Donald Trump

Trump’s First Job in Foreign Policy Is To Understand U.S. Interests Narrowly

President Trump's foreign policy would benefit from defining U.S. interests abroad in a clear and narrow fashion.

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U.S. Navy

Stripped of its Trumpian bombast and interpreted sympathetically, our new president's grand foreign policy promise is that he will prioritize vital U.S. national interests in his calculations of war and peace. As Trump might say it, he will negotiate the best deals, make America great, put America first—or, in a more traditional foreign affairs vocabulary, he will not risk U.S. blood and treasure for anything but national defense, narrowly defined.

At least, that's what it ought to mean. And if there is any chance of hope becoming fact, President Trump's first task now is to develop a firm conception of exactly what vital U.S. interests do—and, perhaps even more important, do not—entail. If the last 15 years of nonstop, bipartisan war-making have demonstrated anything beyond contestation, it is that a messy understanding of national interests is a surefire path to reckless and often counterproductive military interventions that do not contribute to our defense or achieve their stated goals.

Though illustrations of this point abound, the most obvious in President Obama's tenure was his 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. "No one even tried to pretend that U.S. interests were at stake in the Libyan war," notes The American Conservative's Daniel Larison, "and yet Obama committed the U.S. to an avoidable war anyway." Six years on, Libya remains in chaos thanks in significant part to the American-facilitated power vacuum into which the Islamic State (ISIS) has surged. So far from defending the United States in any meaningful sense, the Libyan misadventure has only created new risks.

As for humanitarian relief, the intervention's ostensible aim, there too the picture is grim. Credible evidence out of Harvard indicates "NATO's action magnified the conflict's duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors." There was never a persuasive case for how intervening in Libya could protect American interests—unsurprising, as none were at stake—but it is tragically obvious how the Obama administration's unwarranted involvement furthered the misery of the Libyan people.

A sadly similar lesson may be learned at least in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—if not Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia—but as the Trump team settles into its new Washington digs, it may be that the next place Trump must apply this lesson is Iran. Trump himself has spoken of renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal (properly, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), but has yet to specify how he would like it to change. Still, where he talks of diplomacy, albeit antagonistically, too many other voices in the foreign policy establishment have more bellicose ideas.

Writing at Time on Thursday, for example, Jeb Bush and co-author Dennis Ross argued Trump must "isolate Iran immediately." Bush says Trump must "establish unmistakable red lines," provide "new and more robust authority to the U.S. Navy to respond to Iranian provocations," and treat as "unacceptable" Iranian action in Baghdad and Damascus. Though the piece ends with an insistence that "tougher policies now are likely to reduce the risk of escalated conflict later," that is a laughable conclusion to what is blatantly a call for immediate escalation unsupported by any convincing case that it would serve our vital interests.

Trump's campaign trail beefs with Bush may keep him from taking this advice, but within the president's own camp, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has pushed a similarly hawkish approach to Iran, even making unfounded accusations of Iranian sponsorship of the Benghazi attack despite the very unlikely Sunni-Shiite cooperation that would entail. In short, a reckless and avoidable war with Iran is not unthinkable—unless Trump develops a firm category of the key interests whose defense should be the sole province of his foreign policy.

After the trouncing of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002, writes Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich in his military history, America's War for the Greater Middle East, "a protracted war ensued, waged in a country where the United States was without vital interests, against an adversary that, however repellent, did not directly threaten U.S. security." And rather than learning from past foreign policy mistakes, he adds, our recent presidents, when "[f]aced with some grave injustice or large-scale violation of human rights … found it increasingly hard to justify [military] inaction" as a "new sentiment emerged: America Everywhere, open to sending the troops wherever people were in dire straits."

It is that sentiment Trump must overcome—in theory an easy project given his own campaign critiques of Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Libya debacle's chief cheerleader. In practice, with the foreign policy establishment refusing to learn from its own missteps, it's a hefty undertaking indeed.

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54 responses to “Trump’s First Job in Foreign Policy Is To Understand U.S. Interests Narrowly

  1. First?

  2. A sadly similar lesson may be learned at least in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen?if not Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia…

    It still pisses me off that when I would bring up O’s wars with my proggies, they would just look back blankly. They had no idea we were killing people in all those places.

    But, you know, Boooooosh!

    1. But, he won a PEACE prize! He couldn’t possibly have started any Wars.

    2. I know quite a few who actually go through the mental gymnastics it takes to justify his wars while still condemning Bush. In response to their callousness, I usually just go straight for the classic joke:

      “What’s the difference between an ISIS training camp and a pre-school? I dunno man, I just fly the drone”

      That and my refusal to call a man who gave himself unilateral authority to kill our citizens a “good man” seems to rattle them

  3. As a non-American myself, I was always a little jarred how media and pols in other western countries could pile onto the American Exceptionalism rhetoric while simultaneously holding a low opinion of many Americans as backwards gun-toting hillbillies.

    Theresa May was just in Washington extolling America’s role as the leader of the free world, ffs. Granted she’s trying to cozy up to Trump to get some sort of assurances with respect to trade and security, but it is cringeworthy how Canadian and British sources (I don’t follow press in the rest of the Eurozone) lament American “isolationism” anytime an American (correctly) realizes the US has no stake in a lot of the places it has troops in.

    1. What appears to be a contradictory attitude is in fact a very simple, elegant, universal rule:

      “Whatever the US government is doing, it’s wrong, evil and needs to stop it and do the exact opposite.”

      1. Canadians, particularly in Central/Eastern Canada (and their outposts here in the Lower Rainland?), made grudging exceptions for the actions of the Chocolate Messiah’s government, because Obama.

        Other than the above caveat, your observation is (as usual) spot-on.

        1. Really? Libyan intervention wasn’t popular here on West Coast, although it was more of “Insist the Euros are in charge, and downplay Obama having anything to do with it” attitude.

          1. Libyan intervention wasn’t popular here on West Coast, although it was more of “Insist the Euros are in charge, and downplay Obama having anything to do with it” attitude.

            So they also hacked Hillary’s email, and or got the memo.

          2. Like I said, “grudging.”

      2. You should have told Obama that…too late now….so here we are getting things done properly!

    2. That foreigners think many Americans are backwards gun-toting hillbillies is no surprise, given that what passes for an American elite and intelligentsia thinks exactly the same thing and reminds of their opinion every day.

    3. “As a non-American myself”

      We don’t take kindly to you fureners round these here parts. You talk funny.

    4. Trump had better keep a distance from Theresa May if he knows what’s good. She’ll turn him into a toad, she will.

      1. Now your response is the EXACT PROBLEM. Keep your distance, don’t talk to those people, do your own thing….and in this grand context what does that lead too???…..Being SHIT on, period. However, now we have the ability with President Trump to forge the “PROPER” relationships for the good of all and abandon the crippling mindset of Political Correctness.

    5. American Exceptionalism rhetoric

      i continue to be surprised that people harp on this constantly as though its some very-controversial thing

      the term “American Exceptionalism” is derived from the idea that the US is the only country on earth that was basically ‘self made’ ex nihilo* based on post-enlightenment principles.

      (*1 -one can always quibble about how ‘from nothing’ it really was)

      the idea being that every* other nation-state is to greater or lesser degree “burdened by history” and pre-existing cultural/political conflicts which the US was uniquely free from

      (*2 – when the term came about, what people meant by ‘every other nation’ was mostly just Europe; and that america was exceptional for being free of the 1000+ of years of legacy conflict which European Christendom had embedded within it; Asia/Africa/South America etc, basically ‘didn’t matter’)

      Its not suggesting “USA is #1 WHOO HOO”; its saying, “USA is fundamentally different, and needs to be considered as part of a new set of historical standards/terms which are of all its own invention”.

      I don’t think the ‘exceptionalism’ term necessarily has much to do with the post-cold-war “Leader of the Free World” trope.

      I think the “American Exceptionalism” idea is really especially relevant to US history from the revolution through the end of WWII; the role of Cold-War and Post-Cold War US is something more like “The American hegemony” IMO

      1. for clarity = …. not to say that the term ‘exceptionalism’ doesn’t still have relevance, but i’m not sure that when it IS used that its even referencing its OG meaning most of the time

        e.g. I think when people describe “the unique role the US plays in global affairs post WWII”, they’re not describing “American Exceptionalism”….

        they’re describing the “American Hegemony” where we are basically the single most powerful political/economic entity left standing.

        the latter really has little* (conceptually) to do with the former. i.e. Our “overwhelming power” isn’t what is meant by ‘exceptional’ – its the fact that we were a nation consciously based on *enlightenment ideas* rather than an evolution of historical/cultural forces.

        (*debatable – did we become the most power nation on earth *because* of our exceptional origins & historical evolution? maybe, maybe not; I think much of why the US became the dominant power post WWII was a very fortuitous accident of “good timing” and geographic convenience.)

        Anyway – its just one of these terms that irks me every time i hear it, like “3rd world” or “neocon”, and i feel compelled to reiterate what it *should* mean. end rant

        1. Most nations can claim to be exceptional in some respect.

          In common political parlance, American exceptionalism seems to mainly be used in a foreign policy or ‘global leadership’ context.

          1. Most nations can claim to be exceptional in some respect.

            that’s just semantics. (i.e. pretending that the term is being used generally rather than specifically)

            the term “American exceptionalism” refers to a very specific argument regarding how the US was created basically “from scratch” and created its own entire set of legal/philosophical arguments behind its structure.

            There isn’t another “colony that became its own independent nation” that ever did anything remotely like it. Most former-colonies simply either inherited/replicated the basic institutions of its former colonial rulers, or borrowed preexisting structures from other nations, or those based in traditional native cultures, etc.

            The point re: the USA is that it was a novel philosophy of governance itself made manifest.. And part of De Tocqueville’s case about why “there would never be another” is because once having been done, any subsequent examples would largely be pale imitations of the original idea.

            In common political parlance, American exceptionalism seems to mainly be used in a foreign policy or ‘global leadership’ context.

            as noted below… the original idea behind the term was about “how the US fit into the world of nations”, but not policy, per se… and was bastardized over time to justify what was an emerging US unilateral assertion of authority. (particularly after the monroe doctrine)

      2. I think in this context, Volren meant Europeans persistently crying about American Hegemony and how horrible it is, until US doesn’t act like a hegemon, when they start squealing about Lack of Leadership and Abdication of Responsibility.

        1. That makes a lot more sense.

          I sort of grokked that initially, but its hard to stop myself from launching into a micro-lecture about terminology mostly because i want to keep these ideas clear in my own head.

          1. It was a fine lecture. Well thought out. I actually read it all. And it was helpful to me. Thanks

            1. I read it all, too, and normally I’m a skimmer, so there’s that.

            2. thanks.

              the part i think i left out was that the “why America was so different” wasn’t all just ‘enlightenment’ stuff (individual liberty, liberal economic ideas), but also America’s unique focus on “commerce before ideology”

              [e.g. De Tocqueville “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit…a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.

              …as opposed to promoting “empire”, or expanding its own political power purely for its own sake.

              The idea that “Exceptionalism” ALSO included some sort of obligation to “spread democracy and defend liberal projects around the world” is entirely wrong, imo. Though this seems to be the popularized view.

              I think the idea of “America as the world’s defender of Democracy” was a conscious re-write of the idea in the late 19th century to justify our growing global political influence, & to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and expanded and reinforced by Wilsonianism, used to justify our participation in multilateral institutions for global-meddling.

              1. Huh. I just assumed it meant our music.

              2. The clarification was informative and I appreciate it. I was largely using the term in the inflated sense you were complaining about, but I clearly didn’t have as much grasp of the nuance as you do.

        2. Yep, in a much more rambly and unclear way.

      3. That was the way I’d understood it, at least the “different” (not necessarily better or worse) part.

    6. As a non-American myself, I was always a little jarred how media and pols in other western countries could pile onto the American Exceptionalism rhetoric while simultaneously holding a low opinion of many Americans as backwards gun-toting hillbillies.

      Being a gun-toting hillbillie myself, I can answer this. They are threatened by our “exceptionalism” as gun-toting hillbillies. We cook better BBQ, and if the power goes out for two weeks or more, it is only just one more pain in the ass to deal with and not the end of the world.

      The wider aspects of thought done be said by Gilmore.

  4. “No one even tried to pretend that U.S. interests were at stake in the Libyan war,” notes The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison, “and yet Obama committed the U.S. to an avoidable war anyway.”

    It’s called “sending a message”. That message? “FYTW.”

    We’re the US government, dammit, we’ll do whatever the hell we want where we want when we want and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You seen the shit we do to our own citizens and they just sit there and take it? You don’t think we’ll do even worse to you?

  5. “If the last 15 years of nonstop, bipartisan war-making have demonstrated anything beyond contestation, it is that a messy understanding of national interests is a surefire path to reckless and often counterproductive military interventions that do not contribute to our defense or achieve their stated goals.”

    So much, this.

    We went from thinking that the Iraq War was about Saddam Hussein’s WMD and collaboration with Al Qaeda to hearing that we did it all so that the Iraqis could have democracy. Meanwhile, the old school pragmatists continued to argue that the war was not in America’s security interests–especially in regards to Iran, a real long term security threat that really was a state sponsor of terror with a WMD program.

    Same thing with Obama. To whatever extent anyone thought his nuclear deal with the Iranians was in the best interests of American security, it’s because they were confusing capitulation and appeasement with avoiding another Iraq War. That deal was done to defer to the interests of others–not promote American security. Obama’s recent moves on refugees and Israel, likewise, were meant to benefit refugees and Palestinians–not promote American interests and security.

    Obama’s Paris accord on global warming certainly wasn’t about American interests–it was about Americans making sacrifices to save the rest of the developing world.

  6. I’d argue that after the last 15 years, merely putting American interests first–however broadly defined–is a major positive change. And our interests can and do change over time. It’s probably enough to define the legitimate purpose of government as defending our rights and the legitimate purpose of foreign policy as defending our rights and interests. Presidents can be wrong about what our best interests really are, but if their primary goal isn’t American interests, then they’ll only do the right thing in defense of our rights by accident.

  7. And if there is any chance of hope becoming fact, President Trump’s first task now is to develop a firm conception of exactly what vital U.S. interests do?and, perhaps even more important, do not?entail.

    This should be self-evident. Not just for Trump, but any U S President, ever. As we all know, there are many and varied competing interests; prioritizing them is hard. Based on the previous administrations’ performance, Trump doesn’t exactly have a high bar to clear to be an improvement.

  8. ” in a more traditional foreign affairs vocabulary, he will not risk U.S. blood and treasure for anything but national defense, narrowly defined.”

    Going by Trump’s stated position on immigration during the campaign and on his campaign site, this seems to be exactly what it means. Has he proved that false yet?

    1. I was originally skeptically but am strarting to think that maybe he is truely interested in putting American interest first. I really thought it was all campaign bullshit. Still too early to tell of course. Unfortunately his economic ideas however well intended are the wrong direction. It’s one thing to take a pause in globalization which may not be the worst idea, it’s another to go backward.

      1. I meant to say foreign policy, not immigration. Oops.

        Yeah, I don’t agree with him on Trade. But I also don’t believe he’s going to go full on protectionism. We’re going to keep trading. I’ve heard him complain about trade deals with China and Mexico. But I haven’t heard him say anything about trade with Europe, South Korea, Japan, or other trade partners. I’m assuming that will continue as usual.

  9. Good article. Trump seemed to hint at a more restrained foreign policy than the Obama administration which is admittedly a very low bar. We’ll see I guess.

    1. I did like his exchange about Alleppo with that harpy Martha Raddatz who seemed to think she was there to debate Trump. She’s like OMG what are you going to do to save Alleppo. He was like, it’s already gone. That bitch was demanding Pax Americana World Police and he wasn’t buying it.

      1. You can’t fool me, no one knows what’s Aleppo.

        1. What’s a leppo?

          1. God damn it, that is superior. I bow to you.

            1. I think I saw one of those, it’s a cross between a hippo and a leopard. Weird sight it was.

              1. So a fat chick in a leopard print body suit?

                1. You’re onto something.

        2. I’m still holding out hope that next election the LP will have a more gaffe free fake libertarian candidate and better naked dancing fat dudes.

          1. I am hoping we get Robby and Penn Jilette on the ticket somehow. It will be like Bush/Cheney team – one has the hair and the height, the other is dark puppeteer making the problems…disappear.

            Also, Teller for Press Secretary.

            1. Will Robby be 35 on the next inauguration day?

      2. Everytime I hear the word Aleppo, I don’t think about Gary Johnson’s gaffe, I think about the presidential debate and Hillary’s phony empathy about ‘that little girl in Aleppo’. You fucking caused that, Hillary. If you had one ounce of decency in you, you’d apologize to the entire world over your evil doings, and then hurl yourself from something very high.

  10. I was sort of thinking that Trump’s first job it so visit all 57 states and then figure out who the Axis of Evil really are and include one of them Koreas.

    1. West Korea’s the bad one.

  11. In regards to the libertarian argument on foreign policy (and the predicating factors to those decisions), here’s some well-timed article reprints (from 1962) of a debate between Frank S. Meyer and L. Brent Bozell in National Review on that topic regarding Cold War fusionism.

    The Twisted Tree of Liberty

    Freedom or Virtue

    The debate on the ‘ranking’ of freedom and virtue as constitutive elements of American foreign policy (and thoughts toward government) seem apposite.

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  13. President Trump is doing EXACTLY what he promised to do for over a year now hence the reason he was elected President. What you are seeing is a backlash of people that can’t believe a U.S. President has actually gone from rhetoric to fulfilling a promise made to the people. By the way Trump won 3,084 out of 3,141 counties giving just 57 to Bill’s wife.

    We are on the right track…..Cheer Up It Gets Worse….in a good way

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