Trump's speech heralds a new era in foreign policy

By Daniel DePetris

The most important line of President Donald Trump's sixty-minute speech wasn't about the possibility of tackling immigration reform or building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.  It wasn't about overhauling the tax code or fixing the healthcare system in America.  While all of these subjects are certainly important, they didn't come close to the president's declaration that U.S. foreign policy will once again work for America.  "My job is not to represent the world,” the president said during his address. “My job is to represent the United States of America.” 

For foreign policy analysts, academics, and practitioners both inside the Beltway and across the country, this statement is the beginning of something revolutionary in how our nation conducts its business overseas and how it defends its national security interests around the world.  Indeed, this is the type of policy shift that esteemed academics like Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt and M.I.T. Professor Barry Posen have been writing about for decades; that, while the U.S. is an exceptional power with immense resources and diplomatic capital, even exceptional powers have to be pragmatic in how they operate and know their limits.

There is a reason why 52 percent of Americans believe that the last fifteen years of American foreign and national security policy has made the United States "less safe."  Indeed, it's difficult to argue to the contrary; take a quick survey around the world and a cursory glance at Washington's finances, and you'l see the collective product of a bipartisan political leadership whose first inclination is to "to do something" when the smallest crisis pops up.  Destroying regimes by force, creating brand new governments to take their place, allocating tens of billions of dollars into that new government, picking winners and losers, and rebuilding foreign societies that are in many instances immune to outside meddling has, to put it kindly, resulted in meager returns for America's security and global reputation.  The foreign policy establishment in Washington may be taking a long time to come to this realization - if they are coming to it at all - but the American people have long understood that the U.S. military shouldn't be a rented out as global enforcers of the liberal international order or the policemen, administrators, and financial donors of other nations. 

This conclusion isn't conjecture, it's supported by the facts as they currently exist.  In Afghanistan, over $120 billion in reconstruction assistance, including approximately $70 billion and counting to the Afghan national security forces, over sixteen consecutive years has gotten us to a situation that the top U.S. commander in the country described as "stalemate."  Iraq - a nation that was invaded based on incorrect intelligence assessments, rosy predictions of an easy transition from dictatorship to representative democracy, and operating assumptions dependent more on hubris rather than its history, demography, and societal divisions - is practically a failing state held nominally held together by sectarian militias and exhausted Iraqi counterterrorism forces.  And in Libya, a regime change operation against a hated tyrant - an operation that the Obama administration irrationally claimed was outside the boundaries of the War Powers Act and therefore didn't require the approval of Congress -  spiraled into a state of anarchy that the Libyans are still attempting to dig themselves out of.

All of these operations have one thing in common: they were guided by an emotional predisposition by America's political leaders that pushing out governments that the U.S. doesn't like would make the International system more stable and predictable and the U.S. an even more dominant global superpower.  The opposite has turned out to be true.

President Trump's first major address to the American people was very slim on policy specifics and very heavy on rhetoric.  But at the very least, that rhetoric is a hopeful sign for many of us that the new administration in intent on ushering in a new era in our foreign relations, where a little humility and perspective is introduced into the conversation.  Perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the war on terrorism, the national security bureaucracy will be ordered to set priorities, determine what America can accomplish, which International problems and crises prompt American engagement, and which are best left up to regional governments to clean up.  

Underneath it all is a fundamental tenant that many of us realists have been making: the U.S. must operate in the world as it is, not as we want it to be.  And that however unpleasant some foreign leaders are - and lord knows that there are a chock full of them in positions of authority today - it's far smoother and less costly in American blood and treasure to deal with them than it is to overthrow their governments, stay in their countries for years on end, throw American taxpayer money down a rabbit hall of endless conflict, and start from scratch. 

"America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align,” Trump told the lawmakers and guests assembled in the Capitol.  If the president follows these words with action, the American people may finally bear witness to a foreign policy that they've been asking for. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on March 3, 2017. Read more HERE