Foreign Policy

Trump’s first foreign trip will show ‘America First’ is a tricky balance


On May 2, David Ignatius in The Washington Post discussed conflicting values and interests: He wrote that American values tell us to oppose undemocratic policies, “but our interests tell us to avoid war and seek agreements where possible.” President Trump’s visit later this month to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Holy See reflects the administration’s efforts to reconcile core U.S. values with strategic interests consistent with “America First.” At first blush, Trump’s openness that securing American security interests may require deemphasizing proclamation of American values is a dramatic contrast to his predecessors. Upon reflection, it is the form, not the substance, that differs.

In the background of this visit is Iran, a country that threatens the respective security interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

{mosads}In defending the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, Obama searched for an Iranian “moderate” in the “elections.” He thought the accord would facilitate rise of a centrist figure who would lead it from religious-based ideology onto a secular democratic path. In effect, Obama appeased the Ayatollahs of Tehran, and acquiesced in their suppression of democracy, to secure an agreement he believed served the national security interests.

At the same time, he dismissed concerns of several allies and friendly nations and chose to cooperate with other allies and several unfriendly nations (Russia and China) to seal the deal, again placing a priority on U.S. national security interests.

For the oil-rich Sunni monarchies, Shiite and Persian Iran “poses the most pressing current threat to their interests,” per Yaroslav Trofimov in The Wall Street Journal of May 5, 2017. “They view the Jewish state — a foe of the regime in Tehran and its regional proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia — as their de facto ally.” Although Trofimov considers that alignment a rare mix of strange bedfellows, it is not.

Coauthor of this post, Raymond Tanter, served on the National Security Council Staff (NSC) during the Reagan-Bush administration that sought in vain to create such a group of states; successive U.S. presidents failed as well. While a temporary alliance can be forged among states with divergent values to faceoff a common threat, long-term alliances require shared values to undergird the efforts for shared security interests. Thus, the Iran threat serves to form a coalition of states to meet that common threat, but, without a basis in shared values, it will not be viable.

The absence of shared values among those seeing Iran as a threat foretells the doom of the Trump “new” approach to the Middle East.

The Debate Circle Widens

In a review of Democracy, by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Walter Russell Mead said, the manuscript “is Rice’s attempt to hammer home the idea of democracy promotion as a key goal for American foreign policy.”

And former Deputy National Security Adviser in the George W. Bush administration, Elliott Abrams, also extols the virtues of democracy promotion. Like Rice, Abrams is critical of Trump’s views of democracy, saying then President-Elect Trump considered “democracy as a luxury the United States cannot afford when faced with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But Islamic extremism is an idea, and while it cannot be defeated without arms, it cannot be defeated by arms alone. A better idea, democracy, is a formidable and necessary weapon.”

Clearly, the promotion of democracy supports U.S. national security interests — the issue is how, not what.

The Way Forward — Balancing Interests & Values

Before Trump is to depart, his staff gave a readout of goals: The visits were to demonstrate “‘America First’ was fully reconcilable with U.S. leadership in the world,” The trip was to show Trump is “willing to and has embraced his leadership role in multinational forums when they serve the interests of the American people.”

That account suggests Trump wished to balance interests and values. Refraining to speak at open forums and only to private meetings, however, implies he is more concerned with interests than values, which might be expressed by people opposed to him, instead of elites in support. Contrariwise, when Obama made his maiden voyage to the Middle East, he held both private sessions and spoke to an open forum in Cairo and received thunderous ovations; later, he was criticized for not meeting expectations in the aftermath of Arab revolts that began in 2011 and continue to rock the region, e.g., Civil War in Syria.

Prior to Trump’s foreign travel, there were accusations he is “going soft on the Saudis.” This assessment is consistent with focusing more on interests than on values. Even Obama and other prior occupants of the Oval Office realized that, “The Saudis are part of the problem — but they’re also part of the solution, so that’s why you have to deal with them,” said Simon Henderson, a Saudi expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Thus, we draw three conclusions:

First, the substance of U.S. foreign policy should not shift dramatically — the U.S. must promote democracy as consistent with universal norms, our long-term values, and national security interests. We must lead because America is the only nation in the world with the combination of democratic values, constitutional structures, and power needed to exercise leadership of the international community of democracies; and, a stable world order is necessary for America’s economic growth, on which our national security largely depends.

That said, the form must change — quiet diplomacy driven by goals to be realized, instead of virtue signaling from podiums, will be most effective.

Second, Trump’s “softening on Saudis” is consistent with his realism per Morgenthau; ditto for his vision of a new alignment in the Middle East based on interests bereft of values.

The U.S. must continue to promote democracy while protecting our national security interests. The solution is to speak truth to power in private but not embarrass with public denunciations. The Obama administration’s failures in Syria show the ineffectiveness of public denunciations and shaming of government leaders by U.S. secretaries of State and of ambassadors to the United Nations. Secretary Tillerson’s decision not to brief on the release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 reflects this shift to “praising in public and criticizing in private.”

Third, while the threat from Iran’s revolutionary ideology may induce Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others to forge a covert alliance, it will quickly fracture if Iran moderates its behavior to avoid threatening the Saudis or other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. A long-term solution to Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism and related activities, which threaten stability in the region and beyond (e.g., refugee flows to Europe) or directly threaten U.S. allies like Israel, is needed.

Regime change from the outside does not have a good record, thus, a long-term solution to Iran’s destabilizing activities is to support Iranians in their efforts to bring real democracy to their country, albeit via clandestine means instead of public expressions of the administration.

Dr. Raymond Tanter @AmericanCHR served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now Professor Emeritus at University of Michigan. Edward Stafford @egstafford is a retired Foreign Service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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