President Trump repeated his “American First” slogan at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday and knocked down row after row of straw men. He declared, “Global cooperation, dealing with other countries, getting along with other countries is good, it’s very important. But there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag. This is the United States of America. . . . I’m not representing the globe, I’m representing your country.” The issue is not whether we have world government but how the United States goes about defending our fundamental interests. His insinuations that those who do not back his nationalist, protectionist, amoral policies are traitors reflect his anti-democratic instincts. (“There’s one allegiance that unites us all, and that is to America. America, it’s the allegiance to America.”) Again, the question is not loyalty to America but how one protects our values, prosperity and security. He’s become a self-parody as he repeats simplistic bumper-sticker phrases devoid of meaning. (“We don’t win anymore. When was the last time we won? Did we win a war? Did we win anything? Do we win anything? We’re going to win. We’re going on win big, folks. We’re going to start winning again, believe me. We’re gonna win.”)
It does not have to be this way. This week the Brookings Institution put out a voluminous report titled, “Building ‘Situations of Strength’: A National Security Strategy for the United States.” Authored by 10 national security experts from the center-right (e.g., Robert Kagan, Eric Edelman) and center-left (e.g., Jake Sullivan, Tom Wright), the report explains:
World politics took a sharp turn for the worse over the past five years as two decades of great power cooperation gave way to a new era of geopolitical competition. To succeed in the coming decades, the United States needs a strategy that begins with the setting of a clear goal: the renovation and reinvigoration of the postwar international order. We believe that President Donald Trump should take a leaf from President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who argued that the United States should build “situations of strength” around the world with like-minded nations and work with them to tackle the threats and challenges to U.S. interests.
That’s an implicit and honest assessment of the failures of the Obama administration, but also a repudiation of Trump’s worldview, such as it is. The report is, in some ways, a warning to the Trump administration, which seems determined to make matters worse. “So the meetings that led to this report went on for about 18 months from June 2015 to January 2017,” Edelman told me. “I would say there was actually more consensus on grand strategic objectives than we might have initially expected but as time went on it was the challenges from Right and Left to the consensus on the importance of maintaining a U.S. led order that drove the discussions as well as a sense that the national security elite had failed to make the case for the order after the Cold War ended.”
The reports identifies the key components of our present dilemma: 1) We have taken for granted the post-World War II liberal international order; 2) Revanchist powers seek to undo it; 3) As a result of No. 2 and the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, the world has become more dangerous; and 4) Our prosperity and security are now threatened if the United States, the only superpower, does not assume the mantle of leadership of the West.
Work on the report spanned a stretch of time in which the Obama foreign policy was unraveling and Trump’s rejection of U.S. responsibility for the liberal international order was winning the debate. “Obama and Trump hovered over the discussions but our meetings rarely addressed them directly (although we certainly wrestled with the consequences of Obama’s missteps) and there were concerns about what Trump might mean for the future of US alliances,” Edelman says. “The report is, by and large, pretty robust and one of my hopes was that, had [Hillary] Clinton won, it would have been used as a matrix against which to rate the Administration’s performance.”
The steely-eyed analysis of American adversaries stands in stark contrast to Trump’s infatuation with authoritarian leaders who do not respect the rule of law, international boundaries, human rights or self-determination. On Russia, the authors, Democrats and Republicans, agree:
Vladimir Putin’s vision of international order is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the United States. Putin believes that the U.S.-led postwar order weakens his hold on power and denies Russia the regional and global influence it deserves. He has made it his mission to weaken this order. Putin would replace it with spheres of influence in which major powers are preeminent in their respective regions and they all have a roughly equal say on matters of global importance. Russia will act unilaterally to defend its interests and to gain leverage over the West, including by means of military intervention; active measures against Western democracies; greater reliance on Russia’s nuclear arsenal; and cyber-warfare.
That is not a power we can “get along with.” The authors apply their suggested solutions — rebuild our military and alliances, deploy economic power (“Leverage economic power responsibly by using sanctions in response to exceptional acts of aggression or illegality, by seeking multilateral support, and by keeping in mind the U.S. interest in an open global economy”) and use coercive diplomacy to protect our interests — to regions of the world and our relations with allies and competitors. Even with a prepared and fit president, the task seems daunting. The authors write, “There is a relationship between levels of U.S. engagement and the health of the international order. If the United States does less, the levels of order in the global system are likely to deteriorate. It may well be that Americans conclude that the benefits of doing less outweigh the costs; but what we cannot claim is that the costs do not exist. No other nation or actor is capable of replacing the United States as the leader of the international order. Others must do more but their contributions will only be effective if the United States also plays a leadership role.”
Trump claims to put “America First,” but his recipe would double down on Obama’s reticence to repulse revanchist powers. Trump fails to understand that a whole, democratic Europe, multi- and bi-lateral free trade deals and a stabilized Middle East are in our interest. And he is oblivious to the notion that in defending human rights we encourage more stable, democratic allies and undermine our adversaries. (“Values have a vitally important role to play in American diplomacy. Not only do they distinguish the United States from hegemons and imperial powers of past eras but it also advances our long-term interests—the United States has benefited immensely from the success of democratization and human rights in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. It is often tempting to abandon these values in a moment of convenience but this comes at a great long-term cost. There will surely be inconsistencies but the president of the United States must always be a steadfast friend of democracy, freedom, and human rights.”)
Trump’s simplistic, atavistic approach to the world misses the larger interests of the United States and the West. This cannot be about perfunctory wins that harm us in the long run (pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, building a wall). Robert Kagan tells me, “The report looks at our deepest self-interest, not just what piece of fruit we can grab off the shelf.”
The report mentions human rights but does not incorporate that fully into our strategies for dealing with undemocratic big powers or unstable, war-torn Middle East countries. It remains a hard topic for Republicans and Democrats to agree upon.
The report does not directly address another key topic — public diplomacy. “Washington needs to do a better job of reaching out to the rest of the country as well as the rest of the world,” Julianne Smith, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Strategy and Statecraft Program, tells me. “I fear that in recent years/decades, the national security community has spent too much time focusing on our friends and allies abroad. We did that because we assumed (falsely) that the rest of the country understood and supported the rules-based order and other fundamental pillars of U.S. foreign policy. Now we have to find ways to make our case and connect some of these lofty and academic sounding concepts to the lives of everyday citizens.”
In contrast to the Cold War, when U.S. leaders explained our purposes and the benefits we derived from leadership, leaders have become unwilling to make the case for the liberal world order, falling back on lazy phrases like “war fatigue” and deriding the idea that we can be the “world’s policeman.” Unfortunately, Kagan notes, “Obama encouraged it even further.”
In short, there is no alternative to consistent political leadership. “I think the hope was that this report would provide arguments and ammunition to [Jim] Mattis, [Rex] Tillerson, [Vice President] Pence, [Mike] Pompeo, [H.R.] McMaster, et al as the administration takes on specific issues but also that it would inform a broader discussion with members of Congress and the public over time,” says Edelman. In doing that, it provides a critical public service, but to our dismay there is no immediate cure to the most fundamental problem we face — a commander in chief who neither understands nor embraces American values and the necessity of U.S. leadership in an increasingly dangerous world.