Why the Foreign Policy Sky is Not Falling

Both Michael Fuchs’ angst-ridden piece for Just Security (“The Deconstruction of America’s Global Leadership”), and Jack Goldsmith’s equally frenetically titled (but less fevered textually) essay over on Lawfare (“The Trump Onslaught on International Law and Institutions”) foresee nothing but bleakness for America’s standing in the world. Allow me to steal from Mark Twain to suggest that reports of our demise as an effective foreign policy leader are – at this early point anyway – “greatly exaggerated.”

To be clear, I certainly don’t approve of everything the new president has done in his first months in office, and his record shows plenty of missteps. But I also believe that we need balance in our national security and foreign policy discussions before we don sackcloth and ashes and hoist our “The End is Near” signs.

True, we are in an era of change, which is what happens in democracies when a candidate runs on a platform of change and wins, and change can be disquieting to those who prefer the status quo. But how good was the status quo? Last summer, after nearly eight years of the Obama administration, the U.S. ranked a lowly 28th among the world’s most reputable countries. In an analysis in American Interest, Walter Russell Mead and Sean Keely, while noting negative international skepticism about Donald Trump, also concluded that, “2016 may have been the worst year yet for the Obama Administration.” They pointed to:

[A] string of foreign policy failures that further undermined American credibility across the world. In Syria, Russia brutally assisted Assad in consolidating control over Aleppo and sidelined Washington in the subsequent peace talks. China continued to defy the American-led international order, building up its military presence in the South China Sea and reaching out to American allies like the Philippines. Iran and its proxies continued their steady rise in the Middle East, while the Sunnis and Israel increasingly questioned Washington’s usefulness as an ally.

Can’t we agree that there was room for improvement? Even at this embryonic stage of the Trump administration have we seen any? Actually, yes. 

Let’s start with one of the most ruthlessly apolitical measures of the US’s standing in the world: the markets. They show that global investors are evidently very comfortable with America’s new direction. Since the election, the global markets have gained more than $3.1 trillion dollars (and America’s own stock market has hit all-time highs). People around the globe are voting with their wallets as to their confidence in America’s place in the world, and it’s been very positive. Of course, there will be a correction in the market (and there probably should be one as some investors say it “would be healthy” for it). After Trump’s healthcare bill failed in the House last week, U.S. stocks began to fall Monday morning, reflecting a slightly diminished optimism. Still, the overall signs do not yet show Michael or Jack’s negativity.

Both writers fret about the US’s relationship with international institutions. At the UN, however, America is exercising some real leadership. Despite initial skepticism about Nikki Haley, a daughter of South Asian immigrants whom Trump chose as his UN ambassador, she is proving her mettle as a diplomat. Earlier this month, she led the way on a key human rights issue by battling for a Security Council resolution against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, and she slammed Russia and China when they used their veto against it. The Christian Science Monitor editorialized:

[Haley’s efforts] were a clear assertion of an international norm designed to avoid the use of mass weapons that can easily cause indiscriminate killing of civilians… The United States has long been a champion of humanitarian rules for the protection of innocent people from indiscriminate harm in war.

The Trump administration seems to have joined this chorus, standing up for values not only American but widely shared by other nations. If that’s putting America first, bring it on.

Moreover, we should not forget that the American public has a strong negative view of the UN (a new Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of Americans think it’s doing a poor job), and that predates Trump. In other words, even during the Obama years, the case for the UN was not convincingly made, at least to the satisfaction of a significant majority of Americans.

What about relations with NATO? There is much sturm und drang about the Trump administration’s call for NATO members to contribute more to their own defense (even though Obama also decried NATO’s “free riders”). Of course, calling the alliance “obsolete” isn’t helpful, even if Trump has said more recently that he strongly supports it. Moreover, handing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allies so-called “bills” (based on a calculation of how far the countries have fallen short on the NATO members’ pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense) is definitely not an approach I would endorse, even though Fox News claims that “the hardball tactic may have had some effect.”

Some Europeans do seem to be recognizing the legitimacy of the underlying issue. The Economist says the US “has a point in noting that its commitment is disproportionately large.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in a CNN interview, also agreed with Trump that an “unfair burden sharing” existed and the “alliance members cannot simply expect the U.S. to pay the lion’s share of investment.” If the Trump administration, however ham-handedly, goads Europeans into at least focusing more on defense spending, isn’t that something of a success?

On the State Department side, Michael envisions a world where diplomats “will be withdrawn from around the world and foreign assistance dries up,” and Jack says the State Department budget is being “gutted.” Yes, the State Department will have to ‘make do’ with just $37.6 billion for itself and USAID.

But diplomats “being withdrawn from around the world”? To me, that doesn’t track with the Trump budget that calls for $2.2 billion for new embassy construction and maintenance. From where exactly does Michael think we will withdraw diplomats? Of course, it’s unlikely that State will be getting many more billion dollar embassies like the one being built in London, or the nearly billion-dollar embassy in Mexico, but is that really such a bad thing given the competing demands on the budget?

Regardless, the many billions the State Department and USAID would get under the Trump administration’s proposal is still real money that can do much if wisely spent. That said, Trump is also right by not exempting defense spending from scrutiny, and seems to be having some real success recently at driving down costs. My bet is that finding savings in DoD will be more difficult than he and others think, but the effort is a worthy one.

Separate from the budget cuts, the resignation of many top State Department officials is a real problem, so it is very important that the administration speed up filling, as the New York Times has noted, two deputy-level positions “along with the posts of six undersecretaries and 22 assistant secretaries.” Yet there are still some 70,000 State Department employees to carry on in the interim, and that’s a formidable assemblage of human capital.

Michael also quoted a New York Times piece, which described the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as the “phantom of Foggy Bottom,” and said he’s “hardly ever seen or heard from.” But Bloomberg reported in February that “European leaders said they were reassured by what they saw from Tillerson after his international debut at the Group of 20 meeting in Bonn, saying the US was sending the right signal on confronting Russia and tackling conflict in Syria and Yemen.” Personally, given how briefly Tillerson has been in office, I can understand that initially he may want to keep a lower profile than Michael might like. But I do think that his tougher approach to North Korea is significant, and is reflective of what America would want its Secretary of State to be doing.

The press understandably takes umbrage at Tillerson’s “I’m-not-a-big-media-access-person” approach, but in a thoughtful Washington Post essay, columnist Barton Swaim says that he didn’t read Tillerson’s remarks “as an expression of contempt for the media” but rather as a rejection of what Swaim calls “the access/management game.”   He adds:

I think Tillerson is saying he doesn’t care about cultivating reporters in an effort to win favorable coverage. He would rather spend his time working on negotiations and policies, in other words, than on manipulating press coverage.

In any event, let’s allow the guy to settle into the job for more than a few weeks before being too critical of his press relations.

Trump is also targeting foreign aid with his budget cuts. However, isn’t it time to rethink its effectiveness? Last summer, the truly nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found:

In most cases, the success or failure of U.S. foreign aid programs is not entirely clear, in part because historically, most aid programs have not been evaluated for the purpose of determining their actual impact. Many programs are not even evaluated on basic performance. (Emphasis added.)

If a program can’t be shown to have actual impact, is it really unreasonable to trim them back until effectiveness can be shown? The scholarship is piling up, showing that foreign aid either doesn’t work, or is affirmatively counter-productive.

Importantly, however, the budget Trump proposed does reward success in some places. For example, NBC News reports that the president’s budget will maintain all “commitments and all current patient levels on HIV/AIDS treatment under the President’s Emergency Plans for AIDS Relief.” This program “was first started by President George W. Bush and provides AIDS and HIV drugs and funding to millions of people and initiatives across the world — though much goes to nations in Africa.”

Still, there seems to be a perception that foreign aid is an unqualified good with respect to our national security, because it’s assumed to remedy the economic and social causes behind terrorism and state instability. I’m not so sure. Consider this conclusion from a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study about foreign fighters:

[The researchers found] that poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS. Rather, the number of ISIS fighters from a given country is positively correlated with that country’s per capita gross domestic product and its place on the Human Development Index. Many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.

In a recent interview, a jailed ISIS fighter revealed his belief that “he had a license from God to kill in the name of Islam, and still believes ISIS is justified in torturing and burning prisoners of its own.” Frankly, I don’t think such ideologically committed adversaries are amenable to the kind of change brought about by the foreign assistance USAID delivers. Foreign aid that, for example, improves health or facilitates access to education has authentic humanitarian value, but there is no metric that shows it directly improves U.S. security.

Earlier this month Bing West put it bluntly:

[The] premise that foreign aid prevents conflict is sophomoric and risible…. [and a] classic example of the refusal of power elites to reflect or to allow their cherished doctrines can contain flaws. Even the World Bank acknowledges that more than 25% of foreign aid is lost to corruption. We spent hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan – to what end? Surely there is room for analysis of what works and what has failed. Spending money blindly in accord with bromides is not the mark of sound leaders and managers.

Furthermore, as I wrote elsewhere, beginning about a decade ago there was much discussion about “whole of government” and “smart power” solutions that has morphed into the “soft power” language today. The idea that the State Department, USAID, and NGOs would play indispensable roles in places like Afghanistan and Iraq in achieving peace seemed plausible. Civilians would have their own “surge” into conflict to build institutions and take other steps to establish peace.

Nice concept, but it never truly worked. While it is fair to say insufficient resourcing was a significant factor in the failed civilian “surge,” there was another almost-impossible-to-clear hurdle that money could not solve: The right civilians in large enough numbers were not willing to go to violence-prone areas. Consequently, those that would deploy “tended to be younger, more entry-level types, and not experienced, seasoned diplomats,” the New York Times reported. That is not a formula for success in complex regions. For example, the State Department had difficulty deploying its staff to rural areas in Afghanistan “either because it is viewed as too dangerous or because diplomats won’t go,” Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp. and professor at Georgetown University said in a Time Magazine article in 2011.

Even the liberal Center for American Progress admitted a little more than a year ago that while some good things were accomplished by the “civilian surge” in Afghanistan, it did not achieve “systemic changes that established self-sufficient systems of governance, economic growth, or social development, all of which underpin security in Afghanistan.”

As a result, the military – which can’t refuse to deploy – had to pick up many of the activities that people think of as “foreign assistance.” The Congressional Research Service pointed out in 2011 that

The military was called upon to perform such missions not only for its extensive resources but also because no other U.S. government agency could match the military’s superior planning and organizational capabilities.

Since then, not much has changed. Because of its global responsibilities, the armed forces already have tremendous planning and organizational capabilities that can be readily deployed for humanitarian and even nation-building activities anywhere that’s needed. Even with the Ebola crisis, which Michael references twice, it was DoD – not State – that deployed most of the U.S. government personnel to the stricken area.  Does it make fiscal sense to duplicate the costly capabilities the military already has and must always maintain?

On balance, I don’t think so. In today’s extraordinarily austere funding environment, it doesn’t make sense to invest in such duplication simply because civilians might be better suited. It’s also still quite possible that the civilians used would not be seasoned diplomats, but rather “younger, more entry-level types” as was the case previously. It’s hard to see how that outcome would be different today. Simply put, just because the funding for the State Department and/or USAID may be cut, it doesn’t mean that all U.S. assistance to foreign countries will disappear.

In any event, despite the cuts, the U.S. will still lead the world in foreign aid in absolute terms. While the US ranked 19th in 2014 in terms of the percentage of GDP devoted to foreign assistance, most of the countries ahead of the U.S. themselves benefit from another form of American “foreign aid”: the U.S. security umbrella. Plus, the US was ranked as the second most generous country in the world in 2016, behind Myanmar. In 2015, Americans gave almost $16 billion to international charities. Combining government and private funding, there can be little doubt that the US will remain one of the leaders – if not the top leader — in dispensing international aid.

Finally, I was surprised and, honestly, puzzled to see that Jack included the resetting of military rules of engagement among the things he pejoratively considers part of the “onslaught” on international law, particularly since the source he relied upon reports that the “Trump White House remained committed to a standard above the minimum requirement mandated by the international law of armed conflict that governs most military operations.”

You don’t have to be Trumpist to object to the Obama Administration’s overly restrictive targeting rules. I’m convinced that Obama’s trumpeting of the “near certainty of no civilian casualty” standard is largely responsible for the massive upsurge in the use of human shields by ISIS and others. What is more, I, and others, have long seen Obama’s policies as more about avoiding criticism than they were about stopping those who were killing most of the civilians. (See here, here, and here.)

I disagree that conducting military operations that are still “above the minimum requirement mandated by the international law” constitutes an “onslaught” against international law simply because they are not as restrictive – and ineffective – as the Obama Administration ones. Even Hillary Clinton called for conducting “more intense and effective air strikes” and for “ramping up” airstrikes against ISIS. This really isn’t a partisan issue and shouldn’t be.

In the meantime, there is no evidence that the Trump administration has thrown out the Obama administration’s rules for avoiding civilian casualties, although in some areas of Yemen the administration may have “loosened” them by declaring them “areas of active hostilities.” But the top U.S. commander in Iraq said civilian deaths there “cannot be attributed to any loosening of American military rules of combat.” The fact is that almost any use of force in today’s conflicts puts civilians at terrible risk. The New York Times reports that American military sources say the recent airstrike in Iraq, which reportedly killed so many civilians, was conducted under unchanged Obama-era rules.

Looking at the bigger picture, it is to be expected that many countries may disagree with the Trump administration on any number of issues, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will hold an unfavorable view of the US as a whole. For example, in 2014, the Pew Research Center found widespread global opposition to the Obama administration’s surveillance and drone policies. However, Pew also determined that “there is little evidence this opposition has severely harmed America’s overall image” and noted that 65 percent of nations polled still had a favorable view of the US.

In that regard, it’s important to recognize the US is still considered to be the most powerful country on the planet. The cruel reality is that we live in a world where being the preeminent military power is essential for our security, and I think most Americans understand this instinctively, and want the US to remain in the lead.

I’m convinced that this is why a new Politico poll shows most Americans want more spent on national defense. As to humanitarian aid to other countries? 45 percent wanted less spent, while only 16 percent wanted more and just 27 percent wanted the same amount spent. Of course, many Americans may overestimate how much is spent on foreign aid, but I also wonder how many of its supporters genuinely understand it. For example, around 40 percent is dedicated to selling weapons overseas and “building armies.” We can, I think, all agree that we need an informed national discussion about foreign aid, but until that takes place, I can understand some pulling back as we evaluate its value.

The U.S. budget is, unfortunately, a zero-sum game. Trump’s proposal is decidedly a hard power one, but America’s global leadership cannot be maintained in the face of hard power opponents like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, as well as terrorist entities like ISIS, absent preserving its place as having the world’s most powerful military. No truly objective observer can say that the U.S. military doesn’t need more resources – and this is something that predates the rise of Trump. Do we really think that our diplomats will have the leverage they need with, for example, an Air Force that is the smallest it has ever been, and flying airplanes averaging 27 years old?

Sure, I suppose we could just add to the debt and fully fund all the programs whose cuts Michael and Jack decry, but recall that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said in 2010 that the “most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” While I do think there are places and circumstances where foreign aid can advance U.S. interests, at the moment, our top priority needs to be ensuring we have the military means to create the circumstances for the diplomats to use the billions they will still get most effectively.

Before we panic about our foreign standing, we ought to consider of the observation made by Robert Gates in 2010 shortly after the WikiLeaks revealed a trove of classified U.S. government documents

The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.

Contrary to what Michael and Jack seem to forecast, I don’t see the US as being anything other than the “indispensable nation” anytime soon. Trump could not destroy that even if he wanted to do so. Of course, we still need to keep watchful of the Trump administration’s foreign policies and actions just as we should with any administration, but I also think it is premature to be so rattled.

In my view, it’s vitally important for national security law professionals to separate whatever personal dislike they may harbor for the president from their assessments of what the U.S. government writ large is doing. Moral outrage has its value, but it can also be counter-productive. Likewise, we need to recognize that reflexively and indiscriminately opposing every initiative of the Trump administration creates the very real danger of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Let’s all work to bring balance, reason, and calm to our discussions, even as we appreciate and respect that we may have differing views.

Image: Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Professor of the Practice of Law and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School He retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a Major General.