Why Trump’s Short-Term Focus Could Put America Last

U.S. foreign policy is built on shaping the global playing field to America’s advantage. The president’s shoot-from-the-hip approach doesn’t do him any favors.

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 24:    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives for a campaign rally at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on October 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. There are 14 days until the the presidential election.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 24: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives for a campaign rally at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on October 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. There are 14 days until the the presidential election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The biggest unanswered question about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is when — or indeed if — he will move past the administration’s current “live in the now” approach and try to proactively shape the world Americans must live in.

So far, the administration’s approach has been to strike hard and fast at urgent challenges, without worrying about cascading effects or long-term consequences. The administration appears to view this approach as a feature — not a bug — having criticized former President Barack Obama’s administration for deliberations that produced, according to the Trump worldview, paralysis and for a failure to act.

The U.S. presidential campaign focused on foreign policy to a surprisingly small extent, with true debate between the candidates limited to only a few topics: the Islamic State, Russia, and Iran. No mention of the nation’s policy toward Afghanistan, to give just one conspicuous example, arose in the presidential debates — despite the sacrifice of thousands of American lives and billions of taxpayer dollars. And Trump’s policy toward whole continents, such as Latin America and Africa, remains largely unarticulated.

As days and weeks pass, key elements of Trump’s foreign policy are now coming into focus. Some show stark breaks with past administrations, like the rejection of multilateral trade deals in favor of bilateral approaches and the recently announced travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq — an active member of the anti-Islamic State coalition. In other areas, Trump’s foreign policy shows an underlying continuity with past administrations, in substance if not style. Past administrations, too, have tried to get NATO allies to devote a larger share of their GDPs to defense, improve relations with Russia, get better deals for the United States in trade negotiations, and challenge the United Nations on a number of fronts. They just haven’t done so on Twitter.

Yet one major area of Trump’s foreign policy remains a mystery: Will he continue a decades-long approach to foreign policy that attempts to shape the strategic landscape, not just today but for the long term? And if he does, how similar or different will that strategy be from that of past presidents? The answers have much more fundamental consequences than many Americans realize.

Headlines focus rather hysterically on short-term crises and hot-button issues. But unbeknownst to many Americans, most day-to-day foreign policy consists of building relationships and institutions around the world, across a range of issues and areas, in ways that benefit U.S. security and economic interests for decades.

Few recognize, for instance, that the United States helps train and strengthen law enforcement; militaries, navies, and coast guards; and government agencies around the world to help them stop illegal flows of weapons, narcotics, money, and terrorists before they undermine allies and hit U.S. shores. The U.S. government contributes expertise and financial support, but other governments do most of the work, take most of the risk, and foot most of the bill. It’s a good deal for Americans, as well as our partners.

The United States also strengthens the health and agricultural systems of poorer countries to help them stop the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola that threaten American lives and the spread of pathogens that threaten the crops and livestock of U.S. farmers and ranchers (and, as a result, U.S. food security and exports).

The United States works with partners overseas to strengthen the rule of law, which gives American companies a level playing field upon which their superior products and productivity can outperform the competition and keep workers employed in good American jobs back home.

The United States helps stabilize and grow foreign countries, like Colombia, which then become major export markets for U.S. goods and more effective partners in the fight against terrorists and criminals. And the United States for decades has invested in building relationships with emerging leaders, military officers, journalists, and other opinion leaders who will be our friends for decades.

This agenda is not Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative. It has been held by American presidents since the end of World War II. And it is surely embraced by some members of the president’s cabinet, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has advocated on the record for using American power in all its forms and noted memorably that if Congress doesn’t adequately fund diplomacy and development, it would have to buy him more bullets.

Nor is this agenda part of a contest between “hard power” and “soft power” — a vapid dichotomy that fails to appreciate that America is most powerful when it amplifies one form of influence with the other.

President Trump argued clearly in his inaugural address to put America first. Will he see, like our greatest global statesmen, that truly putting America first means shaping the playing field? Or will he play our opponents’ game on their terms?

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

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