With John Bolton now out as President Trump’s national security adviser, it’s a great time to review the Trump foreign policy record so far. My grade? Though disappointing in some important respects, it’s been pretty good. Moreover, Bolton’s departure signals that performance could improve significantly, at least from the kind of America First perspective on which Mr. Trump ran during his 2016 campaign. That’s less because of Bolton’s individual influence than because what his (clearly forced) exist tells us about the President’s relationship with the Republican Party and conservative establishment.
There’s no doubt that the Trump foreign policy record is seriously lacking in major, game-changing accomplishments. But that’s a globalist, and in my view, wholly misleading standard for judging foreign policy effectiveness. As I’ve written previously, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is most effective when it’s winning wars and creating alliances and ending crises and creating new international regimes and the like makes sense only for those completely unaware – or refusing to recognize – that its high degrees of geopolitical security and economic self-reliance greatly undercut the need for most American international activism. Much more appropriate measures of success include more passive goals like avoiding blunders, building further strength and wealth (mainly through domestic measures), and reducing vulnerabilities. (Interestingly, former President Obama, a left-of-center globalist, saltily endorsed the first objective by emphasizing – privately, to be sure – how his top foreign policy priority was “Don’t do stupid s–t.”)
And on this score, the President can take credit for keeping campaign promises and enhancing national security. He’s resisted pressure from Bolton and other right-of-center globalists to plunge the country much more deeply militarily into the wars that have long convulsed Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, and seems determined to slash the scale of U.S. involvement in the former – after nineteen years.
He’s exposed the folly of Obama’s approach to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Although Tehran has threatening to resume several operations needed to create nuclear explosives material since Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the previous administration’s multilateral Iran deal, it’s entirely possible that the agreement contained enough loopholes to permit such progress anyway. Moreover, the President’s new sanctions, their devastating impact on Iran’s economy, and the inability of the other signatories of Obama’s multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to circumvent them have both debunked the former President’s assumption that the United States lacked the unilateral power to punish Iran severely for its nuclear program and ambitions, and deprived Tehran of valuable resources for causing other forms of trouble throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Trump taught most of the rest of the world another valuable lesson about the Middle East when he not only recognized the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but actually moved the U.S. Embassy there. For decades, American presidential contenders from both parties had promised to endorse what many of Israel’s supporters called its sovereign right to choose its own capital, but ultimately backed down in the face of warnings that opinion throughout the Arab world would be explosively inflamed, that American influence in the Middle East would be destroyed, and U.S. allies in the region and around the world antagonized and even fatally alienated.
But because the President recognized how sadly outdated this conventional wisdom had become (for reasons I first explained here), he defied the Cassandras, and valuably spotlighted how utterly powerless and friendless that Palestinians had become. That they’re no closer to signing a peace agreement with Israel hardly reflects an American diplomatic failure. It simply reveals how delusional they and especially their leaders remain.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s Middle East strategy does deserve criticism on one critical ground: missing an opportunity. That is, even though he’s overcome much Congressional and even judicial opposition and made some progress on strengthening American border security, he’s shown no sign of recognizing the vital America First-type insight holding that the nation’s best hope for preventing terrorist attacks emanating from the Middle East is not “fighting them over there” – that is, ever more engagement with a terminally dysfunctional region bound to spawn new violent extremist groups as fast as they can be crushed militarily. Instead, the best hope continues to be preventing the terrorists from coming “over here” – by redoubling border security.
The Trump record on North Korea is less impressive – but not solely or even partly because even after two summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, no progress has been made toward eliminating the North’s nuclear weapons or even dismantling the research program that’s created them, or toward objectives such as signing a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War formally that allegedly would pave the way for a nuclear deal. (Incidentally, I’m willing to grant that the peninsula is quieter today in terms of major – meaning long-range – North Korean weapons tests than when the President took office – and that ain’t beanbag.)
Still, the main – and decisive – Trump failure entails refusing to act on his declared instincts (during his presidential campaign) and bolstering American security against nuclear attack from North Korea by withdrawing from the peninsula the tens of thousands of U.S. troops who served as a “tripwire” force. As I’ve explained previously, this globalist strategy aimed at deterring North Korean aggression in the first place by leaving an American president no choice except nuclear weapons use to save American servicemen and women from annihilation by superior North Korean forces.
But although this approach could confidently be counted on to cow the North before Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons of its own capable of striking the United States, and therefore arguably made strategic sense, now that the North has such capabilities or is frighteningly close, such “extended deterrence” is a recipe for exposing major American cities to nuclear devastation. And if that situation isn’t inexcusable enough, the United States is playing such a dominant role in South Korea’s defense largely because the South has failed to field sufficient forces of its own, even though its wealthier and more technologically advanced than the North by orders of magnitude. (Seoul’s military spending is finally rising rapidly, though – surely due at least in part to Trump pressure.)
Nonetheless, far from taking an America First approach and letting its entirely capable Asian allies defend themselves and incentivizing them plus the Chinese and Russians to deal as they see fit with North Korean nuclear ambitions that are most threatening to these locals, the President seems to be happy to continue allowing the United States to take the diplomatic lead, bear much heavier defense spending burdens than necessary, and incurring wholly needless nuclear risk. Even worse, his strategy toward Russia and America’s European allies suffers the exact same weakness – at best.
Finally (for now), the President has bolstered national security by taken urgently needed steps to fight the Chinese trade and tech predation that has gutted so much of the American economy’s productive sectors that undergird its military power, and that his predecessors either actively encouraged, coddled, or ignored – thereby helping China greatly increase its own strength.
In this vein, it’s important to underscore that these national security concerns of mine don’t stem from a belief that China must be contained militarily in the Asia-Pacific region, or globally, as many globalists-turned-China economic hawks are maintaining. Of course, as long as the United States remains committed to at least counterbalancing China in this part of the world, it’s nothing less than insane to persist in policies that help Beijing keep building the capabilities that American soldiers, sailors, and airmen may one day need to fight.
I’ll be writing more about this shortly, but my main national security concerns reflect my belief that a world in which China has taken the military and especially technological need may not directly threaten U.S. security. But it will surely be a world in which America will become far less able to defend its interest in keeping the Western Hemisphere free of excessive foreign influence, a la the Monroe Doctrine, and in which American national finances and living standards will erode alarmingly.
The question remains, however, of whether a Bolton-less administration’s foreign policy will tilt significantly further toward America First-ism. President Trump remains mercurial enough to make any such forecasting hazardous. And even if he wasn’t, strategic transitions can be so disruptive, and create such short-term costs and even risks, that they’re bound to take place more unevenly than bloggers and think tankers and other scribblers would like to see.
But I see a case for modest optimism: Just as the end of Trump-Russia scandal-mongering and consequent impeachment threat has greatly reduced the President’s need to court the orthodox Republicans and overall conservative community that remain so influential in and with Congress in particular, and throw them some big bones on domestic policy (e.g., prioritizing cutting taxes and ending Obamacare), it’s greatly reduced his need to cater to the legacy Republicans and conservatives on foreign policy.
Not that Mr. Trump has shown many signs of shifting his domestic priorities yet. But I’m still hoping that he learns the (screamingly obvious) lessons of the Republicans’ 2018 midterms losses (e.g., don’t try to take an entitlement like Obamacare away from Americans until you’re sure you can replace it with something better; don’t endorse racist sexual predators like Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore simply for partisan reasons). It’s still entirely possible that the growing dangers of his remaining globalist policies will start teaching the President similar lessons on the foreign policy front.