WASHINGTON – Winning the election wasn’t easy for President-elect Donald Trump. Governing will be much tougher.
He has an opportunity to dramatically reshape a conventional wisdom that has consistently failed America. The United States has been constantly at war since the end of the Cold War. Belief in America’s “unipolar” movement led to disastrous, militarized hubris.
Trump’s foreign policy views are sometimes inconsistent and often ignorant. His bombastic rhetoric and undisciplined nature is no boon for diplomacy.
Nevertheless, he challenged the presumption that Americans must forever subsidize wealthy allies. He told Republican voters that George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion was a catastrophe. And he rejected Republicans’ and Democrats’ common enthusiasm for confronting nuclear-armed Russia. What should the incoming administration’s priorities be?
Diplomacy. Despite his claim to be the most militaristic of the presidential candidates, he also emphasized diplomacy, which was disdained by most of his GOP competitors. Trump sharply criticized some of his predecessors’ aggressive policies and urged greater engagement with countries as diverse as North Korea and Russia. Washington will have to do better at convincing instead of coercing other nations.
Russia. The U.S. is involved in a dangerous mini-Cold War with Moscow. President Vladimir Putin is an ugly character and the Russian Republic is a malignant international actor. However, Moscow is not much of a threat to America.
Moreover, Moscow has far greater interests in Syria and Ukraine than does America. Washington has no cause to risk war in either conflict and should seek a practical deal in both cases.
Syria. Although Assad is an odious figure, he has never threatened American interests, as do the jihadis who have risen in opposition. Rather than expand U.S. involvement, Washington should step back. Even a bad diplomatic deal with Russia would be better than turning the Syrian civil war into another American hot war.
Islamic State. As IS weakens and loses ground, the U.S. should turn over ever more combat responsibility to those states most threatened by the jihadi group. Washington’s attempt to “manage” such an imbroglio is more likely to generate enemies than friends.
Afghanistan. During the presidential campaign Afghanistan was a missing issue. After 15 years of attempting to create a liberal, Western-oriented and competent Afghan central government, the U.S. should complete its withdrawal of combat forces. Washington has a continuing interest in preventing the country from again becoming a terrorist base, but that was largely achieved by ousting the Taliban after 9/11. Any future U.S. involvement should be far more limited.
Middle East. With energy production shifting and Israel a regional superpower, the U.S. has no interests in the Middle East that warrant America’s ongoing military fixation. Washington should reject proposals for further meddling.
China. There is no reason for conflict with China. The U.S. benefits from the current trading relationship; as the Chinese people grow wealthier they are likely to buy more American products and services.
Perhaps even more important is accommodating China’s growing influence in its own neighborhood. Rather than expecting the Pentagon to be the front-line defender of American allies’ interests, Washington should turn defense responsibilities over to those nations.
Japan. Tokyo remains America’s most important Pacific partner. President-elect Trump should build on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s defense reforms to gradually shift security responsibility to Japan. The incoming administration also should recognize Tokyo’s political concessions in approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embrace an accord which offers geopolitical as well as economic benefits.
The Koreas. The president-elect has long criticized South Korea for relying on American defense guarantees. The South should take over responsibility for its own security. At the same time, the incoming administration should engage North Korea, since isolation and sanctions have failed to halt the North’s nuclear program.
NATO. Trump correctly recognized that Europe has long enjoyed a cheap ride on U.S. taxpayers. Instead of burden-sharing, Washington should practice burden-shedding. Today Russia poses no serious threat to Europe. Putin’s ambitions so far have been brutal but limited, and he’s shown no interest in triggering a general war, let alone one into which Washington could be drawn. After decades of U.S. protection, European nations should take on the burden of their own defense.
Trade and immigration. Despite Trump’s past criticism, trade has benefited the great majority of Americans. Immigration, too, is economically advantageous. The new administration should reinforce those positives, while addressing complaints that benefits are not adequately shared, noneconomic issues have been ignored and those more affected have not been fairly consulted.
Trump has a unique opportunity to redirect American foreign policy, which has become dangerously unbalanced and militarized. He could become the president who puts into practice George W. Bush’s long abandoned call for a more “humble” foreign policy.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and frequently writes military noninterventionism.