Only free exchange of ideas in public debate can ensure high quality foreign….and domestic policies from the new Trump administration.
Towards a New Foreign Policy that is Both Coherent and Informed
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
One of the main strands of destructive criticism of Donald Trump’s newly launched presidency is that the President is volatile, inconsistent and rambling all over the place. Since the mainstream media are indeed the Opposition, as presidential strategist Stephen Bannon has correctly if indiscreetly called out, The New York Times or The Washington Post are not concerned about the truth of such allegations when they insert them in front page coverage of most any word or action coming from the Trump White House.
However, the reality is great coherency in Donald Trump’s vision of both the domestic and foreign policies he has begun to implement, as well as clear understanding of how both fit together. Making America Great Again begins with restoring manufacturing industry and good middle class jobs, as well as investing in transportation and other infrastructure needed to support economic activity. Its foreign policy counterpart has an important international trade component: moving against nebulous multilateral pacts like the TPP and NAFTA that serve only multinational corporations with their outsourcing operations in favor of hard-headed bilateral treaties that are trade focused and balanced.
Meanwhile, its military component assumes an end to wars of choice that have wreaked havoc abroad at the same time they depleted the US Treasury. The tranquil global stage which will allow the United States to address properly its domestic economic and social needs is ensured by concentration firstly on relations with the other two powers that belong to the elite club of military and/or economic super powers, Russia and China. All other countries and regions are secondary and are not allowed to distract from the primacy of the Big Three.
Conceptually this all makes great sense. It throws out entirely the wrongheaded ideological preoccupations with democracy promotion and regime change abroad that both Democratic and Republican administrations have pursued these past 25 years to the detriment of the homeland. Trump rejects the American Empire and is seeking to revive the American Republic. Hoorah, indeed.
As regards foreign policy, the devil is not only in the details but in the process by which the details are arrived at. Over the past 25 years, the collective mind of the US defense and foreign policy establishment closed itself to all out-of-the-box thinking. Those who would not uphold the Washington Consensus were systematically blacklisted by those in public authority. They were very rarely published in Foreign Affairs. They were hardly ever given the microphone on CNN or CNBC or even on C-SPAN. Our policies and the implementers of those policies have steadily atrophied to the point where incompetence and ignorance were blatant in the last days of Barack Obama.
Now some of the most odious figures from this establishment, beginning with Victoria Nuland at State, are moving from their comfortable positions of power out into the street. But the question is whether their replacements will be as stiff-necked and indifferent to inputs from outside their own ranks as their predecessors. Will one ignorant and misguided Political Correctness merely be substituted for another?
Donald Trump said at his Inauguration that his accession to the presidency means power to the people. That may be an exaggeration when the subject is formulation of foreign policy, but bringing the public into broad and open discussion of the key security issues of our times is not only consistent with populism but also consistent with best practices to deliver optimal results. Absence of debate is debilitating for the policy makers in office just as it is frustrating to all those with relevant knowledge who are muzzled.
These are early days, his Cabinet has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and it is understandable that the new President has been taking counsel from old timers, big names from the past who are in the wings. Hence the mentoring from Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn that we saw in his first pronouncements on planned policy towards Russia.
However, these are yesterday’s statesmen who never rose to the occasion to find genuine, rather than merely PR solutions to dealing with Russia. Both were behind the foreign policy road map delivered to Barack Obama at the start of his presidency that was implemented under the name of “reset.” Reset was about improved atmospherics, less aggressive talk and very specific nuclear weapons reduction agreements. It never got beyond past thinking over Russia as a country outside the civilized world of the West, outside the security architecture. And without bringing Russia in from the cold there can be no sustainable normalization of relations with the Kremlin.
In the absence of public discussion, the President came out with the idea in his interview with The Times of London a week or so ago to change the metrics for lifting sanctions on Russia from fulfillment of the Minsk Accords on the Donbas to progress in curbing the nuclear arms race. That may sound good, but it surprised none of us in the know with respect to Russia’s thinking today that it was immediately rejected by the Kremlin, where nuclear arms are the great leveler that is needed in the absence of an overall security agreement with the West.
With no public discussion of its merits, one of Trump’s spokesmen then suggested that a safe area or no-flight zone be created in Syria. Here again we have a proposal that can only repel the Kremlin and set back any prospects for improved relations.
The 45 minute telephone conversation between Presidents Putin and Trump on 28 January seems to have corrected course and won out over a leery Kremlin, if we are to judge by the thumbs up rhetoric coming from present and past chairmen of the Duma foreign relations committee. But there is no assurance against new missteps by the President acting as he is today, with a very sketchy group of kitchen-cabinet advisers and no public participation.
As for the broad public, the conditions have not yet been created for its participation. The media, think tanks, university forums remain closed to those who support Trump’s policies, while the old barrage of Neocon demagogy fills the public space. A good start towards creating a level playing field would be for the federally funded nominal NGOs propagating regime change policies like Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy to have their budgets frozen and for the foundations and think tanks like The American Enterprise Institute that are actually nests of War Party propaganda to be audited for their violation of their tax exempt status.
The enactment of the foreign policy revolution that Donald Trump has invited will require the intellectual inputs from a great many thinkers who have been on the outs and who hold different viewpoints among themselves. Only such a free and public exchange of ideas can ensure high quality foreign….and domestic policies from what promises to be a much needed recalibration of national interest.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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G.Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.