What Do We Do about the World After January 20?

October 8, 2020
By Amb. Patrick Theros

I hope President Trump recovers fully and completely from the novel coronavirus. However, as he continues to campaign from his hospital bed he remains fair game for this column. It would be derelict to avoid discussion about the consequences of the elections.

The whiplash inducing events of the last few weeks have diverted our attention from the growing turmoil beyond our borders. And lest you argue that what happens in other countries stays in other countries, remember that 200,000+ Americans have died, millions of jobs have disappeared and our economy has tanked because we were unable to manage what happens in other countries.

Trump has a 19th century worldview, an America protected by two oceans, free to conduct business while other countries manage world order. This is a picture of a second tier power. This mindset caused us to throw away the fruits of victory in World War I and brought on the Great Depression and World War II.

Trump has confused America First with America Isolated. He pursues short-term business transactions rather than conduct the foreign policy of a world leader. He ignited trade wars with virtually every one of our trading partners without any thought as to how trade interconnects. He broke our word; he alienated allies and fawned over dictators. The list is too long for this article but here are a few examples.

No one argues that existing trade structures and agreements are sacrosanct; far from it, circumstances change and they need fixing. But to go after China, you do not start trade wars with other countries that have similar gripes about the Chinese. Nor do you mindlessly terminate a twelve-country agreement, the TPP, explicitly designed to contain China.

Nor does anyone argue that the American people have not understandably tired of seemingly pointless and endless wars. Obama responded to that sentiment and tried to reduce our involvement. Trump copied him. Sadly, Trump ignored Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” maxim: “If you break it you own it.” Mindless withdrawal makes us appear both inept and cowardly; a toxic combination in foreign affairs. The entire world sees him as eager to hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban and run away; never mind the fate of millions of Afghans, especially women, whom he will doom to vicious oppression at the hands of religious zealots whose mindset predates the Middle Ages. And Trump did have diplomatic alternatives. None of Afghanistan’s neighbors particularly relish handing that country over to the gang that brought us 9/11. Those neighbors, especially Iran, fear the Taliban even more than us. Instead of engaging Iran as Obama hoped to do, Trump walked out of a workable agreement stopping Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. He made the US a legal laughingstock by trying to insist we were really still a party to the agreement while we pulled out. In any event, Iran now has more bomb-making material than ever before. Again, we have zero support from other countries — except from countries that want us to fight their wars for them. To make it worse, the President made it clear that he walked out of the agreement to satisfy a personal vendetta against Obama, robbing us of any moral authority. He continued on his personal vendetta to erase Obama’s legacy by undoing an opening to Cuba aimed at luring that country back into the liberal world order.

Trump’s love affairs with authoritarian rulers are too numerous to list. Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Turkey top the list. The last best illustrates how much damage these love affairs have caused. Emboldened by Trump, Turkey’s President Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands of Turkish citizens, attacked our Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq, brought his country to the brink of war with Greece, undermined NATO unity, encouraged Azerbaijan to attack Armenia, and courted Russia to the dismay of the entire US security establishment.

The last, this administration’s contempt for democratic countries – and the blatant attacks on democracy within our own country — have robbed us of our most important foreign policy tool. We won the Cold War because the world admired us and respected us for democracy and benefitted economically from being in our orbit. The USSR lost the Cold War because its allies feared it. China, our biggest adversary today, seduces its allies through finance and trade. Unlike the old USSR, China has shown no interest in subverting foreign countries politically or occupying them militarily; it deals happily with democracies and dictatorships alike.

Once again this column lacks the space to enumerate all of Trump’s foreign policy debacles; the few bright spots fail to offset them. Whoever sits in the Oval office in January must deal with these problems; left unattended they will hurt the US. Trump created or aggravated most of them but has shown no indication that he understands how much damage he has done.

Joe Biden’s 47 years in government allowed him to learn from both his successes and his mistakes. Looking at the foreign policy section of the Democratic Party platform (the GOP has none), one is struck by how well Biden understands that we must restore American leadership before the world spins out of control and take us down with it. He knows that we have to fix past mistakes such as not properly preparing for a pandemic and not investing to make our people more competitive. However, most importantly, Biden understands that the military supports our diplomats but cannot replace them and he proposes to allocate resources appropriately. Diplomacy builds alliances of countries with like interests and like values, alliances much stronger than those built on fear of freedom and greed.


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