For Democrats and, especially for those progressives who voted for third party candidates or stayed home, the last four weeks have been a reminder that there are significant differences between the policies of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The nominees to fill many cabinet positions are people who are either clueless about their responsibilities (Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development) or actually hostile to significant parts of the core responsibilities of their departments (EPA, Labor, Justice, Interior, Education, Health and Human Services). The past eight years might not have been perfect for the progressive agenda and Secretary Clinton might not have been pushing as much of the progressive agenda as some would have wanted, but it is clear that the Trump Administration will be working to reverse not just the last eight years, but much of the past fifty to eighty years.
While the nominees for most positions so far seem to be the dream team of the far right, the current rumors for Secretary of State represent a nightmare for even Republicans. Since World War II, the two parties have shared a common basic foreign policy. For both parties, the original foreign policy was to contain communism and to promote stability by means of adding even more countries to regional defense agreements. Within each of the two parties, there was a disagreement about how much we should emphasize promoting human rights and democracy as opposed to seeking to stabilize government willing to work with us on our overall goal of defeating the Soviet Union.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, both parties have pursued a foreign policy of forging increased ties with the ex-members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. While willing to work with Russia when possible, the U.S. foreign policy has not recognized either Russia or China as having a sphere of influence. On occasion, we have had to accept Russia’s intervention in their neighbors, but we have responded with appropriate sanctions.
The new Administration seems to have a new concept for foreign policy — what is good for Trump Inc. and major corporations is good for America. If that means abandoning our allies, so be it. If that means ignoring governments that oppress their citizens, so be it. At this point, we will see in January if leading Republicans are willing to go along with this change. When the hope for some stability in American foreign policy is John Bolton as number two in the State Department, things are getting pretty desperate.
The U.S. has a lot of tools for influence in the world. Those tools are not as strong as Trump liked to pretend during the campaign. Every country has their own interest and their own domestic politics (even when those domestic politics actually hinder the best interests of the country). Countries can make deals when both sides perceive the deal as advancing their interests. Just because a country is the most significant player on the world stage does not mean that it gets everything it wants.
One of the key tools that a country has is its reliability. Even in a democracy, the agreements made by prior administration should not be set aside lightly. A country that will not honor its prior agreements is not a trustworthy negotiating partner.
During the campaign, Trump failed to recognize the trade-offs behind the current agreements that the U.S. has. Yes, the U.S. bears a large share of the burden of our defense agreements. But the reason for accepting that burden is that we do not want a bunch of strong militaries around the world that might encourage those countries to go rogue on their neighbors. Additionally, keeping those countries dependent on our military gives us forward bases when we need them. Of course, the burden of this arrangement is that we spend a greater share of our budget on defense than other countries and that we are the country that everybody counts on for military intervention. Yes, it might be possible to get a little bit more in some trade deals. But the U.S. is the world’s largest producer. When we get countries to lower their barriers to trade (and when we keep our barriers low), we have more markets for our goods and can obtain raw materials at the lowest possible price.
U.S. foreign policy has to be driven by more than the personal business interests of the President or the short-term balance sheets of the Fortune 500. U.S. interests require making decisions about when to trade immediate costs for long-term benefits. For fifty years, the U.S. has operated by looking at the big picture. Not every decision that every administration made was correct, but American voters knew the basic agenda driving our foreign policy, and our allies could trust that our word meant something. That may not be the case for the next four years. We can only hope that the damage will not be too much for the next president to repair.