations.

On Iran’s nuclear program, Fontenrose said there’s “cognitive dissonance” between Tehran and Washington over the United States re-joining the original agreement and what Iran would do if it did.

“Iran would expect concessions,” in the form of sanctions easing, not discussing its missile programs and support for proxies like Hezbollah, while “Biden is not prepared to give concessions right out of the gate” in rejoining the agreement.

Taiwan can expect Washington “to move goal posts a bit” as the Biden administration “returns to a more traditional policy” of dealing with Taipei and Beijing, Garlauskas said. The Trump administration had authorized arms sales to Taiwan to bolster its defenses and show its support for Taipei in a potential armed confrontation with Beijing.

Scheunemann said reestablishing U.S. 2nd Fleet, which is critical to North Atlantic NATO defenses and operations, is among the accomplishments of the Trump administration.

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