Don't Let the DC 'Blob' Guide Trump's Foreign Policy

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Trump must resist the temptation to go with the flow.

Trump’s extreme rhetoric has obscured his noninterventionist instincts. There are limits to America’s power, especially as the global distribution of power has shifted globally since the end of the Cold War. The United States has dominant military capabilities and significant interests, but does not have the power to “shape” the rest of the globe or impose its views in every region. Moreover, it does not have the need to do so; not every clash, conflict, civil war, or terrorist group is a challenge to the United States or a threat to its security. If Trump’s proclivities for restraint prevail over his combative instincts, it could bring a sea change to the way the United States deals with its global role, relations with other nations and, above all, the use of military force.

The axiomatic assumptions of the national-security blob, from liberal interventionist to neoconservative, are that the United States is and should be the global leader, and that other countries not only welcome this leadership but urgently demand the projection of American power to promote a “made-in-Washington” vision of what the rest of the world should look like and how it should behave. The essence of this faith is that the United States is the “indispensable” nation, destined to lead, to shape regional and global security, to maintain its domination of other regions, and to secure the safety and well-being of the globe.

Trump’s apparent rejection of a U.S. nation-building mission and of using the military to overthrow regimes we don’t like, intervene in other nation’s civil wars, and impose democracy and human rights on other countries seems to repudiate what both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists would do: unceasing, expensive, dangerous and unnecessary efforts to maintain American primacy and impose “order” that have led to less security and greater danger for our country. Moreover, this renunciation of activist military intervention could help ease tensions with Russia and China, both of which see U.S. efforts to forcibly overthrow other governments as a potential threat to their security. A less interventionist stance could open the door to more regular high-level contacts and the tough negotiations the United States now needs to have with Moscow and Beijing to arrest its deteriorating relations with both major powers.

A noninterventionist policy would be a revolutionary change. America would not arrogate to itself responsibility for ensuring security in every corner of the globe at all times. It would accept the notion that the world has rebalanced and is now populated with regional powers that can and should take greater responsibility for security problems that do not directly affect the security of the United States.

It would deal with other nations and their leadership as they are, and not as we insist they should be. And it would accept that other countries have their own ways of choosing their own leaders, and that Washington needs to deal with these leaders even when we don’t like their policies, rather than seeking to throw them out. Were this to happen, it would be a refreshing and long-overdue break with a lengthy tradition in U.S. statecraft that has, for too long, conflated personal and moral judgment with a defense of American interests abroad.

Don’t hold your breath. It is hard to see Trump carrying out foreign policy with this kind of consistency. The bottom line is that the Blob is everywhere, waiting for a chance to “educate” Trump about how to deal with the world. He would need to be ready to push back, even more strongly than Obama did, and he may not have it in him. But if Trump does, he has the potential to make a large and positive difference in American foreign policy.

Gordon Adams is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, professor emeritus at American University, and was senior White House budget official for national security in the Clinton administration. Richard Sokolsky is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

Image: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore