The Skeptics

Donald Trump Is About to Become America's President. Here's What His Foreign Policy Should Be.

Few people expected there to be a President-elect Donald Trump. Winning the election wasn’t easy. Governing will be much tougher.

Although the Americans who voted for him likely are most interested in domestic and economic reform, international challenges are likely to prove more pressing. Indeed, the world may be messier in January than today. And the usual coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists undoubtedly will press him to embrace current policy and treat Uncle Sam as Globocop.

However, Trump 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. The bipartisan presumption that Washington could use military force to simultaneously reshape reality, maintain stability, protect humanity, and promote democracy—especially in the Middle East—has proved to be a tragic fantasy.

Trump’s foreign policy views are sometimes inconsistent and often ignorant. His bombastic rhetoric and undisciplined nature is no boon for diplomacy. Nevertheless, he remains more likely than Hillary Clinton to follow a new approach.

Indeed, 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. He is more likely than a President-elect Clinton to emphasize protecting Americans’ interests rather than attempting to transform the rest of the world.

What should the incoming administration’s priorities be?

Diplomacy. Despite his claim to be the most militaristic of the presidential candidates, he simultaneously emphasized diplomacy, in which most of his GOP competitors demonstrated no interest. Trump sharply criticized some of his predecessors’ aggressive policies and urged greater engagement with countries as diverse as North Korea and Russia. Although diplomacy offers no panacea, America’s “unipolar moment,” if it ever existed, is over. Washington will have to do better at convincing instead of coercing other nations.

Russia. The United States is involved in a dangerous mini-Cold War with Moscow. Vladimir Putin is an ugly character and the Russian Republic is a malign international actor. However, Moscow is not much of a threat to America.

It is acting like the pre-1914 Russian Empire, focused on international respect and secure borders, rather than global ideological victory. Moreover, Moscow has far greater interests in Syria and Ukraine than does America. Washington has no cause to risk war in either conflict. Instead, the Trump administration should seek a practical deal in both cases. For instance, pledging not to bring Kiev into NATO in return for Russian de-escalation of the assault on Ukraine. And limiting American military involvement in Syria to mopping up the Islamic State.

Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did much to create the current crisis. By demanding Assad’s ouster, she encouraged popular opposition and discouraged a negotiated settlement. Although Assad is an odious figure, he has never threatened American interests, as do the jihadists who have risen in opposition. Rather than expand U.S. involvement through additional arms shipments, training of insurgents, and creation of a no-fly zone, 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. At the same time, Washington should seek to ease the humanitarian crisis, including vetting and resettling refugees, especially religious minorities who have few options in the Middle East.

Islamic State. As ISIS weakens and loses ground, the United States should turn over ever more combat responsibility to those states most threatened by the jihadist group. A coherent policy is beyond Washington’s reach: Iraq and Turkey are at odds, Iran is fighting the Islamic State but also is hostile toward the United States, Turkey and Kurdish forces are bitter opponents, the “moderate” insurgents backed by America continue to make common cause with radical groups such as al-Nusra, long affiliated with Al Qaeda, the Gulf States have largely abandoned the anti-ISIS campaign in favor of a brutal offensive in Yemen, and Russia has invested militarily in the Assad regime despite America’s support for its overthrow. Washington’s attempt to “manage” such as an imbroglio is more likely to generate enemies than friends.

Afghanistan. During the presidential campaign Afghanistan was a missing issue. After fifteen years of attempting to create a liberal, Western-oriented, united, and competent Afghan central government, the United States 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. Even if the insurgents eventually triumph, they are unlikely to risk a repeat experience by welcoming such forces back. Any future U.S. involvement should be far more limited, focused on intelligence gathering, cooperation with other regional powers, such as Pakistan, and targeted use of special operations forces when appropriate.