The Skeptics

Will Trump Push a Real 'America First' Doctrine in 2018?

The dangerous posturing by both sides grows out of the Ukraine conflict. Moscow is in the wrong, but the West’s hands are very dirty: expanding NATO to Russia’s border after promising not to do so, dismantling Moscow’s historic Serbian ally, planning to induct Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, using the European Union to pull Kiev away from Russia economically, and supporting a street putsch against an elected—if flawed—president who leaned toward Moscow. One can imagine how Washington politicians would have responded if Russia employed similar tactics in Mexico.

Ukraine is in a bad neighborhood, but matters not for America’s security. Alliances should be used to provide security to the United States, not welfare to others. Washington still should seek to end the conflict for humanitarian reasons, but nothing involving Kiev is worth a conflict with Russia. Washington should propose a compromise. The United States should drop plans for lethal military aid to Kiev. NATO should pledge not to include Georgia and Ukraine, which actually would make the Western powers less secure by inducting those two nations’ conflicts with Moscow. Russia should end its support for Ukrainian separatists. Kiev should enact and implement greater local autonomy. While formally refusing to accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the U.S. and European governments should recognize that nothing absent military defeat will reverse the move. The West then should lift sanctions on Russia. Washington as well as Moscow loses from an endless and purposeless new Cold War.

Expect Allies to Defend Themselves

While running for office candidate Trump pointed out how America’s supposed friends never seemed to wean themselves from military dependence on the United States. Of course, the real problem is Washington, which doesn’t want its allies to be independent. While American elites enjoy the illusion of running the world, average folks pay the bill.

Since taking office, the president has periodically reiterated these complaints, but his national security team has defended America’s defense commitments to Europe, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. The president should take charge. He need not tell friendly states what to spend, only that the United States will do less. Why should prosperous and populous Europe tremble in fear of Russia? The Republic of Korea has an astonishing forty-five times the GDP of its northern antagonist, as well as twice the population. Why does America have to deploy troops to defend what amount to international welfare queens?

The Cold War created a unique circumstance requiring an oversize U.S. military role. But that world has passed away. So should Washington’s outsize commitment to allies capable of defending themselves. America should remain engaged, but act primarily as emergency support against a hegemonic threat beyond the defense capabilities of friendly states. The only region where that seems plausible in practice today is Asia, and even there U.S. allies could do much more to handle day-to-day threats, even if still looking to America in an outsize crisis.

Reconsider Nuclear Proliferation Among America’s Allies

There is good reason to oppose the spread of nuclear weapons. But when proliferation occurs anyway the United States should consider whether it would be better for Washington’s allies to build countervailing weapons than for America to risk its homeland to guarantee the security of other states. In fact, President Trump once raised the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. While that idea is controversial in Tokyo, two-thirds of South Koreans support creating their own deterrent.

Of course, the usual suspects, including, it seems, the president’s own appointees, were horrified by the idea and reflexively clutched their pearls. While everyone agrees that it would be best if the North did not possess nuclear weapons, no one knows how to stop Pyongyang. If the DPRK gains the ability to hit the American homeland will any U.S. president be prepared to go to war on behalf of South Korea? If North Korea was losing, it would have no reason not to launch, or at least to threaten to do so if Washington did not withdraw. Why not exit Northeast Asia, where only the bad guys—China, Russia and the North—have nuclear weapons, and encourage America’s democratic allies to build their own?

At least Washington should talk about the idea. If Chinese officials heard “Japan” and “nuclear weapons” in the same sentence, they might do more to dissuade Pyongyang from building an arsenal. After all, then they would share America’s nightmare of a nuclear DPRK. And who better to engage in some over-the-top international poker playing than The Donald?

Cut Back Foreign Aid

The president announced that he is cutting aid to Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, though perhaps as much out of pique as for sound policy reasons. However, there is good reason to trim so-called “foreign aid.”

Government-to-government financial transfers are as likely to hinder as aid economic reform, since governments typically undertake politically painful changes only when forced to do so by financial necessity. Moreover, in a world awash with capital, governments with sound economic policies can raise money privately.