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.
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