Elephants in the Room

Defending Vital U.S. Interests: Policy Prescriptions for Trump

Here's what the Trump administration should do to keep the country safe and prosperous.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

While many policy analyses since President Donald Trump’s election attempt to predict how his administration will conduct international relations, few indicate what Trump should specifically do in a comprehensive way. The United States needs policies that defend its vital national interests, defined as conditions strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the country’s survival as a free and secure nation. These policies should:

1. Prevent and deter the use, and reduce the threat, of nuclear and biological weapons, catastrophic terrorist attacks, and cyberattacks against the United states or its military forces abroad.

2. Prevent the slow global spread of nuclear weapons, secure nuclear weapons and materials, and reduce further proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

3. Maintain a regional and global balance of power that promotes peace and stability through domestic American robustness, U.S. international primacy, and strengthening and defending U.S. alliance systems, including the alliance with Israel.

4. Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on U.S. borders.

5. Ensure the viability and stability of major global systems: trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and climate.

U.S. power is substantial and far-reaching, but not unlimited. The United States should promote and defend these vital interests, but show instinctive restraint elsewhere. In the Middle East, for example, the United States must confront the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, but without deploying significant numbers of U.S. ground troops or participating in nation building. Regarding Iran, rather than dismantling the nuclear agreement, the United States should work with international partners to strengthen enforcement of the deal’s terms and more vigorously confront Iran’s regional hegemonic designs. The United Sates should also support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but without devoting substantial diplomatic efforts to it, and not move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The United States should allocate significant resources currently used in the Middle East to Asia. While engaging and containing China, America should increase freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to counter Chinese territorial claims and militarization. Much more intensive U.S.-China exchanges on national interests and strategic goals would help both countries develop principles for mutual cooperation and conflict resolution. Maintaining the One China policy is a prerequisite for this. To meet the North Korean threat, America should bolster regional defenses and isolate banks that finance the Kim regime. Both challenges, along with many others, require substantially larger U.S. military budgets, along with stronger security and economic ties with Asian allies and India.

The pivot to Asia should not come at the expense of Europe, and the United States must not ignore the threats Russia poses. As with China, the United States should engage and contain Russia, while re-opening channels of strategic communication with Russia to manage disputes. Suspending European missile defense and ceasing NATO expansion will aid this process. At the same time, the United States and Europe must maintain sanctions on Russia — for its actions in Ukraine until Russia implements the Minsk agreement, and for Russian interference in U.S. elections. NATO nations should also increase military spending and permanently deploy an armored division to Poland and brigades to each of the Baltic States. Stronger coordination with European allies will be crucial for this strong response to Russian aggression.

The United States also must undertake other crucial tasks while addressing the Chinese and Russian challenges in Eurasia. These tasks include strengthening U.S. economic growth, in part through exploration of domestic oil and gas resources; renegotiating and passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the North American Free Trade Agreement to spur U.S. manufacturing jobs while stabilizing global markets and combating Russian and Chinese geoeconomic coercion; bolstering U.S. cybersecurity; reducing instability in Mexico; addressing climate change; and strengthening international institutions that maintain a U.S.-led world order.

Even if Trump implements the above policies, the United States will face global crises. Let us wish him well in his efforts to secure vital U.S. national interests.

Blackwill’s entire list of proposed policy actions can be found here.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Robert D. Blackwill is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished scholar at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He was deputy national security advisor for strategic planning, presidential envoy to Iraq, and ambassador to India in the George W. Bush administration.