Most experts agree that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and national security strategy have been disappointing so far, if not disastrous. But historians also know that this isn’t entirely surprising. Since the United States became a global power after World War II, most administrations experienced difficulties getting started. Some — like Ronald Reagan — entered office with a real sense of strategy but floundered at the outset because of bureaucratic infighting or slow staffing. Others — like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton — disdained strategy and sought to improvise, and they suffered.
Studies my colleagues and I have conducted at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center demonstrate that administrations typically flounder during their first year. That’s because presidents often focused on domestic policy and resisted efforts to think through a comprehensive national security strategy. Sometimes, presidents selected able leaders to head key departments and agencies but these appointees had trouble collaborating with one another. In other administrations, presidents have disregarded the importance of process or ignored linking foreign policy making to budgetary planning. Often, they failed to nurture allies in Congress and, in recent decades, have been slow to staff key agencies.
Despite their difficult beginnings, many administrations go on to gain their footing and experience real accomplishment in foreign policy. So there is still hope for Trump. But it’s important to first understand that he isn’t just repeating all the early errors that beleaguered his predecessors — he is magnifying them in unprecedented fashion.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump exits his plane during his trip to the Mexico border on July 23, 2015 in Laredo, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Busch/Getty Images)
First, he has no strategy. Consider the “America First Foreign Policy” that is outlined on the White House website, which appears to be the official expression of Trump’s nationalist populist foreign-policy vision. The Trump administration is “focused on American interests and American national security” and seeks “peace through strength.” Its top priority is fighting “radical Islamic terror groups.” Through aggressive military operations and other initiatives, it seeks to destroy and defeat these groups, cut off their funding, expand intelligence sharing, and engage in cyberwarfare. Next, the administration aims to rebuild the American military and gain “military dominance.” And, lastly, it plans to jettison the rotten trade deals of the past and negotiate new ones that “put American workers and businesses” ahead of the “interests of insiders and the Washington elite.”
That’s it. Note the bewildering absence of any mention whatsoever of allies and adversaries. The statement says not a word about China, not a word about Russia, not a word about NATO. The statement says not a word about North Korea or nonproliferation.
In the past, poor strategy often resulted from failures to rank priorities, reconcile values and interests, and link means and ends, resources and commitments, and budgeting and policymaking. Trump is guilty of all of the above. “America First” seeks to achieve a “stronger and more respected America.” Yet by embracing authoritarian leaders — from Vladimir Putin in Russia, to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, to Najib Razak in Malaysia, to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt — and by reneging, denigrating, or disdaining key agreements and alliances like NAFTA and NATO, Trump has put his personal imprimatur on a strategy that conveys contempt for the values and the relationships that have buttressed America’s image around the world for generations. Michael Anton, his National Security Council strategist and spokesman, likes to say that “America First” policy aspires to enhance America’s prestige and stature around the world. Yet a recent poll covering 37 countries by the Pew Research Center shows that only about 22 percent of the people in those countries have confidence that President Trump will do “the right thing” when it comes to international affairs. This number compares to 64 percent who previously had said that they believed in the ability of Barack Obama to make the right choices. At the same time, favorable views of the United States have plummeted from about 64 to 49 percent.
There are plenty of other strategic contradictions. Trump seeks to enhance America’s position around the world while cutting hundreds of positions and proposing slashing billions of dollars from the State Department. He hopes to contain or constrain China yet jettisons the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the key instrument for preserving America’s future influence in Asia. He yearns to achieve military hegemony yet shows no sign of reconciling his defense buildup with other budgetary priorities. He needs to build relationships with key legislators but clearly has undermined the confidence of Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has publicly voiced skepticism about Trump’s competence and stability.
History suggests that administrations head toward disaster when presidents hand off too much responsibility in foreign policy to subordinates, when top advisors compete to be the top dog and can’t get along with one another, and when Cabinet officials are slow to fill key positions. We see signs of all these things in this administration.
Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was dismissed; his secretary of state seems to be sidelined; and key positions throughout the Department of State and the Department of Defense remain unfilled. More significantly, Trump’s most consequential advisors seem to be at odds with one another and with the president himself about the administration’s trade policy and its relationships with China, Russia, and America’s closest allies in Europe. His trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, and Wilbur Ross, his secretary of commerce, clearly are on a different page than his key economic advisor Gary Cohn and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. We see little sign that Trump is inclined to or knows how to resolve these differences.
Meanwhile, the president refuses to say negative words about Putin’s Russia, but James Mattis, his secretary of defense, and H.R. McMaster, his national security advisor, clearly see ominous signs of Russian expansionism in Central Europe and the Baltic and seek to offer diplomatic support and military aid. Trump’s advisors want to reassure and collaborate with South Korea in the face of North Korean nuclear testing and bellicose posturing, yet the president is inclined to threaten Seoul with a termination of the U.S.-Korean trade pact. And, meanwhile, the president veers wildly in his dealings with Beijing: from recasting his anti-Chinese campaign rhetoric to depending on Chinese assistance restraining Kim Jong Un to threatening expansive trade sanctions if President Xi Jinping does not succeed.
Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, addresses media in 1945 in Washington, D.C.. (AFP/Getty Images)
The trends are bad for the Trump administration, but perhaps not hopeless. As noted above, many administrations falter at the onset. Perhaps no president stumbled as much as did Harry S. Truman after he took over the Oval Office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. His first 12 or 18 months were filled with challenges, frustrations, and failures. He witnessed Soviet inroads throughout much of Eastern Europe, Soviet probes in Iran and Turkey, communist advances in China, financial strife in Great Britain, and political instability, economic disarray, and revolutionary nationalist rumblings in the Third World. Reconstruction in Western Europe proceeded slowly and occupation policies in Japan, southern Korea, and western Germany floundered. At home, he faced labor unrest, rising prices, and partisan furor. Yet Truman recovered. From defeat and disarray came a strategy, a process, and a team that set in place a foreign policy that revitalized America’s posture in global affairs and that positioned Truman to win an unexpected victory in the 1948 presidential election.
How did Truman manage his turnaround? First, he dismissed his secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, whose stature at Foggy Bottom was dismal and whose loyalty the president doubted. In his place, Truman appointed Gen. George Marshall, the former army chief of staff, orchestrator of victory in World War II, and arguably the most respected man in America at the time. Marshall was disciplined, cared about strategy, focused on planning, and grasped the importance of process and teamwork. Marshall formed a new office, the Policy Planning Staff, and appointed George F. Kennan to head it. He also worked closely with Army and Navy military officers and civilian officials whom he knew well, supporting the passage of the National Security Act that was designed to enhance political-military-economic coordination. More than anything, Truman and Marshall ranked priorities. Was the threat of economic disaster and communist subversion more likely than Soviet military aggression? They said yes and supported the Economic Recovery Act, which included what became known as the Marshall Plan. Should America pay more attention to western Germany and Western Europe or to China? Western Germany and Western Europe were put at the top of the list.
In addition to strategy, process, and personnel, Truman and Marshall grasped that they needed to link foreign-policy priorities to a budgetary strategy and domestic goals. Much to the chagrin of James Forrestal, the newly appointed and first secretary of defense, and much to the annoyance of his former military colleagues, Marshall supported a budget that constrained defense expenditures and highlighted economic aid abroad. Truman demanded that his military chieftains fall in line and abide his budgetary ceilings. And meanwhile, in 1947 and 1948, with the help of Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Robert Lovett, the president cultivated relations with Republican foes in Congress and put together a bipartisan consensus that was critical to the success of his policies in the early stages of the Cold War. This meant legislative support for a gigantic foreign aid program as well as incurring ongoing military commitments in Europe — the origins of NATO — that would have been regarded as unthinkable just 18 months before.
President Donald Trump sits with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
There are some lessons here for the Trump administration.
First, a president needs to take charge. When taking office, past presidents have often been inclined to rely on their foreign policy, intelligence, and national security advisors and focus on their domestic priorities. Certainly, this was the case for Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. In the early months of every administration, process often is inchoate and the vetting of important options improvised. Presidents are bombarded with information, bludgeoned by pressure groups, and distracted by never-ending crises of the day. Trump wants to focus on health care, tax cuts, infrastructure, and immigration, and he turns his attention to foreign policy episodically when faced with unexpected and portentous actions like Syrian use of chemical weapons and North Korean nuclear testing, or when visiting dignitaries trek into the White House. He must learn, as did his predecessors, that national security requires his systematic attention, that quick decisions based on a momentary crisis or an initial conversation invite larger problems down the road. In short, Trump needs to get involved in a sustained way and think strategically. Whether he has the personality and temperament to do so is another question, but that is how other presidents have recovered from the trying experiences of their first months in office.
Thinking strategically means ranking threats, delineating priorities, and linking means and ends. Today, there are many threats, including China’s growing power, Russia’s adventurism, nuclear proliferation, radical Islamic terrorism, and climate change. Trump must decide which of these is most worrisome, which requires his greatest attention, and which should command the greatest allocation of America’s resources. These choices are incredibly difficult to make, and reasonable people will disagree, but having a strategic perspective is essential in order to allocate budgetary resources appropriately, redeploy military assets, and prioritize weapons programs. If you are fighting terrorism as your first priority, you need different assets than if your main focus is on containing Russian inroads in Ukraine and the Baltic; if you think thwarting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is your overriding priority, your dealings with China need to be reconfigured accordingly. Thinking strategically is essential for defining priorities, resolving the tradeoffs between competing goals, and making budgetary decisions.
Thinking strategically also demands ongoing efforts to reconcile interests and values. All U.S. presidents since World War II have put America first, all of them have pursued U.S. interests, all of them have been attentive to U.S. military power, and most have quested for military dominance. But all of them also have grasped that America’s values and cultural influence — its soft power — constitute key ingredients of America’s influence and appeal. To their credit, Trump’s advisors like Cohn, McMaster, and even Tillerson occasionally have tried to say that “America First is rooted in confidence that our values are worth defending and promoting.” But the president’s relentless stress on “interests” and his dalliances with ruthless and repressive authoritarians tarnish America’s image abroad, agitate democratic allies, and demoralize courageous proponents of liberal values around the globe. “Making America great again” cannot possibly mean obfuscating or demeaning America’s values.
Abandoning human rights, democratization, and multilateral economic and legal agreements would guide U.S. foreign policy in new and dangerous directions. Perhaps that is what Trump wants, but a purely transactional foreign policy erodes trust and predictability, essential ingredients for world order and U.S. national security. Reliability is what reassures friends and deters adversaries.
Thinking strategically also means integrating foreign policy with a sensible domestic agenda. We should not forget that when Roosevelt and Truman embraced the Bretton Woods monetary system after World War II, their intent was to use institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to foster international financial stability and commercial growth abroad while allowing for macroeconomic management at home. When this system collapsed in the 1970s, these goals were not abandoned. Today, as in the past, Trump’s overriding goal of domestic economic growth should not be incompatible with a well-conceived strategic agenda abroad. But it is. The president wants better jobs, higher wages, and improved living standards and opportunities for U.S. workers. Yet Trump’s mantra, “buy American, hire American,” actually endangers U.S. interests abroad and undermines his goals at home. America’s best-paying jobs are located in its export sector, and the factory jobs that have disappeared, according to most economists, are the result of automation. If “buy American, hire American” means repudiating NAFTA, terminating bilateral free trade accords with nations like South Korea, and retaliating against China, the resulting higher prices paid by most workers for many of their necessities will hurt them in the aggregate far more than they will benefit by the marginal increase in jobs. And, meanwhile, the retaliatory countermeasures will hurt American workers in America’s best-paying manufacturing sectors.
In reality, the economic nationalism that Trump espouses jeopardizes his relations with key allies, interferes with his efforts both to contain and to cooperate with China, and offers little help to U.S. workers. That is not to say that Trump and his advisors should not negotiate to redress infringements on patents, curtail foreign governments’ inappropriate subsidies, and remove their illegal impediments to U.S. exports. But if Trump wants to “make America great again” he must not undermine the liberal international order on which America’s greatness has been premised. He must make that order work better by embracing a strategy that seeks to redresses its defects while ameliorating the conditions of American workers at home. To do so, he must jettison the rhetorical trope “hire American, buy American” and embrace policies that stimulate demand at home, promote the competitive ability of American businesses abroad, and support displaced, unemployed, and underemployed workers. This could be done through infrastructure expenditures, tax reforms (not tax cuts), antitrust practices, and retraining programs. Such domestic priorities could harmonize with a far-sighted strategic program abroad.
Thinking strategically requires teamwork and process. One can imagine that with the dismissal of Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, there is the prospect for improved process, coordination, and staffing. Retired Gen. John Kelly, the new chief of staff, like McMaster and Mattis shares a commitment to the alliances that the United States has forged and to the global order it has managed. As military men, they also grasp the importance of a disciplined process and collaboration. But they remain hampered by a president who has failed to fill critical positions in the Defense and State departments and ambassadorial posts abroad. Dealing with the Korean crisis without an ambassador in Seoul and announcing new tough policies toward Pakistan without an ambassador in Islamabad invite unnecessary difficulties. Trying “to make America great again” with a decimated and demoralized State Department is a recipe for failure. These problems are easy to solve if there is the will to address them.
Forging an effective national security policy is a formidable enterprise, but other presidents have recovered from shaky beginnings. It takes more than a formal strategy paper, which this administration, like its predecessors, is now preparing. It requires a president and a group of advisors who can think strategically, rank threats, agree on priorities, link means and ends, and work with Congress. It requires a president and a group of advisors who can work collaboratively, respect one another, abide by a process, and forge trusting relationships with key legislators. It takes a president who is more than a dealmaker.
Transactional predilections based on expediency cannot substitute for strategic thinking, orderly process, and capable staffing. Past presidents often have learned these lessons after bitter setbacks, but they did learn. We’ll all soon learn whether Trump can do the same.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Melvyn P. Leffler is Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the Miller Center, University of Virginia. His latest book is Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920 - 2015 (Princeton University Press).
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