Clearly, the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s has brought Americans no respite from transparently witless foreign policy-related Trump-bashing by the Mainstream Media. Hot on the heels of The New York Times‘ classic of fake history spotlighted yesterday in RealityChek came this Bloomberg.com piece accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (and by extension the entire Trump administration) with two of the worst diplomatic sins imaginable – not recognizing instances where the United States lacks the leverage to achieve its goals, and lacking a strategy to solve this problem.
But Noah Feldman’s December 28 column at least boasted one (unintended) virtue: If the president and his top aides read it intelligently, they’ll realize that in many cases, they’re making an even more fundamental, but eminently correctable, mistake. Just like Feldman – and the internationalist/globalist (choose your adjective) foreign policy establishment he’s part of – they keep failing to ask first-order and even second-order questions about America’s role in the world. And strangely, these are exactly the kinds of questions that President Trump often asked when he was candidate Trump.
Feldman, an international law professor at Harvard, correctly observes that the Trump administration has taken on the tasks of ending the North Korean nuclear weapons program, pressuring China to help out in a significant way, persuading Russia to back off in some unspecified way from its campaign to control neighboring Ukraine, weakening Iran’s ability to boost its influence throughout the Middle East, and pushing Pakistan to stop supporting Islamic radicals in the region.
The author also mentions that “Neither [Tillerson] nor Trump is responsible for limits to U.S. leverage” – though maybe he could have made this crucial point before the next-to-last sentence in his article?.
But like the Trump administration, Feldman never bothers to ask exactly why the United States needs to seek these objectives (the first-order question) or whether, if they are essential or desirable, the standard forms of international engagement chosen by the Trump administration (and all of its predecessors as long as they were faced with these issues) are the best responses.
Ukraine policy is the most glaring example of neglecting first-order questions. Whatever you think of Russian revanchism or Putin, it’s inexcusable to overlook that American leaders have never considered Ukraine’s independence to be anything close to a vital or even important interest for two very good reasons. First, it was actually part of the old Soviet Union from 1924 until the end of the Cold War, with absolutely no impact on U.S. security, independence, or welfare. Second, it is located so close to Russia, and so far from the United States, that there is absolutely no prospect that American or NATO military actions could defend or liberate it without resorting to the (possibly suicidal) use of nuclear weapons.
So however tragic that country’s fate has been, the only sane conclusion possible from the standpoint of U.S. interests is that the best Ukraine policy is no Ukraine policy at all. And given this structural American inability to do Ukraine much good, steps like the recent Trump administration decision to supply defensive weapons to the Ukrainians sound like suspiciously like an American decision to fight to the last Ukrainian.
The other three foreign policy challenges obviously can’t be ignored. But the common assumption – especially in the ranks of the country’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment – that the answer involves some mixture of more military pressure or smarter diplomacy (more foreign aid is usually included as well, though it hasn’t figured very prominently in the North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan debates) urgently needs reexamination.
For as I’ve often written, in many cases, Americans could well find it much less dangerous, much cheaper, and much more effective to capitalize on the country’s matchless combination of military strength and geographic isolation to neutralize these particular threats.
To summarize briefly, if Washington pulls U.S. troops out of South Korea, it would eliminate any rational need for North Korea to strike U.S. territory with nuclear weapons (which is all too likely to result from a new Korean war that engulfs those units), and with its own massive nuclear forces, the United States could credibly threaten to obliterate the North if it sent its missiles against America for any other reason. North Korea’s nuclear weapons would still be a problem for its immediate neighbors. But all those countries (including South Korea) are more than powerful and wealthy enough to deal successfully with the North on their own and even singly.
Re Middle Eastern threats, the United States should focus much more on securing its own borders to keep terrorists and much less on defeating them on foreign battlefields – let alone on “fighting their ideology” by encouraging economic development and democracy. The region’s massive dysfunction on every conceivable level (including the cultural) will keep practically guaranteeing that new jihadist or other extremist forces will replace any that are crushed militarily, and that reform efforts will go exactly nowhere.
Further, by now it should be clear to any fair-minded person that the United States has more than enough energy to marginalize the power of Middle East oil producers over its economy and the world economy. And if you don’t like fossil fuels, let’s work harder to boost the use of alternatives. Finally, as with North Korea, America’s own deterrent is the best counter to any Iranian nuclear threat to the U.S. territory. (And for those concerned with Israel’s security, the Jewish state of course has its own nuclear capabilities.)
The point here is not that any of these more domestic focused substitute strategies will be easy to put into effect or accelerate. The point is that they will be far easier to put into effect or accelerate than their more traditional counterparts, principally because America’s government, society, business community etc will have much more control over these measures than over events abroad.
During this first year of the Trump administration, no one should be the slightest bit surprised that establishmentarians like Feldman (and The New York Times‘ Landler) can’t even conceive that America’s foreign policy is stuck in a box, much less that it’s increasingly and dangerously obsolete. But President Trump ran in large measure as a foreign policy disrupter, and on many critical issues displayed impressive iconoclastic instincts. Why he hasn’t acted on more of them is one of the biggest mysteries of his presidencies so far. It could also be one of his biggest regrets.