Understandably, a great deal of the foreign policy debate in the first year of the Trump presidency has centered on process — the dysfunction and exodus of career Foreign Service people from the State Department, the tenuous relationship between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, and whether foreign policy can be coherent when the most carefully enunciated policy can be upended by an erratic tweet.
If the election showed us anything, it is that the American people are quite uncertain about the United States’ role in the world. “They have doubts about the investment of blood and treasure,” says Victoria Nuland, a State Department veteran of five presidents and the newly named chief executive of the nonpartisan think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS). I spoke to her by telephone in her first week on the job. She enters the think-tank world at a critical juncture. The 70-year consensus that the liberal world order was beneficial for the United States is now up for debate. As Nuland posits, the question confronts us: Is America’s international leadership “leading to increased prosperity and security … or is America getting ripped off?”
The president himself has created confusion and anxiety by positing a policy he calls “America first.” Now, the administration is at pains to say it really means “America first, but not alone.” This, one can say, is gibberish and personifies the intellectual incoherence that the president has spewed. And that is a problem. “No matter who is in office, the president has to lead the conversation, has to sell the affirmative investment [in lives and money] we are making.” When the current president consistently suggests our allies are “freeloaders” and our commitments aren’t paying dividends, one can hardly expect the public to support a strong role for the United States in the world.
Part of the challenge for those who understand the critical role that the United States plays in the word is to recapture U.S. leadership in the battle of ideas. From a vanguard of liberty and democracy, to a problem child on the world stage, the United States — as documented by Freedom House — is now contributing to the erosion of support for democratic values. That’s not simply an unfortunate political development for free peoples; it is a threat to our own security and well-being.
Free societies have not been territorially aggressive, Nuland reminds us. “Liberal, free democracies live within their borders and cooperate to protect [the international liberal order],” Nuland says. “They collaborate to protect it but within that compete economically.”
The problem starts at home, Nuland suggests. The greatest support we can offer democracies is that we “walk the walk,” she says, meaning that we preserve an independent judiciary, a free press, toleration of dissent, etc. “A lot of that is under assault,” she says. “We’ve attacked our own media, our own judicial system.” When the United States is riled by authoritarian impulses and savages its own democratic institutions, nondemocratic actors take advantage. Authoritarians, Nuland points out, say “even the Americans” aren’t respecting dissent, a free press or other democratic institutions.
Moreover, it is our democratic allies that are at our side when it comes to threats such as Islamist terrorism, Ebola or a worldwide economic recession. “We’ve generally not had to go it alone,” Nuland says. “When we withdraw and say it’s every nation for itself, you open the door for countries dissatisfied with their territorial position and influence in the international system — or with the system itself. ”
Our allies are concerned not only about American willingness to lead in the world, but also the president’s proclivity to act in contravention of international agreements and allies’ concerns (e.g. pulling out of the Paris accords, threatening to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Trump seems to have gone out of his way to damage the relationship between the European Union and the United States. “Traditionally for the whole post-WWII period, it’s not that we haven’t had disagreements with our allies, disagreements about whether they are living up to their obligations,” Nuland says. Under five presidents, she has seen the pull and tug between the United States and its European allies. However, “the prevailing assumption was that we wanted the same things.” When members of the family of democratic nations feel as though they are “subject to more criticism than support,” they look after their own interests, not the collective interests of liberal democracies. The United States wakes up to find that it is alone and isolated in the world.
In short, concerns about American leadership, our support for democracy and our relationship with the European Union are not new. What has changed, we would argue, is that now the president of the world’s only superpower is pulling in the wrong direction, allowing non-democratic countries to run rampant and damaging the resistance of free and open societies.
Beyond his mind-set and rhetoric, Trump has introduced new challenges for those trying to advocate for and implement a successful foreign policy. The prevalence of so many generals, we have argued, puts a disproportionate number of military figures in high posts and may prompt us to lean too heavily on hard power — an over-correction, if you will, from the Obama era. “Military leaders would be the first to say military solutions alone result in more and longer military entanglements,” Nuland says. “The role of American diplomats and political leaders is to work concurrently with the military to bring to bear all of the political tools we have.”
And that brings us to the State Department itself. Nuland eschews criticism of the current secretary but is candid. “I’m increasingly worried,” she says. Our greatest asset in developing creative solutions to challenges we face is our experienced political appointees and permanent Foreign Service personnel. When our most experienced people either are not being used effectively or are leaving, she says, we just shrink our foreign policy team, lessen its output and lose creative policymaking. That in turn, as we noted, causes us to rely too heavily on military solutions. We need to see the State Department provide creative, non-military policy solutions in North Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Otherwise we find ourselves embroiled in more conflicts. “We leave the military all alone,” Nuland says. “We can get in [to conflicts] and can’t get out.”
Nuland enters the think-tank world at a time when both the executive branch and the Congress could use some help not only devising smart policy but also helping to connect foreign policy to Americans’ own personal prosperity and security. CNAS, at a lean head count of about 40 people, has punched above its weight without becoming a player in partisan wars with reports such as its May 2016 one setting forth a workable, bipartisan consensus on key foreign policy issues. Both the administration and Congress would be wise to seek CNAS’s input and consider its advice, lest the trend toward disengagement and self-destructive, anti-democratic conduct become irreversible.