Team Trump Seems Unaware of Soft Power's Punch
From his cruise missile strike on Syria and chocolate cake-date with Chinese President Xi Jinping to his newfound embrace of NATO, Trump’s flurry of flip-flops last week infused Washington’s foreign policy establishment with barely muted giddiness.
But as head-snapping and salutary as some of Trump’s reversals may be, they don’t address one of his administration’s most misguided impulses: The militarization of U.S. foreign policy. The dangerous imbalance between the attention and resources that Trump is willing to devote to “hard” and “soft power” threatens not only to undermine U.S. leadership, but also to leave Americans more vulnerable to a wider spectrum of threats.
Remarkably, nearly three months after taking office, neither Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has even tried to articulate a coherent foreign policy vision. (By this time in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell had testified several times on Capitol Hill and delivered at least one blueprint speech.) Yet it’s already clear that the U.S. military will take the lead in translating the embattled zero-sum nativism of Trump’s inaugural speech into action.
Generals James Mattis, John F. Kelly, and H.R. McMaster, respectively, head up the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and the National Security Council, whose staffs are also liberally salted with ex-military officers. The Pentagon and Homeland Security are getting fat budget increases while almost every other part of the executive branch is being put on a diet. Even before this month’s missile strike on Syria, the tempo and scale of U.S. military operations had increased in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen.
You could argue that Trump’s willingness to use military force provides a prerequisite for diplomacy to work -- a robust counterpoint to President Barack Obama’s failure, for instance, to provide Secretary of State John Kerry with any kinetic leverage in Syria.
But diplomacy can’t work without diplomats, and of these there are precious few. Tillerson is still home alone at the State Department, with next to no ambassadors let alone upper-echelon officials either nominated or confirmed. (Look at how many nominations President George W. Bush put forward in March 2001, and weep.)
It’s well and good to send a carrier task force, after a wee scheduling snafu, to North Korea as a warning and deterrent. High-level visits are nice, too. But without U.S. ambassadors in South Korea and Japan, not to mention an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the U.S. can’t do the kind of daily consultations and hand-holding needed to reassure allies whose civilian populations would bear the brunt of any North Korean retaliation. And let’s face it: All the military solutions to Kim Jong Un’s provocations come with horrible risks. The influence of senior advisers steeped in the region might also have prevented diplomatic gaffes, such as Trump’s parroting of Xi’s line that Korea was once part of China.
More broadly, soft power can enable the U.S. to advance its interests at less cost in lives and treasure than fighting a war. The textbook example of this, of course, is the Marshall Plan that stabilized post-war Western Europe, undergirded America’s Cold War alliance and established aid programs as integral to U.S. foreign policy. The ability to persuade, rather than compel, flows in part from that generosity -- and also from the power of U.S. ideals and values expressed through our culture and institutions.
That’s why initiatives such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, President George W. Bush’s landmark initiative to curb HIV infections, are so important. It’s why relatively small programs such as the U.S. Institute of Peace and the East-West Center can have a big impact on foreign views of the U.S. (Full disclosure: I’m a journalist who has personally benefited from both institutions.) It’s why the U.S. standing as the world’s biggest humanitarian donor (in dollar terms, at least) falls on the credit rather than the debit side of the policy ledger.
As former President Bush wrote recently, “It is clear that the generosity of the American people has had a huge impact -- one that reflects the view that all lives are precious, and to whom much is given, much is required.” It also, as he noted, helps stabilize societies and makes the U.S. and the world safer.
Unfortunately, Trump seems to believe that the U.S. should be in the business of repulsion, not attraction: repelling refugees, immigrants, foreign workers, foreign students and foreign goods. His budget proposal notably cuts funding for Bush’s AIDS prevention program and humanitarian aid, and zeroes out funding for the East-West Center.
The administration makes no apologies for gutting diplomacy and aid to feed the Pentagon’s ever-gaping maw. As budget director Mick Mulvaney said, “This is a hard-power budget … the president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong power administration.”
Problem is, when allies hear that message, when they see cuts in U.S. funding for the United Nations that affect everything from fighting famines and pandemics to curbing nuclear proliferation, when they see the White House shredding commitments that have underpinned global order for decades, they’re as likely to go their own way as to step up their cooperation -- especially when there’s nobody on the U.S. side with real influence or experience pushing them to reconsider.
Mattis and McMaster know from their shared experiences that military force without robust diplomatic engagement can be just the sound of one hand slapping. (Kelly, too, has pointedly acknowledged that you can’t stop illegal migration from Central America merely by building a bigger wall and creating a bigger deportation force.) Even if these men say the right things, however, they are warfighters first, diplomatic problem-solvers second. Their approach to Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen will likely emphasize more boots on the ground, especially since that’s what their commander-in-chief will favor.
Yet look at Afghanistan: Doing things like dropping the U.S.’s biggest conventional bomb on the Taliban isn’t going to solve a problem that defied a much bigger surge of U.S. troops during Obama’s time, even though there is now a friendlier host government in place. You also need more diplomats and aid workers on the ground to deal with governance, corruption, development and a host of other messy issues.
Or consider the challenges the U.S. faces in Africa: The decision to put a seasoned military counterterrorism expert in charge of Africa at the NSC -- however well intended -- will likely mean less focus on the root causes of the dysfunction and misery that can fuel terror and mayhem in the first place. And many of the challenges and opportunities the U.S. faces in dealing with African powerhouses such as Nigeria and South Africa have little to do with people getting blown up.
The mysterious personnel vacuum at the State Department -- is Tillerson waiting for Christmas in July to put forward a massive batch of nominations? Are Trump’s loyalty tests too hard to pass? -- means that “acting” officials will continue to show up at policy gunfights armed with the equivalent of a pen knife. That could have unfortunate results. Witness the kerfuffle over the Pentagon’s rosy plan for supporting the next phase in Saudi Arabia’s destructive war in Yemen, which has diplomats and aid workers warning of mass famine.
Even Republicans in Congress have made clear that Trump’s scything of the budgets for the State Department and foreign aid won’t be allowed to happen. But restoring a few tens of millions of dollars here and there amounts to a rear-guard action. It’s no substitute for wise, full-throated leadership from the top. Moreover, budget allocations and personnel choices -- the lodestars of policy implementation -- are harder to re-engineer than waking up one morning and deciding that maybe NATO wasn’t so obsolete after all.
So, was it a good thing that Trump launched 59 cruise missiles in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack? Yes. But don’t slay the fatted calf for the policy prodigal just yet. Even better would have been real proof that Trump wasn’t intent on blowing up U.S. foreign policy as the last 70 years has known it. If such evidence begins to surface, that would indeed be worth cheering.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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