Discussion: (0 comments)
There are no comments available.
A public policy blog from AEI
View related content: Foreign and Defense Policy
As we enter the second year of US foreign policy under the current administration, sometimes it is hard to separate the signal from the noise. Is there a guide for the perplexed?
The new National Security Strategy may be a useful starting point. Many of the administration’s opponents conceded that National Security Adviser HR McMaster and his staff, led in this instance by Nadia Schadlow, did excellent work in crafting a thoughtful and perceptive document. The usual suspects and critics of a Republican presidency denounced the strategy — critics including the People’s Republic of China, Vladimir Putin, prominent liberal Democrats, and strict non-interventionists on the Right. Another common theme emerged among critics that the document could not possibly represent the president’s actual beliefs on foreign policy. Interestingly, this is also the fear of some Trump supporters; they fear there is a “deep state” clique around the president.
Yet the United States has and continues to have a president-centered foreign policy system. Bureaucratic influences are quite significant, but can also be overrated. At the end of the day, presidents make the big decisions. The problem with ascribing Trump’s foreign policy decisions to intense bureaucratic pressure is that he has made — from the perspective of most experts — some broadly conventional decisions. These include Afghanistan, continued reinforcements to Poland, and pressure on North Korea. He has made some unconventional ones as well: Jerusalem, the Paris climate accord withdrawal, and the travel ban. The best explanation for this variance is likely the president’s own determination of what he finds convincing in each case.
Keeping this in mind, perhaps the real meaning of the new National Security Strategy is not so esoteric after all. Here are some of its central themes:
Now you may agree with the above themes and priorities, or you may disagree. However, if you’re still entirely convinced that Trump does not believe in them, go back and reread the list. It is true the president has offered significant modifications on critical issues from his earliest language on the campaign trail. But the majority of what he has said about America’s alliances since his inauguration has reaffirmed their place in US foreign policy. To be sure, he still calls, in the bluntest of terms, for increased defense spending from allies overseas, especially in regard to Berlin. Yet the actual practice of the current administration — including the president’s language — has been, in many ways, to affirm and even sometimes bolster existing US alliances.
Trump’s most vociferous critics might be more persuasive if they did not sound as though they were trying to untie his shoelaces every minute, hoping for him to trip. Good foreign policy analysis — like good foreign policy — is empirical. A bad-faith model of any given president cannot be a useful guide because it rejects all contrary evidence. If presidents can learn, then so may their critics. On a wide range of issues, conservative Republican national security hawks will need to consider whether they are willing to take yes for an answer from this administration. Most already have.
Echo-chamber fury, lousy press coverage, meat-grinder party politics, rumors of palace intrigue, superficial tweets and counter-tweets — that is the noise.
An underlying foreign policy direction thus far emphasizing freedom of action, rebalanced and reciprocal alliance relationships, a blunt emphasis on US national interests, attention to the domestic economic sources of power, continuing forward military presence, counter-pressure against numerous foreign adversaries, and a new American nationalism — that is the signal.
In this year and beyond when it comes to US foreign policy, consider focusing on the signal, not the noise.
There are no comments available.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2018 American Enterprise Institute