Monday, January 23, 2017

Is There Method in the Madness?

Donald Trump has never been a foreign policy thinker. Never having been in government his knowledge of the complexities of foreign policy is, at best, lacking.

And yet, he has presented a vision of a future American foreign policy. He has not fleshed out the vision. And he is not very good at providing a persuasive rationale for the new direction. Since Trump’s vision departs radically from much of the conventional foreign policy wisdom, his detractors have taxed him with incoherence and madness.

Now, George Friedman has examined the Trump vision to see whether it makes sense. (via Maggie’s Farm) Friedman was the founder of the Stratfor think tank and foreign policy shop. He is currently the proprietor of the Geopolitical Futures site. He is widely recognized as a non-partisan student of the field. He provides objective and fact-based analysis. Truth be told, he’s the only Friedman I read.

One understands that Friedman is not offering his own views or his own foreign policy vision. He is looking for the coherence behind Trump’s views. He does not just seek, as Picasso said, he finds.

In Friedman’s terms:

Trump’s core strategic argument is that the United States is overextended. The core reason for this overextension is that the United States has substituted a system of multilateral relationships for a careful analysis of the national interest. In this reading, Washington is entangled in complex relationships that place risks and burdens on the United States to come to the aid of some countries. However, its commitments are not matched by those countries in capability, nor in intent.

American foreign policy has allowed American interests to be shortchanged. The relationships have been one-sided. America gives more than it receives in return.

Friedman says that Trump sees the NATO alliance as one-sided:

The United States has been involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. NATO has not provided decisive strategic support to these efforts. Many have provided what support they could or what support they wanted, but that level of support was far below the abilities of NATO members.

NATO members have allowed Washington to bear the brunt of the military burden, while refusing to aid America in its wars against Islamic terrorism. It is their right, by treaty, not to come to America’s aid. From that Trump has concluded that our best interests have not been served by the treaty in its current form.

Friedman argues:

Europe is well beyond where it was when NATO was founded, when it was incapable of collective defense without the United States. NATO members have taken for granted that Washington will bear the primary burden for defense, measured not only in terms of dollars spent, but also in the development of military capabilities.

He continues:

Their reasonable argument that the 28-member alliance makes no commitment to out-of-area engagements not undertaken under Article 5 raises the question of what, then, NATO’s value is to the United States. In sum, NATO lacks significant strategic capabilities, and the alliance is defined in such a way that its members can and do elect to avoid those conflicts that matter most to America.

Is America being exploited and used by European nations? Friedman suggests that one might well draw such a conclusion:

The United States is liable for the defense of Europe. Europe is not liable for defending American interests, which today lie outside of Europe. Trump believes this relationship must be mutually renegotiated. If the Europeans are unwilling to renegotiate, the United States should exit NATO and develop bilateral relations with countries that are capable and are prepared to work with the United States in areas of its national interest in return for guarantees from Washington.

As for free trade, Friedman argues that it cannot merely be defended as an abstract ideal. It needs to serve the best interests of the United States. It’s one thing to say that we believe in free trade. It’s quite another to say that we have not negotiated our trade deals well, in our national interest. Free trade cannot be the mask for a welfare program.

Friedman summarizes the Trump vision:

It is not clear that the current international trade regime has benefited the United States. International trade is not an end in itself; it must serve the interests of each party. At this point in history, the primary economic need in the United States is to create trade relations that build jobs in the United States. The previous goal of aggregate growth of an economy without regard to societal consequences is no longer acceptable. The terms under which most international trade agreements have been structured are now therefore unacceptable….

Large multilateral free-trade agreements are therefore far too complex to fine-tune to the American interest. They need to be avoided in favor of bilateral treaties, or of smaller ones such as NAFTA, that can be reshaped to serve the current American interest. In these negotiations, the United States, producing about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, holds the strong hand. The United States’ primary concern must be the same as that of other countries: trade relations that are beneficial to it, and not an abstract commitment to free trade.

This is not quite the same thing as being against free trade. Friedman does not envision what would happen if we entered into a trade war. One assumes that he believes that Trump would never enter into such self-defeating actions.

And, Trump takes Islamic terrorism seriously. Friedman analyzes Trump’s position:

ISIS poses a terrorist threat that has been minimized by some but is regarded by Trump as an intolerable menace for two reasons. First, as 9/11 demonstrated, attacks can be escalated. Second, the psychological burden of terrorism is enormous. The terrorist threat cannot be defeated without overwhelming power being brought to bear on the Middle East. Living with terrorism indefinitely is not an option. Therefore, the United States and its allies must bring overwhelming force to bear.

Echoing the views of Stephen Cohen and Henry Kissinger and rejecting the rants of the new Russia hawks—the senator who called Vladimir Putin a war criminal comes to mind-- Friedman suggests that there is room for cooperation between the United States and Russia, on several fronts:

Trump sees U.S. and Russian interests as coinciding. Washington and Moscow could agree on the neutralization of Ukraine: Kyiv would have economic and political ties with the West, but Ukraine would not be part of any alliance system, nor would it be a base for Western forces. The United States wants a buffer to protect allies in Eastern Europe, but beyond that it has no overriding interest in Ukraine. Russia wants a degree of autonomy in Eastern Ukraine and retention of its interests in Crimea, where it has treaty rights in Sevastopol anyway. The Ukrainian issue can be managed in the context of joint anti-Islamist operations. Trump is of course aware of economic problems in Russia, and he sees therein a lever to achieve his goal.

Friedman notes that if NATO members are unwilling to commit to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic terrorists, Trump will try to form alliances with other nations, like Russia.

He concludes:

Trump is proposing a redefinition of U.S. foreign policies based on current realities, not those of 40 years ago. It is a foreign policy in which American strength is maximized in order to achieve American ends.

Whether he will pursue this once in office, or whether it is a good policy, is not the key point; that there is a very real policy embedded in his statements is. It is also not a foolish one. U.S. policy has been reflexively committed to arrangements that are three-quarters of a century old. The world has changed, but the shape of U.S. policy has not. Translating this into reality will be, for Trump, another matter. 


Dennis said...

It took me a long time before I recognized that Trump does nothing that does not have a purpose behind it. This is a good start on the foundation of Trump's actual ideas. Not too make too much of this, But "The Art of the Deal" and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War"really do apply as i have mentioned before. I believe there is an "Art of War Business" (2009) also. Never underestimate people for they may be playing one for a fool.

Trigger Warning said...

I read the Friedman article over the weekend, and texted a link to some friends. I thought it was well-written and captured what I myself have been thinking about long before Trump came on the scene. Trump is obviously not the most eloquent politician, but that hardly means he isn't correct.

The days of NATO are past. The Western Europeans don't want to invest in defense, and it's long past time for American taxpayers to end the military welfare program. There are European players who do see the value of military investment, and perhaps there's a space there for a meaningful multilateral alliance. In addition to NATO obsolescence, the fiction of an American nuclear umbrella should be retired. No US President is going to fight a nuclear war for the Japanese, nor should they. The nuclear genie is well out of the lamp, and the dependent - and deluded - nations relying on American self-immolation if they are attacked should provide their own deterrent, just as the Israelis and the Indians did. Bring American troops back home from S Korea. The very notion that American men and women should serve as a living "tripwire" for a corrupt and greedy S Korean government is obscene. The S Koreans live in a rich country with a strong military, and there's more than enough American blood in the soil of the Peninsula.

What began as free trade has morphed into trade managed by legions of institutionalized lawyers and bureaucrats with instincts not too different, if at all different, from the UN. It seems like every good idea - free trade, academic freedom, free speech, right to assemble, etc - gets colonized by tyrannical Progessives and destroyed. Dump the multilateral trade agreements. If it's in our best interest to enter into a bilateral agreement managed by the two parties, fine. Go for it.

There is little I have seen more ridiculous and utterly wasteful than Obama's tasking B2 citybuster, nuclear-capable bombers to take out a few terrorists gallavanting in the desert. I laughed out loud reading about it. It's fine and important to get serious about Islamoloon terrorists, but that is a job better handled by drones, C-130s, spooks, and special ops guys with wide ROE scope and no lawyers on the line.

The most bizarre statement I've heard in quite a while was Lindsey Graham's comment the he didn't know what "America first" means. Sen Graham, that's why you never got any traction in the primaries. You're stupid. Go away.

On a brighter note, I hope Trump sees the opportunities. I think there's reason to be optimistic.

Ares Olympus said...

I'll agree that what makes Trump's election interesting is his complete unpredictability, since he contradicts himself frequently, but the word "chaos" comes to mind, and there is destructive chaos and is creative chaos.

Creative chaos can benefit by ignorance because no assumptions are made on the existing order, and Trump can challenge everyone to justify their assumptions. so perhaps NATO has overstayed its usefulness.

I admit I'm VERY VERY VERY confused what to think of Russia. It would certainly be better to improve relations, yet we also have to remember that Russia is effectively an oligarchy and a kleptocracy and Putin himself, is estimated to have $75 billion in asset wealth collected during his years in power.
RATH: So when you call Russia a kleptocracy, can you explain what you mean?

DAWISHA: Sure, so what I mean is that Putin has created a system where he nationalizes the risk and privatizes the reward. So when we think about the Sochi Olympics, for example, it's well-known that they cost about $50 billion and most of those contracts were awarded as no-bid contracts to people close to him. And billions were made by them. Another example would be the collaboration of Putin's closest circle in the establishment and funding of Bank Rossyia, a bank that has emerged as one of Russia's top 10 banks that receives a lot of government state budgeting, but it's a private bank. So here you have a case where the money to fund comes from the state and the profit goes to friends of the current president.

So how should other countries deal with Russia? And its not like dictatorial "capitalism" of China is any better, but thanks to Richard Nixon, we can get all our cheap stuff from them. Really it is Europe that is in a pickle, dependent upon Russia natural gas and petroleum imports. Trade may prevent war, but it also makes you a puppet of anyone whom you're dependent upon, unable to say what's true when it contradicts what your puppet master needs to be true.

Where I'd disagree with Trump's assessment is the assumption that we don't benefit greatly by our self-declared role of "world police force" so we are the ones who treat NATO and even the UN as our puppets, and we work with them when it suits us, and we ignore them when it suits us, and "warp" the narrative to say they are required to follow our rules.

And economics works the same way - the World Bank and IMF have long been used as effective puppets of American policy, and loans provided directly helped money flow to dictators who could personally benefit by them, while leaving assets like dams and factories that don't exist to benefit the local people directly, but instead enslave the local population to creating an export economy that has to now compete with the rest of the world, AND when loans can't be repaid, national assets are encouraged to be sold to the highest bidder, which would usually be international investors who again gain in control over the wealth of a nation, and only care to keep the profits flowing, regardless of the needs of the citizens.

So Trump's "America first" actually fits very well within the existing framework. The poverty-reduction efforts, like the Gates Foundation, are the exception to the rule of America's benevolence, even if good intentions still go bdad anyway.

So now under Trump perhaps we can become an honest Empire, and that's not a bad thing. That's not chaos, but "order at a price, we win, you lose."

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ah, SUBSIDY. Subsidy distorts the value in everything. Our entire society is awash in subsidy. Nothing is real.

The North Atlantic treaty is another source of subsidy for Violent Flemmes and Femmes Violence (my attempts at French). Either way, they don't pay their fair share for self-protection. The Belgians make great rifles (FN SCAR), chocolates and waffles, though! Too bad they don't use the rifles for much more than export to the U.S.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dennis said...


I do sometime forget to define women like those on "The March of the Harridans" and "Baby Killers on Parade," vice other women.
A question for you. I, like other men, have spent our lives in believing and putting into action "Duty, Honor and Country." During 40 plus years of federal service in various capacities I have met a significant number of honorable men willing to put their lives on the line for others and in fact have honored them at their burial ceremonies. Young men who gave their all to be disrespected by those they sought to protect especially women. This is also true for policemen and Firemen. Do you think there were any honorable women who attended that George Soros funded losers soirée with its matching Came jackets? We did learn that these women's vocabulary seem to exist of FU&K and i actually wondered what they learned in academia.My weren't they the articulate ones?
As men we were supposed to remember that women were our wives, mothers, sister, daughters, et al. Do you suppose that these women remembered that men were their husbands, father, brothers, sons et al? For that matter how many women starting with second wave feminism actually were not guilty of misandry and hatred of men? I suspect that there were women who respected their male compatriots, but I have not seen much of any form of honor in a significant number of women. That poor lad bicycle sure gets no respect.