U.S. Foreign Policy Is Officially Incoherent

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S1: The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, spoke at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, the way each of us can best ensure our freedoms is by electing leaders who don’t just talk but who deliver. The fact that Pompeo was part of the RNC at all was a break with precedent. Past secretaries of state have steered clear of the nominating conventions. There’s an old tradition in U.S. diplomacy that partisanship stops at the water’s edge. But there was Pompeo at the RNC in a personal capacity, he says, not a secretary appearing in a video taped from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

S2: And their freedoms more secure because President Trump has put his America first vision into action and may not have made him popular in every foreign capital. But it’s worked.

S1: Pompeo was there to boost Trump’s America first foreign policy, and that is the brand. But it falls short of describing how the U.S. moves through the world.

S3: What is Trump foreign policy in 2020?

S4: Well, you know, it’s a good question. I mean, I’ve been studying foreign policy for a long time, and I’ve said this before. If you were to ask me today, what is U.S. foreign policy, I would be hard pressed to answer that.

S3: This is Slate’s Fred Kaplan. He writes about war and U.S. foreign policy.

S4: There isn’t any consistency to it except that it’s something that that supports Trump in in the world of domestic politics, something that supports the president in the world of domestic politics is not supposed to be on the State Department business cards or mission statement.

S1: And Fred says, after nearly four years, America first has destabilized international relations and turn the U.S. into a loner state.

S3: Do you think? The president wants deference, respect, acknowledgment of American Central City without having to do anything to get it.

S4: Yeah, exactly. He thinks we’re the strongest country on Earth. All we have to do is scowl at something like North Korea and they will tremble in their boots and, you know, succumb to our pressures. He learned that, no, that really didn’t do the trick. And so, you know, countries are going their own way. They’re doing things that are in their interests, regardless of what the United States threatens to do. And so it actually becomes a harder world for the US to assert its interests in a way that that doesn’t spark wars.

S1: Today on the show, why America first increasingly means America alone.

S5: I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S3: Is the United States today the leader of an alliance, a group of like minded, like world view like goals?

S4: Well, I mean, I think we are to the extent that I think this could be somewhat recoverable under a different president. I mean, you look at certain meetings of the G7, you know, the group of basically democratic countries or the G20, which includes some countries that aren’t so democratic, but that are economic powers. There is in at least some of the countries that attend these things, a yearning for American leadership. There is an acknowledgement, for example, that the European Union cannot go this alone. You know, when Trump made his threats against NATO, there were a lot of Europeans who said, you know, we need to provide for our own defense, but, you know, they really can’t. There isn’t the political constituency for the kinds of defense budgets that they would be needed. NATO, there’s always a U.S. general who’s in charge of it. There isn’t the kind of cohesion in the European Union to to defer to one of the countries as as the leader. And in Asia, particularly, I mean, Japan and South Korea and Australia, these are countries that really yearn for American leadership because they have a very hard time leading themselves.

S1: The thing about leadership is that it’s defined by how good you are at getting other people to follow you. Under the Trump administration, fewer and fewer countries follow the US’s lead on foreign policy. The most recent example of this came last week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed up to the United Nations to urge the rest of the Security Council to restore sanctions on Iran. In this case, Pompeo wanted an arms embargo to be extended. He said the embargo was necessary because Iran had violated terms of its nuclear deal. The only problem was under Donald Trump. The U.S. had already withdrawn from that deal.

S4: And Pompeo went to the U.N. Security Council and said, Iran is a dangerous country. We cannot lift the embargo. We’re here’s our resolution saying that the embargo will continue. And he lost by an embarrassing margin. There were only two countries that voted in favor of this resolution, the United States and the Dominican Republic. Two voted against it. Two of the permanent members of the council, China and Russia and all of the others, including our closest allies, abstained. I mean, this was just an embarrassing and embarrassing defeat. Even the countries that say, OK, yeah, we’re still all together in the alliance and we understand that you have a lot of power for us. They want to disassociate themselves from the United States. And then Pompeo said it’s a shame that they, our European allies, have taken the side of the ayatollah. Well, no, they haven’t taken the side of the ayatollah. They have taken the side of what they see as international law. You know, the Iran nuclear deal was codified as a U.N. Security Council resolution by pulling out of it for no reason. I mean, there is always that we could have pulled out of it, even under the terms of the agreement, if Iran was found to be in violation of it. At the time, they were not found to be in violation of it. In fact, they were explicitly found by international inspectors to be complying with it in full. So, in fact, the United States is seen by a lot of our allies as an outlaw country. And and essentially what’s going on with that U.N. vote is a lot of countries just kind of hanging loose and hoping that after the election there will be a new American president, Joseph Biden, who, of course, was vice president under Obama when the nuclear deal was negotiated. Who will get us back under that under that regime? And, in fact, even Iran wants to be there.

S1: Iran prefers that because economic sanctions are painful, even without the additional penalties the Trump administration is pushing for, it says the administration’s whole approach to Iran is extreme, so extreme as to be ineffective. He can’t imagine these kinds of hard line tactics working with any regional power.

S4: It would be as if in the early days of arms control with the Soviet Union, the United States had said, OK, no, no, no, it’s not good enough that you really have put a limit on the number of long range missiles and warheads or whatever. We need you to abandon Marxism, Leninism, or we need you to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, where you controlled politics of Eastern Europe. You know, that’s just not the way it works. You get a deal with what is plausible. And to tell you the truth of the Iran nuclear deal was it exceeded most people’s expectations of what was possible with Iran, even in its own terms. They essentially want Iran to become a different kind of government from what it is. And that would be nice. But that’s not in the offing.

S3: Sometimes anti Trump commentators say pundits whatever observe that the Trump team seemed to want nothing more than armed confrontation with Iran. And then that strikes me as a sort of breezy, easy, cavalier analysis. But is I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to it, whether whacking General Soleimani or challenging Iran in the Persian Gulf at every opportunity, making small incidents into big ones, the possibility of something going really wrong doesn’t seem to frighten Trump’s foreign policy team.

S4: Well, I think it depends who you’re talking about. I think John Bolton, you know, he made it clear coming into office as his national security adviser that he wanted regime change in Iran and North Korea forcibly if necessary. I think Pompeo has also made it clear, especially when talking with with groups of Iranian emigres, that that is what he wants. I think one thing that we have learned about about Donald Trump is that he personally is not itching for war. Now, could he be, you know, roped into one? I think yes. I think the killing of Sulimani and then the Iranian retaliation and the Iranian retaliation had been a bit stronger than it was. I think he might have been pushed to retaliate. And then he gives his aides are doing everything they can to exploit his his dislike for these kinds of countries and especially his dislike of anything that was negotiated by Barack Obama.

S3: I think that they pushed him into a dangerously hawkish position, given the the unwillingness or the inability to concede to Iran a kind of regional power status, to recognize that it’s a big country with a lot of pull and a lot of influence. What’s the end game? Where does this lead? This looks like a perpetually boiling pot with no, you know, particular resolution. Is the U.S. ready to do trying to do what it would take to overthrow the Islamic Republic after more than 40 years?

S4: Well, I think the dominant politics in the Middle East, certainly since the end of the Cold War and especially since the end of the Iraq war, is the divide between Sunni, Arab and Shiite. Obama tried to conciliate this match. It didn’t work out, partly because that divide really is dominant and it’s almost unbreakable. Trump has made a decision to join in on this regional civil sectarian war on the side of the of the Sunnis. And he has made no effort. You know, John Kerry would send all these delegations to Vienna to try to work out some post Assad politics in Syria. Trump has shown no interest in any kind of diplomatic forum that can settle these conflicts or even that that can make them less violent. He is a combatant in the in the war, either with not with troops and with them with arms and with aid and with other things. And so they know that they don’t they don’t see it, nor do they particularly desire. Peaceful solution or even some kind of long term Cold War entente, they see this as a war that it’s going to go on and they’re on what they see as the right side of it.

S3: Given what you just laid out, what do you make of Americans, General? Ceding of foreign policy input. To the executive branch, it’s basically been given to the elected leadership and. You know, unlike other times in our even recent past, this is just not a lot of, you know, you know, a lot back and forth over what this country might be doing in the rest of the world, what it should be doing in the rest of the world, what it might best be doing in the rest of the world. You know what I mean?

S4: Yeah, but I think this has been true for a long time. I think it’s been true largely since the end of the draft that we’re not sending over boys and girls who who don’t who didn’t volunteer to fight to go fight and die. It’s no longer such a pressing issue. Now, I think that the the big picture of international politics, I mean, until the end of the Cold War there there was kind of a consensus that, you know, the West is the good guys and the east kind of the bad guys. But let’s try to make peace with these. So there’s not World War Three. But, yeah, there there isn’t a lot of passion to be each from the American public or on any of these issues. But right now, I think one thing where there could be and there is interest is Congress. But, you know, except for a few years after the passage of the War Powers Act in the mid 70s, which was the height of the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis, and when Congress saw an out of control executive branch and wanted to assert its Article one constitutional powers again, except for really a few years after, then Congress has been pretty pliant as well. Congress does not want to take responsibility. If things go south in a war, they don’t want to share the blame for it. They’ll pass budgets for it, but they don’t they don’t want to have any say in subject line. This has been an abrogation by Congress. And again, even this is nothing new. It’s really been going on for quite a long time.

S3: It’s about 70 days till the election. Are we up for a conversation about what it means to be strong? One of the most reliable applause lines at President Trump’s rallies have to do with the assertion that the United States must be strong. And obviously people love that idea, but we never talk about what that means. What does it mean to be strong in 2020? Does anybody have an appetite for that or are we just going to have another national election where we continue to have the biggest military budgets in the world, a lot of obligations in the rest of the world and just don’t really talk about it?

S4: Yeah, I think it’s very hard to talk about this in the context of an election. I mean, look, as you say, the defense budget is now about seven hundred and fifty billion dollars, which is which is, you know, an all time record. And even these except for when we’ve been in a big war, I mean, in real terms, you know, looking at it, accounting for inflation, the Reagan the Reagan Cold War, our budget wasn’t this wasn’t this high. I haven’t heard any talk among any Democrats for cutting the defense budget. You know, Senator Sanders introduced an amendment to cut the defense budget by 10 percent. It got very, very few votes. I think there might be at some point in another administration, a serious debate on the inside of what strength means and of what the defense budget ought to look like. But, yeah, I don’t think it’s I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that can easily be discussed in popular politics.

S1: Fred, thanks for joining us on what next? OK, thank you. Fred Kaplan is the author of The Bum Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. That’s the show What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt, Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz were led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. We’re saying farewell this week to our film producer, Daniel Davis. You are a champ, Daniel. Thanks for all your hard work. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you Monday.