This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a few weeks ago. Basically I argue that a restrained political and military foreign policy does not imply an isolationist or protectionist economic foreign policy.
This strikes me as an important distinction. There is a lot talk that Trump’s election implies a less interventionist foreign policy, that the white working class doesn’t want to fight neocon wars anymore. I am sympathetic to that. But a greater caution in military choices does not have an economic correlate of withdrawing from free trade, or picking foolish fights with allies. Restraint is neither economic protectionism, nor bashing allies Trump-style. Those tow together are more like isolationism.
As I say on this site regularly, the concern of foreign policy ‘restrainers’ is not to abandon American allies, but to get them to take their own defense more seriously. But I see no reason to extend that to trade. Greater protectionism will simply drive up prices for the white working class at Walmart, while re-shoring a few jobs at most. Recall that it is technology that wiped out smokestack jobs in the Midwest, not China. Worse, protectionism has a powerful long-term negative impact on security. States which seal themselves off start to fall behind technologically. That impacts military tech too, as one can see in the communist states during the Cold War. It is critical for American military pre-eminence that it remain a free-trade economy that regularly absorbs the most recent technologies, no matter how much dislocation they bring, no matter where they come from.
The full essay follows the jump:
President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric raised hopes that might pursue a less interventionist US foreign policy. Trump was the only truth-teller on the Iraq War in the Republican primary. He mainstreamed the issue of low allied contributions to the American defense network, which hitherto was mostly a debate among foreign policy wonks. He talked of avoiding foolish wars. He intuitively grasped the disconnect between the insouciant belligerence of neoconservative and Washington-based US foreign policy elites, and the working class voters who filled out the ranks and fought those wars. More broadly, he demonstrated that even within the ‘national security party,’ there is a constituency seeking a less arrogant, high-handed, and meddlesome foreign policy.
The verdict is still out on whether Trump means this. His cabinet and staff picks include superhawks like national security advisor Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon. But his belligerence toward allies – cancelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the haranguing tone, the dismissal of international organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and so on – is not a requirement of a more cautious foreign policy. Restraint need not mean isolationism, and alienating the US from much of the world – barring Russia, of course – is the likely outcome of Trumpism if the president and Steve Bannon do not slow down.
It is important to make these distinctions, because the long-standing retort to restraint is that it is retrenchment, abandonment of US leadership, withdrawing from the world, and so on. This was captured most famously in the relentless repetition of the Republican talking point that Barack Obama was ‘leading from behind.’ But much of that is false. Nothing in a restrained foreign policy says the US states should antagonize friends or practice protectionism or mercantilism. Mature diplomacy and liberal, trade-friendly economics do not require a parallel commitment to US global dominance.
Restrain seeks: greater care in choosing when and where to use US force; greater concern for the violence and destabilization the use of force unleashes; greater awareness of the spiraling financial costs of conflict; anxiety over possible American ‘imperial overstretch’; humility regarding the horrific human toll when the US unleashes its powerful military on others. None of that requires breaking US alliances. As I have argued before in these pages, the point of restraint instead is to incentivize US allies to spend more, build better, more interoperable forces, and strategize and plan more.
But for reasons only he and Bannon know, Trump has cast many US alliance relationships into doubt. Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to run to Japan and South Korea last week, and will go to Europe next week, just to quell the anxieties. In just two weeks in office, Trump has managed to inflame US relationships with its closest partners, including Britain, Mexico, and Australia. If countries so culturally close to the US as these are targets of Trump’s wrath, how will he deal with alliance friction and disagreements with more culturally distant states like Japan or South Korea?
Similarly, his cancellation of the TPP adds nothing to a more disciplined foreign policy. Free trade is entirely commensurate with a US pull-back from overstretch. Restraint is not autarky, mercantilism, protection, the denial of visas to legitimate foreign business operators, and so on. Restraint is not isolationism, which increasingly appears to be Trump’s impulse. Indeed, any serious strategist will see the obvious military threat of autarkic economic strategies. Militarily powerful states must be able to capture any and all technological gains generated by economic development, even by foreigners, lest they qualitatively fall behind. Communist states constantly suffered from this problem. Committed to closed, internal-only development, they quickly fell behind open economies in developing and deploying new technologies. While the lost consumer pleasures, such as like washing machines or televisions, could be ignored, the military applications of breakthrough technologies such as computers could not. Communist militaries were constantly forced to rely on quantity, because their quality was always a decade or two behind their opponents’. When Bannon speaks of restoring America’s “shipyards and ironworks,” he is invoking a long gone coal-and-steel US economy impossible to revive without a genuine autarkic turn.
The internationalist retort of course is to blend this all together: US participation in the global economy necessitates US global leadership and a consequent willingness to regularly use force. But the relationship is not as tight as neoconservatives would have you believe. The central pillars of the world economy outside North America are Europe and East Asia. The US can maintain a middling commitment in these places without sprawling elsewhere, most obviously the Middle East. US dependence on Persian Gulf carbon is diminishing rapidly due to fracking and renewables, and carbon needs to be significantly more expensive globally anyway due to its alarming global warming externalities. In short, US participation in the global economy need not mean hegemony outside a few core areas, and certainly not the Middle East given the high cost of US dominance there and the declining value of its one serious export.
For US allies, this is weird time. The next American elections, for the legislature, occur in 2018. Traditionally the president’s party loses; a large anti-Trump wave could stop much of this. Conversely, a moderate legislative defeat, followed by Trump’s re-election in 2020, would lock-in these grand strategic shifts. The wisest course for allies now is likely to ignore Trump’s outbursts whenever possible, smile gamely, make a few face-saving concessions, such as Shinzo Abe’s American jobs-program, and hold tight for 2018. If the orange storm does not subside by then, it may to time to consider more autonomous national strategies.