The New Year is upon us, which makes it the season of pledging to improve ourselves, a practice with decidedly mixed results. Still, past failures are no reason not to try again. If anything, the more we’ve failed at past improvements, the more reason to start anew.
There are plenty of failures on record in the last 17 years of U.S. foreign policy, so here are five foreign policy New Year’s resolutions the Trump administration ought to make—and keep:
1. Complete the Pentagon audit. In early December, the Department of Defense put 1,200 auditors to work on the first full audit the agency has ever undergone. The result of their investigation is scheduled for release in November of 2018, and it is intended to be the first of many annual probes into Pentagon finances.
This is great news, if much overdue. The Defense Department is authorized to spend about $700 billion in FY2018, pending passage of a new spending bill later in January, and that accounts for around half of annual discretionary spending by the federal government. It also has “a long and inglorious history of book-cooking and accounting that alternates between the incompetent and the criminal,” as conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson put it, “a half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts here; untold sums lost to outright theft and fraud there; shocking waste” at every turn. The Trump administration deserves credit for getting this ball rolling, and now it must resolve to keep it in motion.
2. Start a new round of BRAC. The last time Congress authorized a round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) was in 2005, and the next time should be in 2018. By the Pentagon’s count, 22 percent of its facilities are not needed now or will be no longer needed by 2019. This excess square footage is an expensive misuse of limited resources.
At present, Congress is actively blocking BRAC—almost certainly because lawmakers are concerned it could negatively affect their re-election prospects—even though Defense Secretary James Mattis is a vocal supporter of a new BRAC round. “[E]very unnecessary facility we maintain requires us to cut capabilities elsewhere,” he wrote to Congress in October. “I must be able to eliminate excess infrastructure in order to shift resources to readiness and modernization,” Mattis continued, and the “BRAC process provides opportunities for military forces to be more effective, for capabilities to be enhanced, and for savings to be applied to higher priorities.”
3. Avoid escalating North Korea tensions. Washington has been all over the map on North Korea this year. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tend to promote negotiations, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley pushes diplomatic isolation, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) talk preventive war. President Trump dabbles in a little of everything, careening from invitations to dialogue to “fire and fury” as the week’s events move him.
The result of this mixed messaging is rapidly escalating tensions with North Korea, sparking predictions that 2018 will be the year the United States again goes to war on the Korea Peninsula. That would be a mistake—a dangerous, unnecessary, and avoidable mistake which badly misunderstands the survivalist aims of the Kim regime and risks the lives of millions.
It is vital, as MIT’s Barry R. Posen wrote at The New York Times in December, that the Trump team “should not underestimate the steep human cost of initiating a war against Pyongyang.” Though the United States is clearly the superior military power in this match-up, it is still true that the “complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high,” Posen rightly concludes, advocating instead a “combination of diplomacy and deterrence.”
4. Restore congressional war powers. Amid all the saber-rattling toward North Korea, one detail too often ignored is the Trump administration’s lack of legal power to make a preventive strike on Pyongyang—or anywhere else. The Constitution names the president commander of the military, but it assigns the authority to declare war solely to Congress. James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention indicate the word “declare” was a careful selection, intended to communicate the president may “repel sudden attacks” on U.S. soil but may not “commence war” without congressional permission.
In the decades since World War II, de facto war powers have shifted almost entirely to the executive despite the weak efforts of the War Powers Act to reclaim them for the legislature. This is a grave error, fostering as it does America’s entanglement in wars of choice pursued not after due public deliberation but increasingly on the whim of the president. No person, however wise or well-intentioned, should have that sort of power, as framers of the Constitution like Madison well knew. If the Trump administration is as serious about respecting the Constitution as its National Security Strategy professes, it must use this year to begin the difficult but imperative task of restoring congressional war powers.
5. Reject war without end. The Trump team’s final New Year’s resolution must think bigger than the other four, zooming out from questions of procedure or any individual conflict to take in the full scope of American foreign affairs. The picture is troubling, and its repair is a daunting task.
For too long, administrations from both parties have dismissed principled defense strategy in favor of “opportunism, cultivating a to-do list of problems that the United States was called on to solve,” argues military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich. “More often than not, the preferred solution involved the threat or actual use of force.” This is how we find ourselves, at the start of 2018, embroiled in at least seven wars, depending on how you count them, all lacking a plausible conclusion. War without end has become the baseline of our foreign policy, and it is a floor that cannot and must not hold.
In 2018, the Trump administration should resolve to fundamentally reexamine the reckless military interventionism that has undergirded our foreign policy, and to rediscover the diplomatic tools of statecraft that can enable the United States to lead by example rather than force.