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How “America First” Broke the Establishment Curse
Trump’s instincts point the way out of Biden-style decline.
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Donald Trump summed up his foreign policy at a September 10 press conference:
a lot of people thought that my natural instinct is war; no, my natural instinct is actually peace. When we were on the debate stage, people used to say, “Will it be one week or two weeks before President Trump gets into a war?” But that’s not—I did rebuild our military. We have a military that — two and a half trillion dollars—new jets and rockets and tanks and ships and a lot of things we have. We have the newest, best military we’ve ever had. So, hopefully, we won’t have to use it.
Our nuclear program has been put into gear like never before, and in particular, hopefully, we won’t have to use that, because that’s a whole new level of destruction. And we never want to—just have to pray to God we never have to use that.
Or as Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reported:
At a small campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., President Trump on Thursday praised himself for wanting to “get along” with Russia and said that when he hears people talking about Russia in the news he “turns it off.”
“They always say, ‘Trump is radical, he is off the—he is too radical, he will get us in wars,’” Mr. Trump said. “I kept you out of wars. What happened in North Korea? I got along with Kim Jong-un. They said that’s terrible. It’s good that I get along. If I get along with Russia, is that a good thing or bad thing? I think it’s a good thing.”
“These maniacs,” he went on, mentioning Representative Adam Schiff, “always talk about Russia. They never talk about China. It is always Russia. I heard it starting again. They said somebody spoke to Russia—Russia, Russia, Russia. The total maniacs, shifty Schiff is a total maniac. I can’t even listen.”
“Getting along with countries and a good—is a good thing,” he added. “It is a very good thing, not a bad thing. It is a very good thing.”
Asserting American power without putting American boots on the ground ipso facto requires Washington to “get along” with other countries, most obviously so in the case of Syria, Iran, and North Korea. There is a delicate balance between putting pressure on regimes unfriendly to the United States in order to secure their good behavior, and importing great power tensions into regional problems.
Some will argue that President Trump’s record of success is mixed, and that he might have handled some situations better. But three things should be clear from the past three years of governance. First, “America First” reflects a vision for U.S. foreign policy, not a retread of isolationism. Second, the vision has produced some tangible successes. And third, although the Trump Administration’s record in foreign policy is imperfect, it has real accomplishments to show, in marked contrast to the disastrous performance of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations.
I do not write as a Trump apologist, although I supported him in 2016 and support him in the current presidential race. In particular I have been critical of his approach to China. Nonetheless, Trump’s record is vastly superior to the “Blame America First” stance of his predecessor, and to the utopian interventionism of the preceding Republican president.
President Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination in part by breaking with the end-of-history stance of the McCain-Romney wing of the Republican Party. The “Bush Freedom Agenda” had called for America to remake the world in its own democratic image by invading and occupying Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps other countries, at the cost of trillions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives.
Trump made clear what he opposed, but not what he proposed to do instead. His conduct of foreign policy has been improvisatory and sometimes contradictory, but highly successful in at least a few key theaters. A second Trump term could build on these successes; a Biden Administration would undo them in favor of a policy of great-power decline.
Quagmire No More
In 1989 the United States emerged from the Cold War as the world’s only superpower, with the military and economic muscle to impose its will where it pleased. It proceeded to atrophy this muscle, in two phases. The Clinton Administration decided that NATO had served its purpose as a military alliance and proceeded to reshape it as a humanitarian organization, expanding its membership to include countries that it had no capacity or need to defend. And the Bush Administration proposed an “end to evil,” as the ex-Republican turncoat David Frum titled a 2003 book he co-authored with Richard Perle.
This meant invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq and—more importantly—imposing majority rule in Iraq. It also meant rhetorical support for the so-called color revolutions in former Soviet republics, with then-National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as cheerleader-in-chief. The results? Iraq’s Shi’ite majority became an ally of Iran, while the Russians responded by rebuilding a shattered military and intimidating their former subjects.
When Trump took office in January 2017, he had a weak hand to play. Iran was close to realizing its dream of a “Shi’ite Crescent” stretching from Hazara regions in Afghanistan to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon on the Mediterranean. Russia had sent its military into Syria in 2015 to prop up the Assad government and continued to occupy large parts of Ukraine. The Obama Administration financed Iran’s aggression by restoring $56 billion of frozen Iranian funds according to Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, or $150 billion, according to President Trump.
Under these discouraging circumstances, Trump deserves credit for some key foreign policy achievements. The August 13, 2020 agreement between Israel and the United Emirates to normalize relations is an important if limited success. Iran remains a dire threat to regional stability. The Sunni Arabs of the Persian Gulf are no match for Iran, as Iran’s September 19 attack on oil facilities in Eastern Saudi Arabia made clear. Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries were defeated by cheap drones. But the treaty denotes a decided improvement in the region. It creates an Israeli-Arab power bloc directed against Iran, with the wherewithal to make an important difference in Syria as well as Iraq. It undercuts Turkey’s attempt (backed by Qatar) to promulgate the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islam.
And it was accomplished without so much as the promise of a single American boot on the ground. To the contrary: Trump’s opposition to the commitment of U.S. forces gave the UAE (and other Gulf States) a powerful incentive to work out their problems with Israel. For decades, the soft bigotry of low expectations as practiced by the State Department held that the United States had to indulge the irredentism of the Gulf monarchies. The opposite is true. Compelling the Gulf states to look to their own defense compelled them to come to an agreement with Israel, the region’s foremost military power.
Tough-love diplomacy of this kind comes at a cost, to be sure: It requires the United States to “get along with Russia,” just as the president said in Pennsylvania. When Trump refused to interpose American forces between our Kurdish allies and the invading Turks in October 2019, Vladimir Putin became “King of Syria,” according to Israeli analyst Jonathan Speyer in the Wall Street Journal:
Vladimir Putin is now the indispensable strategic arbiter in Syria. None of the remaining pieces on the broken chessboard can move without Mr. Putin’s hand. The Assad regime owes its survival to Moscow’s air intervention in September 2015. This reporter and others who have spent time in Damascus note the impunity with which Russian security and other personnel conduct themselves. They are effectively beyond the reach of the local authorities.
Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest two months later over the Syria matter, and the foreign policy establishment issued dire warnings of regional disintegration. No such thing happened. Russia counterbalanced Turkey in the Syrian theater, and raised no objections to almost-daily Israeli air strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. Trump’s instincts were better than those of the experts, the analysts, and the brass.
Asia at Arm’s Length
Personal diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is another Trump achievement, although its outcome remains unclear. His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un appeared to break down when the president walked out of a summit meeting with the Korean dictator in February 2019, but came back to life when Trump met Kim in Korea’s DMZ the following June. America’s ability to contain North Korea depends on the latter’s main trading partner and political sponsor, namely China.
The President acknowledged this in an August 2018 statement released on Twitter, noting that North Korea was “under tremendous pressure” from Beijing due to the trade conflict with Washington. Although China’s provisioning of North Korea was “not helpful,” Trump added: “As for the U.S.–China trade disputes, and other differences, they will be resolved in time by President Trump and China’s great President Xi Jinping. Their relationship and bond remain very strong.”
Getting along with China is an indispensable strategic asset for negotiating with North Korea, just as getting along with Russia is a precondition for removing American troops from Syria. Putting pressure on America’s two strategic rivals—tariffs in the case of China and economic sanctions in the case of Russia—can be an efficient means of eliciting their cooperation in regional security matters. It is a very fine line to walk, however. The cumulative impact of a series of sanctions on Russia has pushed Russia toward a strategic alliance with China, including close cooperation with China on 5G telecommunications and semiconductor R&D. Russia’s economy may be the size of Italy’s, but its brain is bigger than its body: It graduates more engineers per annum than the United States, and they are very well trained.
China for that matter appeared willing to trade strategic favors in North Korea and elsewhere for a resolution of the trade dispute with the United States, as the president said in 2018. The souring of U.S.-Chinese relations after the COVID-19 epidemic may change this. China abided by U.S. sanctions on Iran, which is to say that it kept its cheating to a tolerable level.
Officially, China’s oil imports from Iran had fallen to close to zero as of May 2020 (although China used subterfuges to import enough oil to maintain influence in Tehran). China is now discussing a $400 billion, 25-year investment package for Iran. It is unclear whether any or some or all of this proposal will come to fruition. The point is that China has the option to frustrate American policy in the Middle East, just as it does on the Korean peninsula. The United States cannot isolate Iran (or North Korea, for that matter) if China decides to prevent it.
The Administration escalated its sanctions against Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE in May. Now it is considering a ban on exports of technology to China’s leading semiconductor fabricator, SMIC. At some point China may decide that the relationship with Washington isn’t worth saving. China’s exports to the U.S. amount to less than 3% of GDP, and Chinese leadership is now discussing a program to shift economic activity away from exports (which were 36% of GDP in 2005 vs. only 18% in 2019) to domestic consumption.
Washington has taken some satisfaction recently from Serbia’s agreement to recognize Kosovo, along with the normalization of relations between Muslim Kosovo and the State of Israel (although in this case it was Israel that refused to recognize Kosovo). That is something of an embarrassment for Russia, although its importance is symbolic rather than strategic; Serbia has 7 million people and no economic activity of any significance. At the same time, a pillar of American foreign policy—keeping Russia and China from allying against the US—is shakier than at any time since Richard Nixon went to China.
Going It Alone?
Trump’s “America First” policy has the double disadvantage of being innovative and difficult to execute. He has had endless problems finding the people he requires to carry it out. His first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was an establishment figure hostile to Trump’s objectives. He fired John Bolton as National Security Advisor, evidently because Bolton was a dangerous hothead who crossed the line in baiting America’s strategic rivals. The president’s style may be flamboyant and improvisatory, but the problem isn’t that the emperor has no clothes: what the emperor really lacks is tailors.
In summary, “America First” has worked far better as a foreign policy principle than establishment observers believed it would. Compared to the George W. Bush Administration, which overextended American resources and exhausted the patience of the American public, and the Obama Administration, which refused to distinguish between America’s enemies (such as Iran) and its friends, President Trump’s foreign policy has been largely successful. A Biden Administration would roll the clock back to the Obama era and turn Iran loose again, while further antagonizing Russia, which the Democratic Party continues to portray as a covert ally of Trump.
The Technological Challenge
In the military sphere, President Trump has worked from the premise that the United States cannot throw around weight that it doesn’t have. He has yet to recognize that the same is true in the economic sphere: China’s dependence on the American export market has been shrinking for twenty years, and its ability to work around restrictions on American technology has grown rapidly.
One example will suffice: In April 2018, Washington banned the sale of smartphone chips to China’s ZTE, which was caught violating Iran sanctions. The company virtually shut down overnight, and a restoration of American supply was negotiated in return for a multi-billion-dollar fine. By December, Huawei was fabricating its own smartphone chipsets in Taiwan; it had acquired world-class design capabilities faster than the U.S. thought possible. Now Washington has banned sales of Taiwanese chips to China (because they are made with U.S. equipment), and we will see gargantuan effort on China’s part to substitute for U.S. technology. If China succeeds—and I believe that it is only a matter of time before it does—U.S. dominance in chip design and fabrication will come to an end.
Key to America’s global standing is technological dominance. We are challenged by China, which in May announced a $1.4 billion, five-year program to subsidize game-changing technologies. But we are not providing the same kind of resources to American technology. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the Cold War was won in Bell Labs, RCA’s Sarnoff Center, GE Labs, and the other constituents of a great public-private partnership that created the digital age. If we want to maintain world leadership we cannot rely on slowing our competition down. We must move faster ourselves.