Then along came President Trump. My colleague Robert Kagan wrote in June that Trump saw “the United States as rogue superpower, neither isolationist nor internationalist, neither withdrawing nor in decline, but active, powerful and entirely out for itself. In recent months, on trade, Iran, NATO defense spending and perhaps even North Korea, President Trump has shown that a president willing to throw off the moral, ideological and strategic constraints that limited U.S. action in the past can bend this intractable world to his will, at least for a while.”
Even worse, the less democratic and the more vicious the regime (with the exception of Iran), the more Trump has lavished praise on it, giving the impression that our interests and theirs are in perfect sync, while our traditional allies (with the exception of Israel) were taking advantage of us, weighing us down. It wasn’t enough to conduct polite, self-interested diplomacy with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; we had to fawn over them and act as their PR agents.
Such a foreign policy was bound to fail for no less than three reasons.
First, it’s not based in reality. Russia doesn’t share our interests in Europe or the Middle East, and therefore cannot be our partner. North Korea does not seem to share our interest in denuclearizing (unless it wrenches South Korea out from U.S. protection). Inevitably conflicts arise when the glowing orb or the red carpet get put away.
Second, rogue regimes are by their nature unstable and unreliable. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was a case in point. In providing nondemocratic partners with undiluted praise and support, we encourage behaviors that ultimately make them less stable, less prosperous and more corrupt.
And third, ultimately the American people won’t stand for it, as we’ve seen with Saudi Arabia, when our supposed partners shatter international norms, commit human rights atrocities and impinge on their neighbors’ sovereignty — which they inevitably do.
As Kagan explained, “Trump’s policies are pure realism, devoid of ideals and sentiment, pursuing a narrow ‘national interest’ defined strictly in terms of dollars and cents and defense against foreign attack. Trump’s world is a struggle of all-against-all. There are no relationships based on common values. There are merely transactions determined by power. It is the world that a century ago brought us two world wars.”
At present, such a foreign policy brings about continual disappointment and visceral backlash from the American people. It diminishes our moral authority in the world, alienates our actual democratic friends, makes us look weak and entangles us in costly and counterproductive trade wars. Trump and his enablers are now caught: They cozied up to a regime that acts in repugnant ways (slaughtering civilians in Yemen, killing a U.S. journalist), triggering a backlash in Congress and the court of public opinion. In lieu of our own coherent Iran policy we relied on a regime that acts in ways the American people find intolerable. Our “transaction” no longer works, and we have no backup plan.
This does not mean that all of our alliances must be grounded in shared, democratic values. It does, however, require that we not outsource our foreign policy to autocratic regimes and that we hold them accountable for their conduct. We must continue to stand up for universal human rights. It also means we need to commit our own resources and assemble our own coalitions to burden-share (as we did in the first Gulf War). For the sake of international comity, we must avoid knee-jerk repudiation of international agreements. Otherwise, we wind up looking like suckers at the mercy of corrupt, brutal regimes. This is not winning, by any definition.