The president could have started a foreign-policy revolution. Instead, he triggered a foreign-policy revolt.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
If you’re a Trump supporter, you might be feeling pretty good about the new administration’s first steps. You may have hailed the Muslim ban (and let’s be honest, that’s what it is) as a long-overdue step to protect Americans from dangerous foreigners. (It’s not, of course, but never mind.) Perhaps you also think the chorus of criticism from lawyers, the media, academics, corporate leaders, foreign governments, and former government officials — including many prominent Republicans — is just welcome evidence that Trump is on the right track. You might well view his first two weeks as clear signs a new sheriff is in town and putting the whole world on notice. You may even see his end-runs around the interagency process, his decision to replace top defense and intelligence officials on the National Security Council with alt-right advisor Stephen Bannon as steps designed to protect the “America First” policies that you voted for in November and that he reaffirmed on Inauguration Day.
With all due respect, you would be wrong.
In fact, if you are a loyal Trump supporter, and especially someone who embraced him because you thought he would deliver a smarter, more self-interested, more restrained, and above all more successful foreign policy than his predecessors, you should be disappointed and deeply worried. Why? Because in just two weeks he has squandered a genuine opportunity to put American foreign policy on a more solid footing and has managed to unite and empower opposition at home and abroad in ways that would have been hard to imagine a few months ago.
When Trump was elected, he was in an excellent position to push for some significant positive shifts in U.S. foreign policy. It’s true he lost the popular vote by more than 2.5 million people, but his broad assault on an “out-of-touch” and unaccountable elite — including most of the foreign-policy establishment — clearly resonated with lots of voters. Though far from a decisive mandate, there was substantial popular support for a different approach to international affairs, and the deference normally accorded the president on matters of foreign policy and national security would have given him considerable latitude to shift U.S. policy in sensible ways. Surveys consistently showed a sizable percentage of the American people wanted less military interventionism, less allied free-riding, and were skeptical of global economic arrangements whose benefits seemed to go to Wall Street more than Main Street. Had Trump proceeded smartly, the path to a more restrained and effective foreign policy was open.
In particular, Trump could have reaffirmed his opposition to military interventions and “nation-building,” and begun to wind down the far-flung and increasingly open-ended campaign of drone strikes and targeted killings that has done little to reduce what was already a very modest danger from terrorism. He could have concluded that staying in Afghanistan was a losing proposition and begun a carefully phased disengagement. As I described in last week’s column, he could have articulated the strategic logic behind his desire for better relations with Russia and reduced suspicions that he is Putin’s puppet. After his tough talk during the campaign, he was in an ideal position to get U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to bear a heavier burden for their own defense while still making it clear that the United States saw them as important partners. He could have enhanced the U.S. position vis-à-vis China by modifying his stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Yes, that would have required changing positions on a dime, but who’s better at being two-faced than Trump?) And he could have returned the United States to a more hands-off, offshore balancing approach in the Middle East, in effect signaling that the United States was no longer going to play traffic cop or social worker there. No more failed Bush-style “regional transformations,” but also no more futile and failed efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace. If our Israeli friends want one-state and permanent apartheid, let ’em deal with the consequences on their own.
Had he taken all (or at least most) of these steps, and in a calm and deliberate way, some members of the foreign-policy establishment would have been upset but others would have been encouraged and many would have taken a wait-and-see approach. Some of his supporters would have been disappointed, perhaps, but many of his other backers would have stuck with him provided he delivered on tax reform or deregulation and restored some working-class jobs with a decent domestic infrastructure program. This approach would have been mindful of the public desire for fewer global burdens, but also the public’s continued belief that the United States should be a leading world power in partnership with others. Acting this way would have allowed Trump to demonstrate he could be a statesman, while still challenging some reigning foreign-policy orthodoxies. Most important of all, these changes would have preserved the valuable features of the present global order, which in fact is very much to our benefit. With a bit of luck, the country would have stayed on an even keel and he might have been well-positioned for reelection in 2020, despite his advanced age and other liabilities.
Trump (and political advisor Bannon) did none of these things. Instead, they started to pick several fights with China while undercutting the U.S. position in Asia. Yesterday he badgered Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an acrimonious phone call — and here we are talking about the leader of the country that has fought at America’s side in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and he bragged (again) about his electoral win. They picked another pointless fight with Mexico, mostly because Trump can’t admit what is obvious to all: If that stupid wall ever gets built, Americans will have to pay for it. The White House announced an unlawful ban on Muslim immigrants, and rolled the new policy out as ineptly as possible. I mean, seriously: They shut the door on hundreds of extensively vetted refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day (thereby invoking memories of the country’s callous response to Nazi persecution in the 1930s), and then they doubled-down by deliberately excluding any mention of Jews from the official statement on the day itself. One guess about which of their supporters Trump and Bannon were trying to appeal to with that slick move.
Meanwhile, he is openly flirting with a trade war that would damage the entire world economy, including ours, yet with no apparent purpose or endgame in mind. After telling us that he knows “much more” than the generals, his “secret plan” for dealing with the Islamic State turns out to be “ask the Defense Department to come up with one,” as if nobody at the Pentagon had given any thought to the matter. Trump’s rash and ill-considered Muslim ban was a blunder here as well, as it will make Iraqis even more reluctant to cooperate with us, and they’re the ones who are currently fighting and dying to drive the Islamic State from the cities it still controls. And his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, has started saber-rattling with Iran. Instead of getting us out of fruitless conflicts in the Middle East, Trump and Bannon’s obsession with Islam makes a true and costly “clash of civilizations” more likely.
Last but not least, Trump & Co. are continuing their misguided efforts to destabilize relations with our closest allies, based on the bizarre belief that this somehow strengthens America’s international position. Do you really believe Americans are better off when the head of the European Union, who happens to be the staunchly pro-American Polish politician Donald Tusk, is warning that the United States is itself a threat to EU stability? And all the while Trump and his surrogates continue to demonize anyone with the temerity to disagree with Fearless Leader or to question his infallibility, in a matter more reminiscent of Mussolini, Stalin, or the Kim family in North Korea than of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or any of Trump’s other predecessors in the Oval office.
Meanwhile, what has been the impact of these brilliant strategic moves? For starters, foreign leaders who like the United States are learning that being nice to Trump can hurt them at home (and earns them no favors in Washington anyway). Our adversaries — from the Islamic State to Beijing to Iran — have been handed powerful new arguments with which to embarrass, delegitimize, and undermine America’s image and reputation. And perhaps most remarkable of all, a president elected by the smallest percentage of the popular vote in history has seen his approval ratings continue to fall, even as an unlikely opposing coalition of opponents begins to form against him. If you’re still among his supporters, this cannot be an encouraging sign.
Or consider this. For the past 15 years or more, people like me have been consistently and at times powerfully critical of American neoconservatives. I still regard their views on U.S. grand strategy and U.S. Middle East policy as dangerous and wrong, and I believe they bear considerable responsibility for the continuing fiasco we are dealing with in the Middle East. If William Kristol, Eliot Cohen, or David Frum got close to wielding power again, I’d worry that their advice might be taken seriously and I’d do what I could to challenge their analysis and their prescriptions. But as of today we’re on the same side, because the threat that Trump, Bannon, and their incompetent cronies pose to our constitutional order and core political values overrides our continuing differences on other foreign-policy questions. The neocons may change their tune if Trump does decide to attack Iran — we’ll see — but for now their concerns are justified and their warnings should be heeded.
It takes a danger of considerable magnitude to get realists and neoconservatives to agree on anything, but we agree on Trump. And you can add to that unlikely coalition the traditional left, the largely apolitical civil service, the heads of a growing number of major corporations, and many dedicated foreign-policy professionals Trump might have won over but didn’t even bother to try.
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Which raises the obvious question: Why is he acting this way?
Some pundits believe it is mostly a product of his own defective personality: a toxic combination of brashness, narcissism, sensitivity to the smallest slight, and utter disregard for truth or consequences. Another possibility — and they’re not mutually exclusive — is that Trump and his inner circle really do have a grand strategy; it’s just at odds with reality, internally contradictory, and destined to fail bigly. And a third possibility — also not mutually exclusive — is that the Bannon-Trump approach to politics is in fact driven by a paranoid view of the modern world that sees the global economy in strictly zero-sum terms (thereby ignoring a couple of centuries of economic knowledge) and thinks the white, Judeo-Christian West is now under siege from an implacable and powerful tide of dark-skinned people, and especially Muslims. Instead of recognizing America’s remarkable strengths and security and many unique virtues, the Breitbart worldview that has infested the White House believes it has to destroy our current democracy in order to save it.
What these modern-day Jacobins don’t realize, alas, is that destroying institutions is easier than building them. If their assault on our core political traditions and institutions is successful, the United States will at best end up weaker and poorer. At worst, it will cease to be a meaningful democracy. The fact that the generally conservative Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded America — that’s right, the “Land of the Free” — from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy tells you just how serious this problem is. Based on the early evidence, Trump and Bannon want to accelerate that trend.
Some of Trump’s supporters may have flocked to him because they were tired of the failed strategy of liberal hegemony and worried that Hillary Clinton and her team were going to repeat the same mistakes that Obama, Bush, or her husband made. If so, it’s increasingly clear they aren’t going to get the smart and more restrained approach to the world they were hoping for. By that standard, in short, Donald J. Trump is already a failure. Didn’t take him long. I would say it was “Sad!” but it’s not. It’s tragic.
Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images
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