The Trump White House continues to receive advice – solicited and unsolicited, in letters to the editor, op-eds, essays, and policy papers – as to what its foreign policy priorities should be. It is tempting to presume that problems called “priorities” can be resolved with just a little more savvy or a little more will. But if they could have been, they would have been. Instead, the administration might consider priorities for American behavior – political, economic, and military.
First, there are three questions to be asked:
- What should the United States do to ensure that allies feel secure and adversaries don’t?
- How can America encourage countries that are neither allies nor adversaries to cooperate on issues of importance?
- How can Washington encourage countries to want to be “more like us” (politically and economically free with more transparent government) and “less like them” (totalitarian, communist, jihadist, and less transparent)?
- And if they choose to be “more like them,” what are the limits of American encouragement or coercive capabilities?
OK, that’s four questions, but when they are answered, the first priority that emerges is creation of a clear statement of American goals and desired outcomes. In the broader Middle East, the United States is engaged in lethal operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia while being at war with none of them, and in each, the outcome we seek is unstated.
As the military and diplomatic objectives are formulated, the second priority is“public diplomacy,” stressing what made/makes America what it has been and should be – a beacon of hope for people around the world. Individual freedoms including rights to property and to profit from one’s creativity and work; constraints on government enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the checks and balances of the system; free expression, including the right to criticize the government; and opportunity for all resulting in (at least relative) prosperity for most are what people admire.
This should not be confused with “democracy promotion” – a failed concept. The U.S. should promote and advance specific human rights and freedoms for citizens without trying to determine the nature of the political system of any country.
Messaging is a two-way street. On the one hand, the United States should be clear and vocal about what it does support, and on the other hand, it must be clear about threats to the American body politic contained in the messages of radical Islamist-jihadist ideology. The U.S. must develop strategy to discredit and defeat Islamic triumphalism that includes clarifying the expansionist-totalitarian nature of jihadism.
This is a reasonable place to consider Israel, a country that fits squarely among U.S. allies. The U.S.-Israel alliance should be understood within the context of Israel’s essential contribution as an innovative, experienced, and successful front-line fighter against Islamic radicalism. Most important, Israel, unlike other “helpers” in the region, is impregnable politically to Islamism and its insidious influence. The same cannot be said of a single E.U. country.
While the above priorities do not require military action – indeed, they necessarily and deliberately lean heavily on trade and public diplomacy – a strong U.S. military is the third priority. America needs military resources constructed to match current and projected levels of threat to convince adversaries and would-be adversaries that the U.S. has the military force to meet aggression from low-scale and low-tech along the spectrum to high-tech, cyber, and nuclear. Nuclear modernization is an absolute priority, as the Russians have been engaged in modernization for years, and Iran’s legal breakout of the Iran deal is no more than eight years away – and may be much closer.
Primary Strategic Challenges: Russia, China, and Iran
Russia: The goal should be ensuring that America’s friends and allies in both Central Europe and Central Asia are not inhibited in their growth and development by the actions of the Russian government. This requires enhancing trade and other relations with the newer and peripheral NATO countries. At a farther remove, the goal should be to ensure that Russian influence in the Middle East is not threatening to American allies and friends. Russia’s pursuit of naval bases in Libya as well as Syria should be understood in the context of a minimal U.S.-NATO naval presence in the Mediterranean.
The United States should engage with its NATO allies in an in-depth review of purposes, membership, cohesion, and military modernization and membership in the organization. This should include limits to expansion and out-of-area operations.
China: What is true for Russia and the countries surrounding it is equally true for China and the countries surrounding it. Ensuring that America’s friends and allies in the region are not inhibited in their growth and development by actions of the Chinese government will involve both messaging activities and ensuring freedom of navigation, freedom of association, and strong trade relations between the U.S. and “periphery” countries – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.
Iran: American concerns about Iran break in two directions: nuclear and hegemonic. Both need to be addressed. The fact is that the current set of nuclear violations by Iran is fairly small – and the violations are likely to remain fairly small because Iran’s short-term goals have to do with regional hegemony, not nuclear weapons. After 8-10 years, Iran can legitimately become a nuclear weapons breakout state – and 8-10 years is a very short period of time.
Contrary to some, there are no “snap-back” sanctions and little chance that the U.N. would reconstruct sanctions against Iran. At the same time, there remain U.N. and U.S. congressional sanctions that have not been and will not be lifted. The United States should be holding up the evidence of Iranian violations, and for each there should be a cost. It could be in trade, banking, visas, or something else, but there should be some cost to Iran – beginning with being called on the violations. Iran claims that it will withdraw from the JCPOA if Washington holds it accountable.
On the conventional/terror support side, Iran occupies whole swaths of Iraq, fields a sizable foreign army inside Syria, and engages in a variety of military and terror-sponsoring activities in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. Iran harasses American ships in the Persian Gulf, and, absent an American response, Iran controls the Persian Gulf to the east of Saudi Arabia and through its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen (on the Red Sea west of Saudi Arabia). Thus, it is close to controlling both water access routes for Saudi (and other) oil from the region to the oceans.
The United States should make clear its commitment to freedom of navigation along both waterways and take steps to ensure that it can meet the commitment, including responding to incidents of harassment.
The U.S. should also strengthen relations with and strengthen the capabilities of anti-Iranian Arab countries vis-à-vis Iran and internationally work to suppress nuclear cooperation among Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, and dual-use trade with the West, and restricting as much as possible regime access to the international financial system.
As a general matter: America should diminish attention to and reduce the influence of the United Nations. Defund and withdraw from troublesome and incorrigible sub-agencies including the U.N. Human Rights Commission, UNRWA (and the five U.N. committees devoted to Palestinian “rights”), UNESCO, and the International Court of Justice.
At the same time, Washington can build a de facto alliance of democracies, starting with Anglo-democracies – the United States, the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand – and building outward to others: India, South Korea, Israel, Poland, Japan, the Baltic states, etc. This should be done at first informally, but publicly for public diplomacy purposes, security consultations on terrorism, migrant flows and crises, mutual assistance planning for natural disasters, mutual defense, and cultural exchanges and promotions.
Non-members, adversaries, and U.N. bureaucrats will get the point – which is the beginning of the restoration of the United States to its role of international guarantor of international trade and navigation and defender of American interests and allies abroad.