Trump has signaled big changes to American foreign policy. Putting aside the specifics of those policies, history teaches us is that to be successful, US foreign policy is best conducted in a unified (non-partisan) way, and consistent with the core US foreign policy goals and principles.
The Core Goals and Principles of US Foreign Policy
It doesn't matter which political party is in control, the core goals of US foreign policy include the following:
- Promote and protect American security, military and national defense
- Promote and protect American economic interests
- Promote and protect American ideological interests and values (support justice, Democracy and freedom in the world and oppose communism, fascism and terrorism)
- Promote humanitarian interests - help others who are at risk, and protect the human race from destruction (including nuclear destruction and climate threats).
Sometimes these goals clash or have different priorities. If so, a determination needs to be made - often by the President - as to what's best for the country overall.
A Brief (and Simplified) History of US Foreign Policy
Some of the foreign policy changes proposed by Trump may be better understood by considering them in light of past foreign policy successes and failures.
Pre-Industrialization - Washington's Farewell Address, and the Monroe Doctrine
In the early part of American history, when the US navy and military were not strong, we pursued a safe foreign policy best summarized in President George Washington's Farewell Address. In it, Washington advised the country to avoid "foreign entanglements" by not getting mixed up in European conflicts (between France and England). Washington also warned that the country needed to be unified and to avoid the "baneful effects" of factions, where different groups put their own political and regional interests above the interests of the country overall. “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” Farewell Address
A few decades later - in what became known as the Monroe Doctrine - President Monroe warned the European powers to stay out of, and not try to colonize, the Western Hemisphere. Effectively, the US was becoming strong enough to declare to the world - "stay out of our back yard"...
Industrial Era and the World Wars - the Search for New Markets and Japanese Interment
By the mid-1800s, the US was becoming a world industrial power, able to manufacture a surplus of goods. As a result, we looked for new markets in which to sell those goods, and we tended to favor pro-free-trade policies.
In the 1900s, although certain groups in the US tried to keep us out of both the first and second world wars, those isolationist tendencies were overcome by a combination of factors, including the economic threats to US trade, and - in the Second World War - the extreme ideological threat that Nazism posed to America's freedom and way of life, and ultimately the direct military threat of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Cold War - Opposition to Communism, the Nuclear Arms Race, and Containment of Russia
At the end of World War II, Russia had de facto control over Eastern Europe because Russian ground troops - having fought from Russia to Germany to help defeat Hitler - were spread across Europe. Stalin - the communist dictator of Russia - aggressively leveraged this position of strength and sought to expand Russian interests. This span of Russian control was referred to by Winston Churchill as the Iron Curtain.
George Kennan, a US diplomat stationed in Russia, in a famous paper, articulated what became known as the US policy of containment. Kennan warned that Russia would aggressively expand around the world, unless the US "contained" that expansion. This led to a series of alliances - including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ("NATO") - which committed the US to fight Russian expansion. The US also adopted the "Domino Theory", which - in retrospect wrongly - assumed that any country that fell to communism would likely cause other countries within the same region to fall. (That policy in part explains our decision to fight the wars in Korea and Vietnam.)
The Cold War pitted the US against Russia as the two leading superpowers with the vast majority of the nuclear weapons. The Cold War involved a build up of nuclear weapons known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), as well as repeated efforts at diplomacy to reduce nuclear weapons and protect humanity. Eventually, under Ronald Reagan, because of our willingness to aggressively oppose Russia with the containment policy, to outspend Russia on nuclear weapons, and because of the superiority of our capitalist system at generating wealth, we essentially bankrupted Russia's communist system, resulting in a victory in the Cold War for the US.
Post Cold War - The American Empire, Terrorism and the Middle East
For the past 25 years or so, our policy generally has been to try to maintain the world order so as to promote stability. We have acted in ways that are similar to the Roman Empire, which favored stability as a way to promote its interests as the leading power in the world.
The US, like the Roman Empire, has repeated faced difficult choices with respect to the Middle East. In general, Middle Eastern foreign policy has presented the US with 2 bad options - either engage in a place with a world view very different than ours (other than Israel, the culture there is generally not interested in liberty and democracy), or don't engage and allow a vacuum which enables radicalization and the export of terrorism. Faced with terrible choices, sometimes combined with ignorance or rejection of the truth (such as the false claims of weapons of mass destruction by the Bush administration), greed (many administrations pursuing oil), a failure to learn from history (Obama administration's overestimation of the "Arab Spring" as a signal that self-government was taking hold) and arrogance, the US foreign policy in the Middle East - of both political parties - has generally failed, and the consequences over time have grown more extreme.
As the sole superpower, the US has taken leadership with respect to the maintenance of the world's trading system, the world's alliances among democracies, and leadership regarding issues that threaten the existence of humans on the planet - nuclear arms and climate change.
American Foreign Policy Under Trump
Trump has signed that he wants a new foreign policy that includes the following:
(i) to pull back from free trade, use tariffs to get better bilateral trade deals for the US, and renegotiate existing free trade arrangements (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement - NAFTA and the World Trade Organization - WTO);
(ii) to pull back from existing longstanding treaties and alliances with democratic allies - such as under NATO - because he thinks that the US shoulders too much of the cost of maintaining the international world order, and that other countries should pay for their own defense;
(iii) to move closer to Russia, and he has praised Putin personally for his leadership;
(iv) to reenergize the nuclear arms race; and
(v) to fight ISIS (although it is not clear if he wants to engage more - with US ground troops - or less in the Middle East), to more vigorously support Israel, and to "build a wall" and to oppose immigration from Mexico and the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Trump's potential efforts to make America more isolationist - to "avoid foreign entanglements" in Washington's words - will end up resulting in better protection and development of American manufacturing jobs, or will lead to unintended consequences.
However, in my view, there should be bipartisan agreement on the following foreign policy goals, principles and lessons from the history of American foreign policy:
- Trump's praise of Putin's leadership is inconsistent with US interests and US values. Trump respects that Putin is strong and gets things done, but Trump ignores that Putin does so through murder, suppression of the free press, propaganda and ignoring domestic and international law. He is a totalitarian dictator. To praise his style is wrong, and not consistent with US foreign policy interests. Putin's policies are clearly anti-American, including his cyber attacks on the US.
- Trump's foreign policy decisions must be free of conflicts and for the benefit of all Americans. For example, it may (or may not) be that there are valid reasons for the US to move closer to Russia, but if we do so, it must be for reasons that promote the interests of all Americans. With respect to the Russian cyber-hacking, Trump has seemed to be more concerned with the political fallout than the fact that Russia attacked a core US institution. Moreover, given the various Russian business contacts of people in the Trump administration, to get proper support for a policy that moves us closer to Russia, Trump will need to demonstrate a lack of conflicts.
- Trump's tweet about "expanding" US nuclear capabilities was reckless. I understand the negotiation value of signaling to the world that he - as the leader of the US - will be a warrior, but whatever nuclear policy he pursues needs to take into account the stakes - the destruction of humankind - and even if the US pulls back on its foreign policy role in the world, we have tremendous interest in ensuring that other countries - especially Russia - follow international laws relating to nuclear weapons.
- Trump's foreign policy should not ignore American Constitutional principles. It is not the case that US foreign policy should be excessively idealistic at the cost of American jobs or other interests, but if we ignore our principles (for example by supporting totalitarian dictators), or if we ignore the civil rights of our citizens (for example through different treatment of people based on their religion), we erode the basis of what truly makes America great - freedom, the rule of law and justice.
- Foreign policy should be a team sport. Traditionally, Republicans and Democrats have tried to contain partisan disputes to domestic policy, because in foreign policy, the US needs to function together as one unit; otherwise, we make ourselves weaker as against the rest of the world. " On a team, it's not the strength of individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how they all function together." Bill Belichick, NFL Head Coach. In short, foreign policy should be a team sport.