The Skeptics

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

The Bible tells us that not even a sparrow “will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Washington officials long have considered themselves the equivalent of God, at least in this regard. Nothing on earth, in any other country, at any moment, is supposed to happen without America’s consent.

That’s how U.S. foreign policy looks, anyway.

Candidate Donald Trump talked like he would change that. Unfortunately, the officials with whom he has surrounded himself as president have done their best to stifle his natural impulses. Indeed, the National Security Strategy obviously was written by someone different than the president who gave the talk announcing the NSS’s release. Even so, lately he has been taking some of the right steps, such as cutting aid to Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority, though sometimes for the wrong reasons.

With a new year dawning the president has an opportunity to toss off establishment shackles, so to speak, and push his own approach. In many cases all he needs do is pick up policies which he once advanced, before his appointees neutered him, ignoring him with his tweets while draining “America First” of meaning.

Consider a few possibilities.

Talk to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

The president once said that he would be “honored” to meet the North’s Supreme Leader. A meeting (with or without honor) is less important that engaging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The reasons are many. War would be catastrophic. Talking would lower the temperature and reduce Kim’s fear that the United States was ready to strike. There is no evidence that Kim is suicidal, but if he believed America was preparing to attack, it would be in his interest to strike first, preempting U.S. action.

Moreover, negotiation might reveal intermediate positions that both are achievable and better than the status quo, meaning the DPRK’s unrestrained expansion of its nuclear arsenal. For instance, a freeze at current levels backed by intrusive inspections. Better for America and the world to face North Korea with twenty or thirty nukes than an expanding arsenal of, say, 100. Would Pyongyang ever agree and comply? It’s impossible to know without trying.

Abandon Attempts to Micromanage Syria

The civil war which engulfed Syria was tragic but never warranted American involvement. Damascus was a Soviet ally throughout the Cold War, always hostile to the U.S. and Israel. But it posed no security threat to America. The probability of Washington creating a democratic, moderate, pro-American state was even lower than that of doing so in Iraq.

Indeed, during the campaign President Trump appeared to recognize the foolishness of the Obama administration’s attempt to micromanage the multisided struggle. Washington simultaneously sought to oust Bashar al-Assad, who was fighting ISIS; empower the supposed “moderates,” who usually lost and surrendered to more radical insurgents; defeat ISIS, which ultimately grew out of the insurgency spawned by America’s invasion of Iraq; aid jihadist groups, including ones linked to Al Qaeda; work with Kurdish groups as well as Turkey, which feared them far more than ISIS; minimize the influence of neighboring Iran, ally of Assad and enemy of ISIS; and counteract Russian intervention, focused on the single goal of bolstering Assad. Implementing this policy were officials who had been bungling U.S. foreign policy for years.

At least Washington succeeded in the essential task of destroying the Islamic State’s “caliphate.” The rest should be left up to the Syrians and their neighbors. Not even the winners have won much: Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies have weak control over only part of a nation which has been wrecked and, like Humpty Dumpty, probably cannot be put back together. In any case, it will take years for Syria to recover. Let the Saudis spend a bit of the money fleeced from imprisoned billionaires to help rebuild the homes of brother Arabs instead of purchase more chalets and yachts.

Exit the Yemen War

By pressing Riyadh to end its blockade, President Trump appeared to recognize that intervention in Yemen’s endless civil war has been a humanitarian horror. It also is a practical disaster. By attacking a rebel alliance to reinstate a puppet regime Saudi Arabia turned a local conflict into a sectarian struggle and gave Iran a low-cost means of bleeding the Saudi royals.

No doubt, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and his “coalition” partners, mostly the United Arab Emirates) expected a quick victory in Yemen. Instead, he ended up demonstrating the Saudi military’s inadequacy, exposing his militaristic ambitions, trashing his nation’s already poor reputation abroad, and giving Tehran an easy target. It will be difficult for Riyadh to withdraw, but Washington should leave that problem to the man who would be king—literally. The United States should end refueling and targeting assistance and cut off sale of munitions used to kill Yemeni civilians. Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s war.

Negotiate a Better Relationship with Russia

President Trump’s well-founded desire to improve relations with Russia has been overshadowed by charges that Moscow meddled in America’s election (just like Washington has done in numerous other nations’ contests.) Most Americans have noticed that Vladimir Putin is not a nice fellow. But there’s no evidence that he’s suicidal. He doesn’t want war with America. Nor is there any evidence that he’s planning an improbable attack on Europe, which has around ten times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia.

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.

Moreover, when political and military assistance is treated as an entitlement, it tends to be wasted and give Washington little or no influence. Israel pockets its money with the assurance that nothing short of a Martian invasion, and maybe not even that, would halt the payments. Washington has no influence in Cairo since American money continues to flow even though repression is worse today than during the days of Hosni Mubarak. Money goes to the Abbas government in the West Bank even though it is both unlawful and repressive; Arab regimes which cry crocodile tears over the Palestinians instead should pay more. None of America’s money promote peace: the likelihood of an agreement is close to that of a Martian invasion.

Even so-called humanitarian aid often has had counterproductive impacts—on local farmers, for instance. Nevertheless, there are areas of great need, such as refugee assistance and health care, where U.S. support helps perform a useful role. However, appeals for this kind of aid cannot justify the other programs. Washington should stop illustrating the old saw that foreign assistance is taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.

Moving forward in all of these areas would be a good start for a genuinely “America First” foreign policy. And would yield a significantly better approach to international affairs.

Coopting the president has become a cottage industry at home and abroad. Members of America’s foreign policy elite have done particularly well, complaining about President Trump even while ignoring his wishes at every turn. They are certain to continue doing so, unless he insists on taking U.S. policy in a new direction. It’s up to you, Mr. President.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump is seen as he delivers a message during the daily briefing hosted by U.S. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria​