President Donald J. Trump has made many statements about foreign policy and already has taken numerous foreign policy actions. These statements and actions have often been contradictory and counterproductive. There are reasons for that and better alternatives are available.
The reasons for misguided foreign policies by Trump include some of his personal predispositions, which entail expressing himself and thinking in slogans that are based on attitudes and beliefs that are not grounded on good evidence. He also tends to react fiercely to anything that he feels to be slights or attacks. He presumes to be extremely self-confident about his capabilities, which makes him often dismissive of evidence that contradicts his beliefs. Furthermore, his business experience and financial interests color his ties with particular countries and their political and economic leaders.
In addition, he appeals to and is influenced by disparate persons and groups. This certainly includes segments of the electorate to whom he appealed in order to win the Republican Party nomination and then the presidential election. He sought to attract some traditional right wing Republicans, such as the big-government antagonists, the white supremacists, the foreign policy unilateralists, and the celebrators of U.S. military force. Once elected, he selected persons from these groupings to major positions in the government, often ignoring the preferences and concerns of the mainstream Republican Party.
Significantly, Stephen K. Bannon has been and continues to be highly influential for Trump. He offers broad doctrines and presumed intellectual heft. He claims a grand political perspective about the primacy of national sovereignty and borders, about disrupting the established order and the deconstruction of the administrative state, and about ethno-nationalism, which entails economic matters and cultural expressions related to Western civilization contending against Islamic civilization.
Absent influences are also noteworthy. Largely absent sources include scholars of international affairs and of diverse cultures; leaders of the UN and other international governmental organizations; persons in non-governmental organizations engaged in humanitarian efforts abroad; and persons advancing knowledge about and the practice of peace building and conflict resolution.
Finally, external realities also affect Trump’s foreign policy undertakings. These realities include international actions taken by foreign governments, by U.S. state governments, by U.S. and foreign corporations, by religious organizations, and by innumerable other non-governmental organizations. Some of these actions may be threatening or injurious to Americans’ lives or interests. Other actions provide benefits to Americans and offer opportunities for cooperation.
All these factors influence President Trump’s foreign policy, including combating ISIS and terrorism. The policies that result are not likely to be effective. Trump often frames an issue warranting attention in extreme terms in order to justify radical goals and disruptive policies, which brings him more attention and power. He converts a real need into a huge crisis so that extreme action can be justified. This is what his dark portrayal of American society does. Indeed, often a policy is a slogan bearing little factual connection with the alleged problem. The policy may serve some other, barely acknowledged concern. A more honest and fact-based analysis of the problems that need attention would be a more effective way to develop policies that would solve the actual problems.
In his election campaign, Trump stressed the urgency of the terrorist threat to Americans in the homeland. He also stressed the dangers of the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq where ISIS had established itself. He said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States and build up U.S. military forces to win wars again. As President, he set out to implement the asserted campaign slogans. A week after taking office, he signed a hastily written order to immediately ban immigration and other legal entries (e.g. people with green cards and valid visas) into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Chaos at airports and protests erupted. Federal courts quickly blocked the ban. On March 6, he signed a little more judiciously written travel ban, not including Iraq, whose government and people were fighting against ISIS in cooperation with the U.S. As of this writing, two Federal courts have blocked that order.
The reasons for the travel ban are not clear. No one from the countries whose entry into the United States was banned has committed a terror attack in the United States. Indeed, every militant extremist Muslim who has conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In some countries in Western Europe, where Muslim minorities were not well integrated in the societies where they lived, some youths were radicalized and committed several dreadful attacks. That has not often been the case in the United States. Government policies to ban Muslims seeking to immigrate to the United States antagonizes Muslims abroad and in the United States. This hampers the relatively effective police, intelligence and other operations, designed to prevent terror attacks.
Trump also stresses the urgency of winning the wars in the Middle East. When Trump took office, however, ISIS was being driven from the territories it had seized in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters were no longer flocking to join it. In fighting ISIS and terrorism, Trump emphasizes relying on military force. He seeks to vastly increase the Department of Defense budget, without explaining specifically how that would help defeat terrorists. On the other hand, he is sharply reducing the resources of the Department of State. Yet, U.S. military leaders observe that political solutions are needed to end the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
In significant degree, the groups resorting to terrorist attacks are waging an ideological war, which requires recruiting supporters and fighters. They must be countered in good measure by persuading members and potential recruits to such groups that America is not an enemy that aims to harm them. Indeed, America is widely seen in many parts of the world as a model society. It possess great soft power, which was crucial in winning the Cold War.
Greater persuasive efforts are needed on many fronts and the State Department, in conjunction with non-governmental organizations, must play a major role in such efforts. It needs to play a major role in helping assess the priority of various foreign issues, utilizing expert knowledge of the foreign actors’ perspectives. Furthermore, much work must be done to alleviate the consequences of wars and prevent their recurrence. Civilians fleeing wars and oppression and entering nearby countries desperately need assistance. Peace building in war-devastated countries is needed so that wars do not re-emerge. Yet Trump is in the process of rapidly deconstructing the Department of State. The willful neglect of the State Department is highly dangerous.
It seems that Steven Bannon and those who share his extreme ideological views have predominant influence on Trump’s policies in fighting terrorism, which fail to recognize the world as it is. They promote the erroneous view that there is a war of civilizations between Islam and the West. They promote the deconstruction of the administrative state. In addition, they promote American ethno-nationalism by which whites of European ancestry are dominant and ethnic diversity is to be greatly reduced. This pertains to Trump’s liking of Vladimir Putin as a leader of a white nation and antipathy to Mexicans, driving the construction of a wall on the U.S. southern border.
Better alternatives are possible. American citizens must act resolutely to influence the U.S. Congress so that it corrects the many unwise policies pursued by President Trump and his administration. Widespread public pressure may even influence Trump and others to whom he listens. The Trump administration poses great threats to American security and resistance to it is imperative.