August 17, 2017

Donald Trump’s twin business advisory panels have collapsed. Members of both the Manufacturing Council and the Strategy & Policy Forum had been resigning quickly, and according to today's Wall Street Journal—“CEOs Scrap Trump Panels”—they voted yesterday just to disband. At first, the president asserted that he could replace all the “grandstanders” with compliant substitutes; he later claimed on Twitter that the disbanding was his idea, to save them all from public pressure. In “Why A&D CEOs May Be Happy To No Longer Counsel Trump” (Aviation Week, 16 August), Michael Bruno did opine that “few in the business world are likely” to consider the actions anything but “an astute public relations move.” Then again, Bruno also expressed worry about attracting talent to any organization too closely identified with Trump. In “Trump Loses Corporate America” (Wall Street Journal, 15 August), Holman Jenkins took the hard-nosed view that the administration is proving itself incapable of delivering useful change, so no one in business owes Trump the time of day. Or, we could permit business leaders some righteous outrage after those not-so-presidential prevarications following last weekend’s would-be fascist uprising in Virginia. Either way, after seven months of not-so-businesslike business in the White House, interest amongst business people in taking the man seriously seems to have evaporated.

So what do defense contractors do? Dealing with government is their very business. More than a few members of the expiring councils work or have worked on defense—affiliations like Boeing, General Electric, Marinette Marine, and Lockheed Martin had peppered the rosters. Plenty of other members represent companies doing business with other departments of government. The United States is no libertarian paradise, so all of them have business with government. Even when businesses aren’t seeking rents, they can be appropriately lobbying for policies that are generally good for business. For as Calvin Coolidge taught us all, “the chief business of the American people is business.” That 30th president of the United States, who signed the Indian Citizenship Act and delivered a commencement address at Howard University, probably could not have imagined the current outrage over what the 45th president said or didn’t say and how fast he didn’t say it. But the privately laconic Silent Cal was otherwise an accomplished orator; drawing on both personas, he once famously wrote that “the words of a president have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”

Over these seven months, those indiscriminate outbursts have left plenty in industry grasping for clues about policy like some Cold War Sovietologists. All the same, some of the emanations from the White House sound suspicious, but actually may be rather sound. Is Trump’s initiative for a defense-industrial review as ham-handed a protectionist prop as we might consider the earlier Section 232 investigations of steel and aluminum imports? As I wrote late last month, using the example of the not-so-rare rare earths, that all-hands evolution could easily get derailed by facile acceptance of conventional wisdom. As my colleague Steve Grundman wrote early this month in “How to Be Like Ike,” we could hope that a study this portentous might resemble in its approach the 34th president’s review of national strategy toward the Soviet Union. But however we might wonder about the motives or the methods, let us lend some credit: what other American president initiated such an end-to-end analysis of the supply chains of our security?

This is important, because beyond a merely resurgent Russia, and a menagerie of bad actors remotely plumbing our data, the United States are actually facing a no-kidding peer competitor with greater manufacturing capacity than we are likely to recover. With the doubling of the federal debt during the preceding administration, there is no more money, so as Lord Rutherford intoned, we need to start thinking. If as Americans, our chief business is indeed business, then as defense industrialists, our business is supplying those who deliver the security that makes that business possible. The president may come calling again loudly demanding another very public price reduction, and CEOs probably must take those calls. The Pentagon will come calling, asking about what’s coming from California, Costa Rica, or China, and everyone on the team should stand ready to take those calls. At this point, like the little tank engine, we in the business have work to do.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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