Donald Trump’s administration has allowed the United States to renegotiate its orientation to the rest of the world. Partisans have sniped in contradictory ways, criticizing him both as a warmonger and a naïve peacenik, but they rarely offer thoughtful alternatives to the course Trump has taken.
Trump’s foreign policy has two sides, both of which are radical departures from the recent past. He has embraced foreign policy minimalism, whether in the Middle East or with regard to long term commitments like NATO. At the same time, Trump has undone inertia and pursued confrontation, whether in the war of words with North Korea’s leader in 2017 or in the application of tariffs against China, long the fair-haired child of the foreign policy establishment.
President Trump rightly pointed out during the 2016 campaign what a disaster the Iraq War had been and explicitly rejected the regime-change policies of his predecessors. He also signaled a willingness to have warmer relations with Russia, which the foreign policy leaders of both parties oppose out of habit and opposition to that country’s cultural conservatism.
Trump, however, sometimes disappoints the peace camp. He bombed the Syrian regime in 2017 for its alleged use of chemical weapons and now backtracking on his earlier withdrawal declaration, even though ISIS is all but destroyed there. One gets the sense that these twists and turns are a product of internal friction within the White House, as well as friction between the White House and the foreign policy establishment more generally. The status quo, even when it is demonstrably wrong, has a great number of stakeholders, including career bureaucrats, defense contractors, and domestic constituencies.
Retreat From a Dangerous World or Prepare for Great Power Confrontation?
Columbia University historian Stephen Wertheim predicts in the New York Times, “A clash is coming over America’s place in the world.” Noting that the unipolar consensus is starting to break down, “One camp holds that the United States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.”
This strikes me as a false dilemma. One of the problems of the maximalist, unipolarity camp—the stuff of Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation” mantra or the late John McCain’s maniacal desire to have a war with Russia—is that it accomplishes nothing by prioritizing everything. NATO, Latin America, Niger, Yemen, Israel, South Korea, Afghanistan, and everywhere else are all accorded value. They all get American troops, money, and commitments. Problems are not ranked, so limited resources are deployed haphazardly and at great expense.
Even if one wanted to prepare for a potential great power conflict—and there is indeed such a burgeoning conflict with China—how easily can forces be sent to the area of need when they are tied down in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Yemen, Niger, Columbia, and everywhere else?
Only a more restrained foreign policy would permit the United States to hazard a conflict with another great power. The enemy gets a vote, as the saying goes. Two decades ago, America was focused on dubious idealist wars like Kosovo, and George W. Bush himself signaled a desire to retreat from “nation building” in his 2000 campaign, but then the 9/11 attacks happened. His response to that attack defined his presidency. The limited numbers of troops and the ambitious designs of the war planners led to chaos, insurgencies, and mediocre results. Barack Obama also promised a change and repeatedly tried to engage in a “pivot to Asia,” but then chose to engage in Middle Eastern regime change wars following the Arab Spring, culminating in his commitment of troops to Iraq, as it faced a de facto invasion from Syria-based ISIS.
Whether employing the critical lens of preparing for great power conflicts or that of minimalism, the United States has accomplished little good in the Middle East, either for ourselves or its inhabitants. Moreover, these resource-heavy commitments resemble a perpetual motion machine, creating a unifying symbol for aroused Muslims to “throw out the crusaders.” Most of these costs, as well as these threats, could be avoided if we let the place stew in its own juices and adopted more sensible immigration laws. Everything is related.
The foreign policy establishment, however, lacks both unity and focus. The minute anything upsets the status quo, alarmism—some serious, some merely knee-jerk partisanship—rears its head. Thus, when Trump proposed to leave Syria and Afghanistan, the establishment and the lying media cried out in horror, even as they applauded Obama when he did something similar in Iraq.
To Conserve and Invest Anew
To prepare for any conflict with China and, more important, to deter such a conflict, our country needs to husband its resources, including diplomatic, economic, and military power. This prudent measure would be necessary to confront even unknown terror threats or medium-sized opponents. Extensive global deployments, the never-ending war in Afghanistan, and the outsized role America plays in NATO are an obstacle to any such capability. They consume resources and reduce the availability of equipment, ammunition, and reserve forces for contingencies. As in other areas of life, by trying to do too much, we end up accomplishing less.
Even if we were to conserve resources, we must invest in weapons, force structures, training, and technology. Should we prepare for a full spectrum of conflict, including the higher frequency but lower stakes “low intensity conflicts” that have been dominant since the First Gulf War? Or do we prepare for conflict with China, a conflict fraught with risk due to its large nuclear arsenal? The answer may be both, but no such investments are realistic so long as our forces are tied down in commitments like those imposed by NATO or the 18 year old war in Afghanistan. Our military has 35-year-old tanks and 50-year-old airplanes, all of which could be replaced, but for the daunting expense of existing foreign policy commitments.
More generally, a nation must ask when conflict is truly necessary. Could the United States survive a China that acquired more power over its neighbors, the South China Sea, and even on the Korean peninsula? If so, at what point would its power present a threat that required resistance? Would the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan be preferable to the simmering war over a land al-Qaeda discontinued using as a base over a decade ago?
In other words, the question is not just whether any of these are problems, but where they rank relative to one another, and whether some may be given lesser priority and best addressed through watchfulness and preparation.
An Unserious Leadership Class
The unseriousness of our leadership class could not be more apparent than in relation to the current troubles in South Asia. Pakistan and India, each armed with nuclear weapons, are on the brink of full-scale war. Instead of paying attention to that, the American press is obsessed with the testimony of admitted liar, Michael Cohen, when it is not losing its mind over one of Trump’s tweets. There has been barely any coverage of this confrontation, and a conflict in South Asia has the potential to kill millions.
The reasons for the conflict are perennial. There is a border dispute, and Pakistan has continued its support of Islamic terrorists who aim to weaken India’s control of the region. Last month, these militants killed 40 Indian security forces. Each nation is highly nationalistic, so much so that #sayyestowar has been trending on Indian Twitter. While I sympathize with India’s anger in the face of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism, the course most in the interest of America, and likely in the interest of both the participants, is to climb down from the edge and to restore the status quo ante, a tense “line of control” functioning as the de facto border between these states. Long term, Pakistan should be isolated, so long as it sponsors terrorists.
There are secondary issues too; China, a U.S. rival, is allied with Pakistan, which also sponsors various terrorists that have made life miserable for American forces in Afghanistan. But instead of hearing about this and the ways America may broker some kind of de-escalation, we hear about Cohen and reparations and other issues that will prove to be mere distractions in the event of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent. The relative indifference of the political establishment to this conflict is another sign of its immaturity and overall uselessness.
Foreign policy is a bit like homeowner’s insurance. No one thinks about it much until there is a massive disaster, something like Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. A sound foreign policy is prepared for a range of contingencies and, most important, preserves resources for actual needs, including remote and long-term risks.
The choice between a retreat or engaging in great power conflicts is fundamentally a false one. In order to deal with China, terrorism, as well as remote threats, it is essential to retreat from the various obligations, deployments, and expenses that have gathered by accretion under the leadership of yesterday’s foreign policy elite. In this sense, both sides of the debate should come to terms with the fact that Donald Trump is our elected president, that his America First policy resonated with the American people, and that he is open to persuasion by both sides, each of which rejects the unrealistic legacy policies that got us here.
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