Trump's foreign policy: Dangerous 'disruption' or overdue overhaul?

Trump's foreign policy: Dangerous 'disruption' or overdue overhaul?
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Richard Haass, the urbane, very civilized director of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and former State Department official, has denounced the Trump foreign policy in the current edition of the CFR’s publication, Foreign Affairs. After the usual pieties about Cold War containment strategy and the international institutions devised by the Roosevelt-Truman foreign policy entourage — Gen. George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Charles Bohlen and others — Mr. Haass targets what he considers to be President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE’s dangerous “disruption” of American foreign policy.

No one with any knowledge of the subject disputes the Roosevelt-Truman accomplishments in setting up the United Nations — initially, an unambiguously useful enterprise — or Bretton Woods, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. 

The U.N. initially was assured a majority in favor of the Anglo-American worldview because of the loyal support of Latin American republics, the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, and Western European nations. The U.N. was doubly useful, as it was conceived by Roosevelt to make American integration into world affairs less frightening to isolationist sentiment within the country which had killed participation in the League of Nations, and to disguise to the world somewhat the fact of America’s overwhelming influence by exercising it in an altruistic, collegial framework. The U.N. has become a disappointment, but it was an inspired notion at its founding.

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The containment strategy was the best possible method of countering Soviet military aggression and political subversion or insurrection after the American monopoly of atomic weapons ended. Once the atomic bomb proved effective, it had been Roosevelt’s intention to combine America’s unanswerable military and economic superiority — the U.S. had half the Gross Economic Product of a war-ravaged world — with an immense economic aid package to the Soviet Union and a promise of its full acceptance as co-superpower, to ensure Stalin’s commitment to allow democratic selection of independent governments in Eastern Europe. 

With Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and the elevation of Vice President Truman, such a forceful policy became impractical, and the containment strategy that emerged was an intelligent response to Stalin’s violation of his promises to withdraw from Eastern Europe, to his blockade of West Berlin and his intervention in Greece’s civil war. The strategy was brilliantly formulated and executed through the Marshall Plan and the Western Alliance-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Containment was practiced through nine consecutive presidencies of both parties, with Allied support, until the United States led the West to the most bloodless strategic victory in world history with the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and international communism. 

None of this is in dispute. But it is worrisome that the president of the Council on Foreign Relations does not recognize that a shift from responding to the mortal threat of an ideologically fervent, totalitarian government with 300 army divisions in the middle of Europe, to address a new challenge — this one from a much less doctrinaire, more economically potent China, openly aspiring to hegemony over Asia, Australasia and Africa — demands a change in strategy. 

Mr. Haass acknowledges that the post-World War II institutions need renovation. He compares Trump’s modification of 70 years of foreign policy precedent to his attempt to dispose of ObamaCare, though there is no such comparison and repealing the Affordable Care Act was something his congressional party often voted to do before. NATO doesn’t now need to resist any plausible threat near the North Atlantic; its second most powerful member, Germany, has a military less formidable than the combined beleaguered police forces of the 10 largest American cities — and has made itself an energy vassal-state of Putin’s ramshackle gangsterocracy. Objections to Trump’s brusqueness and verbal sloppiness at times are well-founded, but disdaining him as a tin-pot isolationist, protectionist and unilateralist reduces Haass to the status of a common Trump-hater. Trump asserted his faith in NATO in his Warsaw speech of 2017, and is a fair-trader, not a protectionist.

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It also is disappointing that so sophisticated a foreign policy analyst falsely likens Trump to Andrew Jackson (who had no foreign policy outside North America), Robert Taft, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot (respectively, a patrician isolationist, a populist-isolationist and a kook-charlatan). He fails to acknowledge that since Russia isn’t now a threat to Western Europe, the U.S. needn’t carry the French and Italian luxury goods and German-engineered products industries on its back out of fear of the neutralist left in those countries and, instead, can revise trade arrangements. 

Haass blames Trump for departing the thoroughly unfeasible Trans-Pacific Partnership, the fatuous Paris Climate Accord, the shameful Iranian nuclear agreement, the INF Treaty (which Russia has violated, and which doesn’t cover China) and the World Health Organization. He effectively blames Trump for the coronavirus. Nor does he grant that North Korea’s military nuclear program is effectively stalled, or that Trump could not continue trying to separate the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army with 400 American soldiers. He opposes the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and hasn’t accepted that the Palestinians are effectively abandoned by the Arab powers.

What is required now is to work out with Japan, India and other neighbors of China — possibly including Russia — what level of expanding Chinese influence they and the United States are prepared to accept, and at what point and by what methods they should counter China. The Chinese challenge bears little resemblance to that of the USSR; it requires coordinated recognition of the power and legitimacy of resurrected China. This is a complicated, subtle process, and Haass grudgingly gives Trump credit for at least recognizing the challenge (which his predecessors did not).

There is some reason to believe Trump thinks NATO should be expanded and reconfigured as a defensive alliance stretching beyond the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Europe. Such an expanded umbrella could retain NATO’s present purpose and become the basis both to accommodate and, if need be, resist the spread of Chinese influence. President Trump’s suggestion of adding India, Brazil, Russia and Australia to the G-7 is a step in this direction. 

There is still reason to hope that Trump will be not so much an obstructer as a renovator of American foreign policy. Certainly, after the incautious adventurism and phantasmagoric “democratization” of the George W. Bush administration — followed by the Obama years’ pixie-like pacifism and reassignment of roles to Iran, Israel and other countries — some new thinking is welcome, is being pursued reasonably sensibly, and should not be prejudged as mindless disruption. 

Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.