USC Price Post-Election Forum Series:

Petraeus addresses security, foreign relations amid new administration

March 16, 2017

General David Petraeus with USC Price Dean Jack Knott (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

By Matthew Kredell

Retired General David Petraeus and USC Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack H. Knott engaged in a timely discussion on national security on March 6, as part of the school’s post-election forum series.

Knott pointed out that in addition to his 37 years with the U.S. Army, reaching the rank of four-star general, and his time as director of the CIA, Petraeus is also truly an academic. A Judge Widney Professor at USC with a joint appointment at the Price School, Petraeus holds Ph.D. from Princeton in an interdisciplinary program on international relations and economics, and he has also been a professor at both the U.S. Military Academy and the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College.

In an hour-and-a-half conversation in front of USC students, Petraeus spoke about the new administration, its effects on defense policy, and the impact of the President Trump’s early decisions on international relations.

Although he jokingly said that the national security advisor ought to have vetting authority on all Presidential tweets, Petraeus suggested that, despite Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and disruptive ideas, the new President hasn’t yet pursued anything radically different from mainstream policies of the past.

For example, after saying the U.S. was not necessarily bound to its “One China” policy, Trump came away from a phone conversation with President Xi Jinping stating the U.S. would continue to honor that policy. After making critical remarks about NATO, he has pledged U.S. backing for the partnership. After indicating ambivalence about resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as either one state or two separate states, his Ambassador to the UN announced continued U.S. commitment to the long-standing “two state solution,” of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“There’s been a reversion to the mean, and at the end of the day that is appropriate in my mind,” Petraeus said. “By and large, there has been more continuity than change so far. So I am not sure that ‘America First’ translates into something that necessarily undermines the rules-based international order that we all cherish.”

Petraeus was considered by Trump as a candidate for Secretary of State, which Petraeus jokingly called his “Celebrity Secretary of State audition.” He came away from the meeting impressed by the then-President-elect.

“I detected someone who was really quite pragmatic,” Petraeus said. “I think the definition of pragmatism during the election is that you can appeal to different groups to get their votes. And, then, when you get in the White House, pragmatism means that you understand the need to do what is necessary to deliver success through a booming economy, more jobs, improved security and the other hallmarks of progress.”

Petraeus singled out Trump’s travel ban to block immigration from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen as one disruptive idea on which the president has followed through, though Petraeus said he didn’t yet know the full scope of its impact. Petraeus also pointed out that none of the three countries from which 9/11 attackers originated were on the list, and that vast majority of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. come from homegrown extremists. He also noted his concern regarding relations with Mexico, stating that President Pena Nieto is grappling with historically low approval ratings and it is possible that a very left-of-center populist could win the Mexican presidential election next year, with potentially serious repercussions for the historic reforms Pena Nieto is implementing.

Petraeus laid out a theory that Trump strategically announces a relatively extreme position from which he later backs off as a negotiating ploy, but warned that while a “wild-man” reputation can be effective in a normal state of affairs, it can undermine stability in a crisis.

“When you read Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Petraeus explained, “Trump’s explicit approach to a negotiation is that before you he sits down with the guy with whom he is going to negotiate, he punches him in the nose to get him off balance. That is how he has described his approach, and I thus think he takes some actions to achieve a disruptive effect. He is, in essence, acting in such cases. But, I think there are also times when he is not acting, and he has to be careful that the result of those actions don’t create outcomes that are not biodegradable.”