Incoherence and Unpredictability Does Not Make Good Policy
And "America First" doesn’t mean retreating from the world.
“You people just don’t get it — you don’t realize what’s coming,” said a fervent Trump supporter to me over dinner earlier this month, a dinner that included someone Trump had named as a key foreign policy advisor during the campaign.
My dinner companions proceeded to outline an agenda that has thus far hewed closely to President Trump’s emerging foreign policy template: aggressive economic nationalism, opposing China as a key threat to U.S. interests, testing the waters of cooperating with Russia, and pushing back against “radical Islam.”
The overall package wasn’t strategically coherent, and it didn’t seem like they had thought through the risks and possible blowback of certain moves. It amounted to a disparate set of initiatives aimed at jarring the world and disrupting traditional ways of doing business in the same way that Trump has shaken the foundations of America’s politics, media, and social conventions.
If there was a central theme, it was under the “America First” slogan Trump reiterated in his inaugural address last week. One of the Trump supporters told me, “At a time of low growth and slow growth with twin deficits, the focus is at home — in fact, it is on only a few hundred counties in a few states that will be central to the 2020 campaign.” Another one said, “We want to pull back from the Middle East — what good will it do for America to stay deeply involved?”
Trump tapped into sentiments among key parts of the American public and ran on one of the vaguest foreign policy platforms America has ever seen. Yet key parts of the package he presented resonated with many Americans, as I noted last spring. He doesn’t fit into any of the traditional foreign policy schools of thought, and that’s what some Americans like about him.
But, as commander-in-chief, he is now responsible for keeping America safe. So here are three things he should do to live up to that responsibility:
Look before you leap. Game out the possible consequences of disruptive shifts that the administration might make on national security. Thinking through how other countries and non-state actors might respond will be important to giving the national security strategy more content and definition than it currently has.
Tap into the agency expertise. The transition has been slow to fill key national security positions, but there is a wealth of expertise inside the career ranks of the U.S. government. Take some steps to make sure the interagency process is bringing that expertise to the table and giving the president the best options. (There’s some useful tips on how to do this in this recent report by Kori Schake and Will Wechsler.)
Educate the American public about the value of U.S. global engagement. An effective “America First” approach will keep U.S. engagement in the world. America simply can’t be strong and prosperous at home without being strong abroad. This not the dominant message coming from the administration in its early days. There are some voices singing a different message, however: advisor Anthony Scaramucci told the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that Trump may be “one of the last great hopes of globalism.” It remains to be seen if that’s the case.
Making provocative statements and gestures may knock our adversaries and allies off balance and gain some short-term leverage, but to keep Americans safe and create lasting jobs and economic growth will require you to have more of a plan and to use all of the tools at your disposal.
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