Shadow Government

Here’s How to Build an Alternative Agenda in the Age of Donald Trump

It’s time for cooler heads to offer an alternative and affirmative agenda for American foreign policy and national security.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10:  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump (L) following a meeting in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Republican leadership in Congress later today on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump (L) following a meeting in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Republican leadership in Congress later today on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

I think most of us can agree that so far the age of President Donald Trump has been exhausting. In nine long months, he has taken a wrecking ball to U.S. foreign policy first principles and sullied our standing abroad. Let’s review the tape: Our allies and partners openly question our reliability. Our adversaries are filling the void due to our lack of engagement and focus. We’re relying on tough rhetoric without any strategy to back it up. We appear to be carelessly careening into crisis with North Korea while sinking deeper into conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, with no sense of the end game.

Further, with diplomacy becoming a dirty word and key diplomatic positions remaining vacant, the State Department might as well have tumbleweeds rolling down the hallways. There are daily smear jobs on our diplomats, intelligence officials, and civil servants. Civil-military relations are trending in worrisome directions. And worst of all, the president has abdicated American moral leadership on the world stage by giving cover to white supremacists while attempting to close our doors to suffering refugees. So much for the shining city on a hill.

By the way, I don’t get up every morning looking for a reason to criticize the president on national security. I believe strongly in the idea of the loyal opposition. For the sake of the nation, I want every president to succeed on national security issues. And I know the Obama administration was far from perfect. But I long for days of debating the merits of a policy instead of wondering whether the United States would keep its most basic treaty obligations. But these are not normal times — and this is no normal president.

Like others, I’ve struggled to find my bearings since January 20. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot continue to exist in a suspended state of outrage and hand wringing when it comes to Trump. I suspect many others in the loyal opposition feel the same way. That doesn’t mean I will stop holding him accountable. I most definitely will. But those of us in the loyal opposition also have a responsibility to raise our own game.

It’s time for cooler heads to offer an alternative and affirmative agenda for American foreign policy and national security — one that reflects the best of America, not the worst. That agenda can start by establishing some first principles that reject the false choices that appear to be driving this administration’s approach. For example:

  • We can protect our citizens without compromising our values.
  • We can honor our alliances without being chumps.
  • We can prevent and defeat threats to national security without solely relying on the U.S. military.
  • We can compete with our adversaries without backing ourselves into unnecessary wars.

These false choices are toxic and dangerous because they distract from what actually works to keep the United States secure. Our values, our allies, and our diplomats are all necessary to our national security, not nice-to-haves.

The loyal opposition needs to develop a forward-looking agenda that is relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing America in the world. And here we should think big — now is not the time for small ball. I’ve got my own running list of hard national security questions that I’m hoping to find answers to during this time.

These include:

  • How can the United States help bring order in the face of growing global disorder? What would a roadmap to a more functional world that advances American security and prosperity look like?
  • How can the world’s democracies work together better to fight back against assaults on our institutions?
  • It seems easy to get into wars, but why is it so hard to get out of them? How can we improve peacemaking?
  • How can we economically compete in the world in ways that actually help average Americans while also making strategic gains?
  • How can we sustain our competitive advantage in national defense without breaking the bank or sacrificing critical needs at home?
  • What do realistic and sustainable solutions to Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Russia, terrorism, etc. actually look like?
  • What is the next big idea in the field of development that will improve the lives of millions?
  • What are the national security challenges we are not expecting, and how do we get ready?
  • What are the global opportunities and openings that the United States should be seizing? Where should we be placing the big strategic bets?

If there is any silver lining to the age of Trump, it’s that more Americans are getting engaged or interested on issues of foreign policy and national security. Even old partisan boundaries are softening and new collaborations are emerging. Many of us — Democrat, Republican, progressive, and conservative — realize that we need to band together to right the ship. The world is watching and hoping that we can get our act together and emerge from this period stronger.

There is an opportunity for all of us in the loyal opposition to use this time wisely and make it count. We cannot let the daily outrages wear us down. I personally refuse to let Trump define the future of America in the world without a little healthy competition of ideas. So, who’s in?

Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images

Kelly Magsamen served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2017. Prior to joining the Defense Department, Magsamen served on the National Security Council in various positions, most immediately as special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning from 2012 to 2014. During her years at NSC, she also served as the director for Iran, from 2008 to 2011; and then as director and senior advisor for Middle East reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, from 2011 to 2012.

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