Finally, the White House issued a statement blasting Iran for going past JCPOA-specified limits on uranium enrichment that declared, “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms.” Read that sentence one more time and remember that perhaps this administration is not staffed by the sharpest tools in the shed.
So yes, Trump is awful. The unrelenting awfulness, however, can cause foreign policy observers to go mad. Even the slightest glimmer of not-horrible news from the Trump White House causes some observers to wildly overpraise official actions that rate slightly better than disastrous. We look at Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, squint really hard and try to see the good in it because focusing on the negative in the Age of Trump can be exhausting.
A related problem is that compared to Trump, 2020 Democrats just need to sound coherent on foreign policy and wonks start swooning. This can make it difficult to assess their statements when they say anything about foreign policy. I would be happy with a base level of competence; does that mean that my questions about progressive foreign policy don’t really matter?
Fortunately, the 2020 Democrats are starting to flesh out their foreign policy plans a bit more, and they seem to merit some genuine enthusiasm. Bernie Sanders took to Foreign Affairs, for example, to offer a pointed critique of the global war on terror. There is a part of this critique that feels outdated; after all, Trump’s national security strategy prioritized great power competition 18 months ago. Still, Sanders offers up a decent diagnosis of the problems with the status quo:
In the nearly two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States has made a series of costly blunders that have not only weakened our democracy but also undermined our leadership. We need a foreign policy that focuses on core U.S. interests, clarifies our commitment to democratic values both at home and abroad, and privileges diplomacy and working collectively with allies to address shared security concerns.
This sounds about right.
The senator from Vermont hints at how to think about combating terrorism going forward: “Terrorism is a very real threat, which requires robust diplomatic efforts, intelligence cooperation with allies and partners, and yes, sometimes military action. But as an organizing framework, the global war on terror has been a disaster for our country.” Mostly, however, this essay is an opportunity for Sanders to suggest a reprioritization of U.S. grand strategy, which sounds eminently sensible.
The truly impressive foreign policy move of the past week, however, came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. I have been critical of Warren’s foreign policy vision, and really critical of her “economic patriotism” plan. Last week, however, she released her plan to revitalize diplomacy for the 21st century. Her diagnosis of the problem is spot-on:
Through a toxic combination of malice and neglect, Donald Trump has declared war on the State Department. In one of his first acts, he attempted to cut the State Department’s budget by a third. Some senior career officials were pushed out, while others resigned in protest. The State Department has lost 60% of its career ambassadors and 20% of its most experienced civil servants. And too often, these skilled diplomats have been replaced with totally unqualified campaign donors and other Trump cronies.But while Trump may have accelerated the exodus from the State Department, he didn’t start it. Years of hiring freezes and spending cuts have caused many talented diplomats to head for the doors. China’s spending on diplomacy has doubled under President Xi Jinping — while America’s spending on core diplomatic capability has declined over the last decade.To take a meaningful leadership position in the world, to protect American interests, and to avoid conflicts around the globe, we need to reverse this trend.
So what does Warren propose to do about the Foreign Service? At the risk of turning in my Official Jaded Observer secret decoder ring, here’s my unvarnished take on Warren’s plan: it’s brilliant. Seriously, all of the ideas are great. Establishing the diplomatic equivalent of ROTC would be a great idea. So is facilitating midcareer entry and exit from the Foreign Service. I have been trained to within an inch of my life to find fault in other people’s papers, but whoever put this together knew what they were doing and did it well.
This is an impressive plan in no small part because there is no political upside to it. Very few Americans vote based on foreign policy, but no one will cast a vote based on reforming the diplomatic corps. This is a political nothingburger even though it will make a big policy difference. Props to Warren and her campaign for devoting the time to putting it together.
Am I excited about this plan because it represents such a stark contrast to Trump’s evisceration of the Foreign Service? Yes, absolutely. Would I be excited about this plan absent Trump? Yes, I believe I would.