Advice from a Guy Who Knows a Lot.

            Seen in a somewhat historical longer perspective than one gets in the daily media, Donald Trump’s four years as president aren’t quite the anomaly that they seem.  In terms of foreign policy, the Trump administration identified the key problems, but came up with some wrong solutions.[1]   The duty of the Biden administration will be to recognize where their predecessors saw the target, then figure out better ways of hitting it.  Robert M. Gates stands above the partisan fray, possesses deep knowledge of American foreign relations and of the instruments of those relation, and has exhibited a sense of patriotic duty that should command respect.[2]  While he has discreetly avoided making a direct statement on the Trump administration, he has some good advice for the Biden administration.[3] 

            First, Trump was right: the “friends and allies” don’t pull their weight.  The Trump solution was to deride them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on burden-sharing.  It also needs to pressure Germany over its own deal with Russia over energy supplies.  It also needs to pressure Turkey over its purchase of a Russian air-defense system and its meddling in Libya.  The United States needs to nudge NATO countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland back toward democratic norms.

            Second, Trump was right: many international organizations are messed up.  The Nineteenth Century British radical John Bright described the Empire as “a gigantic system of out-relief for the aristocracy.”  The same judgement applies to international organizations and the European and Europeanized elites of the former colonial countries who staff those organizations.  The Trump solution was to denounce them and walk away.  The Biden administration should apply serious pressure on reform.  The Biden administration also needs to make a serious effort to keep China from gaining a leadership role in all these organizations, because they will just manipulate these organizations to advance China’s national interests. 

            Third, Trump was right: the existing instruments of American diplomacy and “soft power” don’t work well in the new international environment.  The Trump solution was to ignore those instruments, leaving hundreds of patronage positions empty and relying on personal loyalists to deal with foreign leaders or by seeking direct personal contact.  The State Department has been in decline as the leader of American foreign policy since the Kennedy Administration.  The Defense Department, the intelligence community, and—off and on—the National Security Council have all shouldered it aside.  The US lacks the economic resources to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  America’s “strategic communications” are pathetic.  Just adding one more spending category to the wish-list of money to be raised by making the One Percent pay their “fair share” won’t be enough.  In every case, government partnerships with the private sector offers a better approach. 

            What if we have entered a post-Cold War era in which American leadership isn’t wanted? 


[1] Even that isn’t all that anomalous.  The George W. Bush Administration identified the correct problem in Muslim countries.  They are victims of long-term developments, rather than of brief experiences of Western imperialism.  The Bush Administration then came up with a disastrously wrong solution: knock over Saddam Hussein, declare democracy, put up some big box stores, and leave. 

[2] On Gates, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Gates 

[3] Robert M. Gates, “How to Meet Our Global Commitments,” NYT, 21 December 2000. 

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