What Now for America in the World?

by Robert E. Hunter

The surprise election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States has raised far more questions than it has answered about the nation’s future. It has also, not unnaturally, discomfited (or at least confused) friends and allies abroad. Except for the Los Angeles Times, the polls got it wrong, and so did virtually all the pundits, a large fraction of whom wittingly or not became cheerleaders for Hillary Clinton. But there is no point in lamentations, if such are, indeed, in order. Notably, both Trump and Clinton demonstrated in their victory/concession statements the best of American political culture: the peaceful, even gracious, transfer of power.

To try judging what President Trump will do in foreign policy—the focus of Lobelog—we should return to “first principles.”

First, this election did not turn on foreign policy issues. U.S. elections never do, not in my own more than half-century in the business of politics and foreign affairs. There is only one exception, and that is trade, where both Hillary Clinton (tentatively) and Donald Trump (at high decibels) criticized the deals the United States has already cut and those our Asian and European friends hope to complete as the Tran-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Both are now in serious trouble and will at least be “renegotiated.” But trade is more a domestic concern than a foreign policy issue. In the current US debate, trade is about jobs and widespread perceptions, right or wrong, that unbridled globalization has both reduced jobs and grossly maldistributed its benefits to the American people.

Illegal immigration is also mostly a domestic issue, though with implications for US relations in the hemisphere. Ironically, there are fewer divisions across party lines than reflected in the strong position taken by Donald Trump. But linked to the economic pain of the “left behind,” Latino immigration became a hot-button issue enmeshed with the broader concerns that did so much to fuel Trump’s victory. At the same time, his election puts the last nail in the coffin of US acceptance of refugees from Middle East wars that have flooded Europe. But then that hasn’t happened in this administration and would almost surely not have happened if Hillary Clinton had won.

America First

The second principle flows from the first. The tide of popular opinion that has swept the Clinton family from public life requires the new president to focus on what needs to be done at home. “America’s interests first,” Donald Trump said in his victory speech, and he clearly meant it in two ways: not just regarding judgments he will make about foreign policy but about prioritizing matters at home. He spoke at length about infrastructure and some other domestic issues, notably “…embark[ing] upon a project of national growth and renewal.” But he kept his comments positive, refraining from taking a swipe at any current domestic policies that he opposes.

A third principle derives from the widespread view that campaign promises are made to be broken. With domestic policy, this often requires some heavy political work, because interest-group constituencies and Congress are both involved, with their own wants and needs and demands for a role in the process. But in foreign policy, the president retains a great deal of latitude. Since these issues don’t determine success or failure at the polls, he can generally can go one way or another without a great hue and cry by the electorate. Of course, there is currently both need and value in proclaiming that the United States is preeminent in the world, a need generated by the inevitable loss of the degree of influence it exercised during the Cold War. But that is more fluff than substance, to be dealt with in rhetoric more than reality.

There is one big exception to this third principle: decisions to go to war or, more generally, to use military force. Trump has articulated what might seem to be contradictory positions. On the one hand, he has called for rebuilding the US military—a matter primarily of satisfying both public perceptions of American greatness and demands by economic actors who depend on military spending. Trump’s commitment is also contradicted by the fact that, if anything, the US military is already overcapitalized.

On the other hand, in the campaign Donald Trump did appeal to the one major element of the national mood that relates to the reality of engagement abroad rather than to the psychology of American global influence: there is no popular appetite for more foreign wars. For domestic political reasons, Trump beat up on Iran during the campaign, saying that he will renegotiate (“scrap”) President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with that country. But there is no reason to expect Trump to go so far as to increase the risks of conflict. Nor, at least judging from what he said in the campaign, is he likely to increase US military involvement in Syria, as Hillary Clinton proposed to do. At the same time, he has stressed that he will continue the national commitment to countering terrorism, now centered on the Islamic State. Whether he will thus follow through on this threats to exclude Muslims from the United States—or at least to vet them heavily—hangs in the air, with major implications for US standing in the world. In the Middle East, generally, he is less beholden than was Clinton to domestic constituencies pushing for greater military activity.

On Allies and Adversaries

Much has been made of Trump’s comments about allies, and especially those in NATO, plus his so-called bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was a major theme of Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Trump’s judgment. It was linked, as well, to the highly publicized allegations of Russian attempts to interfere in the US electoral process. But a careful look at what Trump actually said does not fully support these concerns. Regarding the defense of European allies against Russian aggression, especially the Baltic States, he did not repeat the required mantra of unquestioned US fealty to the core provisions of the NATO Treaty’s Article 5. But his qualification had to do with first looking at whether these countries were “paying their bills.” Given that the Obama administration has also pressed NATO allies to increase defense spending, the sturm und drang over Trump’s comment was excessive, though his phraseology did open himself up to valid criticism.

Regarding Russia and Putin, the president-elect’s most relevant comment in his victory statement was the following: “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone. All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict…. We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.”

Of course, these comments may only reflect his hopes. If Trump does make this his leitmotif, it can prove, in dealing with Putin, to have been naïve, reflecting election-night exuberance (this attitude might apply to Iran as well – Teheran take note). But at least it is refreshing to hear a president-elect deviating from what is currently a major drift, in both Moscow and Washington, toward intensified confrontation between the United States and the Russian Federation, a rigidity of approach with old Cold War undertones that is popular among many of Hillary Clinton’s advisors.

Which leads to a final principle: that who President-elect Trump chooses for his team will be critically important in determining the direction he sets for the nation and the efficacy of his policies, abroad as well as at home. If in foreign policy he permits himself to be saddled with a team heavily composed of neocons from the George W. Bush administration—those who produced the Iraq disaster—he and the nation will be in trouble. If he populates his administration in foreign policy and defense primarily with those individuals who came forward to endorse him, at a time when most members of the nation’s talent pool were holding their noses over the prospect of his being president, there will also be failure—or worse. He would be well advised to take counsel from President Obama’s experience: “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment.”

Quality people, able to think for themselves and give good, solid, strategically relevant advice to a president, exist in both political parties. They were largely absent from the past two administrations. As a person who emphasizes success and has a reputation for engaging talent, Trump can break from the shackles of the “establishment” and build a first-rate team. And is any of its members prove inadequate, he can always say: “You’re fired.”

Photo of Donald Trump by Michael Vadon via Flickr.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


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