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Nobody’s Asking for Trump to Be a Genius

But is it too much for him to at least show some foreign-policy common sense?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to the crowd during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs up to the crowd during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When we teach, write, or think about foreign policy, there’s a tendency to focus our attention on extremes, either on prominent examples of extraordinary success or cases of abject failure. We are inspired by creative initiatives like the Marshall Plan, bold moves like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the stubborn tenacity of U.S. President Jimmy Carter that produced the Camp David Accords, or perhaps U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s opening to China in 1972. We contrast these examples of diplomatic artistry with big and obvious blunders, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s failure to recognize the full extent of Adolf Hitler’s bellicosity, or U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ill-fated decision to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1964.

Yet focusing on these extreme examples can also be misleading. Over time, we come to expect presidents, prime ministers, and other foreign-policy officials to be magicians who can pull multiple rabbits from the foreign-policy hat and produce Nobel Peace Prize-worthy triumphs at little cost or risk. Anyone who believed U.S. President Donald Trump could get Mexico to pay for a border wall that it repeatedly insisted it didn’t even want was succumbing to this sort of illusion, as did the president himself when he thought he could charm North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into giving up the nuclear arsenal that protects the regime in Pyongyang from direct attack.

Moreover, looking only at the success stories—and portraying them as miraculous, one-sided triumphs—encourages us to think that brilliant leaders can win great victories without ever having to compromise. The truth is that unconditional surrender is rare in the annals of foreign policy, and success almost always requires that all of the parties get at least some of what they wanted. If we misremember past successes as purely one-sided triumphs, we create a false standard that future leaders will never meet. Even when a foreign-policy initiative succeeds, but still falls slightly short of perfection (see under: the Iran nuclear deal) critics will carp that the people in charge were incompetent buffoons or worse.

I suggest we lower the bar a little. Instead of a perfect foreign policy, or a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride of dramatic new initiatives, what if we settled for a foreign and defense policy that wasn’t an insult to our collective intelligence? I’m talking about a foreign policy that might not be heroic, brilliantly Machiavellian, or worthy of a Netflix special, but at least isn’t completely at odds with common sense and the available evidence. In other words, a foreign policy that isn’t obviously stupid on its face. Is that too much to ask?

So what might a commonsense U.S. foreign policy look like?

I’ve said this before, but the United States could start with a foreign policy that acknowledged the reality of human-induced climate change. Reasonable people could still disagree about the best way to address the problem, but an ostrich-like refusal to see what is happening around us, or to accept the steadily increasing scientific consensus about climate change’s causes and costly consequences, is just dumb. Yet as of this writing, that’s the official policy of the current U.S. administration. Maybe Trump’s recent visit to his money-losing golf resort in Ireland, which had to build a sea wall to prevent ocean erosion that even the president’s lawyers blamed on climate change, will jog his thinking on this one. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

A commonsense foreign policy would understand that the United States cannot easily rearrange the local politics of distant regions to suit its preferences, customs, principles, or ideals.

The evidence on this point is overwhelming, yet Americans still find it hard to stop trying to remake other countries in their image. Even Trump, who promised to get “out of the nation-building business,” sent more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. To be sure, a powerful country like the United States often has considerable influence over the behavior of others, to include their internal politics, but a commonsense foreign policy recognizes that the impact of that influence will be unpredictable. And the more ambitious the U.S. effort—that is, the more extensive and rapid the changes it seeks to impose—the greater the likelihood of resistance, failure, and unintended consequences. America’s example, market power, and diplomatic clout have had enormous effects over the past century, and often for the good. But when it comes to regime change, nation-building, and other efforts to spread U.S. ideals around the world, the 19th-century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s famous advice, “Surtout, pas trop de zele” (“Above all, not too much zeal”), are the watchwords of a commonsense foreign policy.

We could use a bit more common sense regarding nuclear weapons, too. Nuclear weapons have only one real purpose: to deter a direct physical attack on one’s homeland. They are quite effective at that mission, but they’re not very good for coercion or blackmail, let alone fighting an actual war against another state that has some retaliatory capacity. The United States’ present capabilities are far more than one needs for deterrence, and it is misguided to keep spending billions of dollars on enhanced nuclear war-fighting capabilities, pursuing the Holy Grail of a splendid first-strike capability would enable the United States to attack other nuclear powers without losing a few cities itself. Moral considerations aside, this illusion assumes a complicated disarming attack would work perfectly the very first time it was attempted, ignoring almost everything we know about complex military operations.

A commonsense approach to nuclear weapons would also place as much emphasis on securing existing stockpiles and weapons caches worldwide as it did on modernizing America’s own nuclear arsenal. Why? Because the theft of a warhead (or fissionable material) by a terrorist group is arguably a greater danger than any government deliberately choosing to risk suicide by launching a nuclear strike. Lastly, common sense suggests that it’s stupid to tear up arms control agreements that are working as designed, and especially when you have no idea about how to replace them with something better.

In foreign economic policy, a commonsense approach begins by rejecting protectionism—full stop—and accepting that the law of comparative advantage is correct. Donald Trump’s belief that trade surpluses are always good may be an accurate reflection of 17th-century economic reasoning, but it mostly confirms that he didn’t learn very much at Wharton. But a commonsense policy wouldn’t stop there: it would also recognize that a system of interdependent economies requires rules to function and that lowering barriers to trade also has a variety of destabilizing and dislocating political consequences. Society as a whole may benefit, but individual sectors sometimes suffer when exposed to more efficient foreign competitors.

Because the rules governing international trade matter, powerful countries try to write them in their favor. Sometimes countries try to evade the rules, or they violate them unintentionally, which leads to political quarrels of the sort we are now observing between the United States and China. None of this should be controversial at all, and commonsense trade policy would continue to embrace the general principle of free trade while acknowledging that a fully globalized economy is politically unrealistic.

Lastly, because power matters in trade (as in other aspects of life) a commonsense foreign economic policy would eschew bilateral bullying and try to build coalitions in support of key U.S. objectives. A more effective way to get China to amend its own practices would have been to remain in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and enlist the European Union and others as negotiating partners, instead of picking trade fights with nearly every consequential economy and using the threat of tariffs to address unrelated issues like migration.

A commonsense foreign policy would also place the terrorist threat in perspective. Again, reasonable people can disagree on exactly how the United States should deal with al Qaeda, Boko Haram, white supremacists at home, and other terrorist activities, but the first step toward a smarter policy is understanding the magnitude of the danger. Americans still think of terrorism as a top policy priority, but the actual danger they face from it is remarkably low. According to the New America think tank, for example, since 9/11, jihadis have killed just over 100 people in the United States, out of a population nearing 350 million. By contrast, day-to-day gun violence kills roughly 100 Americans every single day. Terrorist and insurgent violence remains a serious issue in some war-torn countries—such as Afghanistan—but in the United States, the risk that someone will be involved in a genuine terrorist attack is vanishingly small. Yet the irrational fear of terrorism continues to shape discourse on many topics, including immigration, and continues to justify far-flung military deployments in more places than I can keep track of.

Common sense might also lead us to question the wisdom of extending security commitments to countries that the United States has no vital interest in defending, based on the naive assumption that the commitment alone is enough to ensure it will never have to be honored. Again, there can be honest disagreements over whether it was a good idea to extend NATO membership to states such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Montenegro. None of them make NATO significantly stronger, and several of them of difficult to defend, so it is not obvious how the North Atlantic alliance (or the United States) benefits from their inclusion. The problem is that Americans blithely promised to come to these countries’ aid if they were ever attacked (which is what NATO’s Article 5 implies, though it’s not quite an ironclad commitment), mostly because they convinced themselves they’d never have to actually do it. This situation may not trouble Americans now, but if that marker ever gets called in, they could end up fighting for an interest that is not vital or end up reneging on a commitment that should never have been made. Common sense tells us that Washington should not promise to send Americans to fight and die for interests that were not critical to their security or prosperity. At a minimum, they should have a serious public debate about the matter before doing so, instead of reflexively rubber-stamping new commitments.

Finally, a commonsense foreign policy would strike a better balance between a stubborn refusal to listen to what other countries have to say and a tendency to believe whatever America’s current friends are telling it. For someone like National Security Advisor John Bolton, the opinions of other countries do not matter very much, and listening to foreign advice—or even worse, being influenced by it—is almost a surrender of U.S. sovereignty. That instinct explains why the United States refuses to establish diplomatic relations with countries like Iran, which makes it harder for it to understand that country and limits its capacity to shape the country’s leaders’ and its citizens’ thinking over time. While the United States remains aloof, countries like Russia or China talk to them constantly. Russia and China also have normal relations with Iranian rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. They gain influence with all of them in this way, while Washington gives its up for no gain.

The opposite problem—America’s unique susceptibility to foreign influence—may be even worse. As I’ve noted before, the United States is without doubt the most permeable great power in modern history. Foreign countries have become adept at telling U.S. officials what they want to hear and appealing to their lofty sense of global responsibility. They can also shape U.S. policy through lobbying campaigns and more straightforward forms of influence-peddling, in the hopes that they can get Americans to see their interests as their own. Of course, doing this is even easier if top U.S. officials are poorly informed, inexperienced, and vulnerable to flattery. But people like that could never reach high office in this country, could they?

Instead of expecting every president or secretary of state to be a combination of Otto von Bismarck, Klemens von Metternich, and George C. Marshall, I’d settle for America’s foreign policy being in the hands of officials who were honest, grounded in reality, resistant to wishful thinking, cognizant of American power and its limits, and willing to work with others to pursue sensible goals. Given how well off the United States is compared to most other countries, it doesn’t need to have miracle workers, wizards, or magicians handling its foreign policy. At this point I’d settle for integrity, competence, and consistency. It’s just common sense.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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