Flying Blind in Crisis Time: The US Strategic and Human Foreign Policy Deficit

This week has seen a number of key events and crises in
global politics that have made crystal clear once again the careening mess that
is US foreign policy under the current administration. The Trump administration
has no real overarching strategy—the argument that allies in Europe and
elsewhere should bear more of the costs of their defense was not articulated as
part of any coherent broader vision—and gutting of the diplomatic corps has
left the US devoid of expertise and key actors to confront crises when they
arise. First, there were two big stories around nuclear powers this
week. The biggest being India and Pakistan’s clashes, which came on the heels
of a suicide bombing attack on Indian troops in Kashmir by a local man that was
claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. In a scenario that Toby Dalton and George Perkovich worried
about and predicted , an air raid by India into Pakistan resulted in bombs
dropped on an open field, with two Indian planes apparently shot down, and one
airman captured. Pakistan responded with a raid of its own across the Line of
Control in Kashmir, sparking fears
of escalation between the two nuclear-armed states. The Indian raid marked
the first known aerial attack by one nuclear power on the territory of another. The crisis is especially worrying as India approaches an election
and the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP seeks to bolster
its standing , while nationalist
media in both countries inflame tensions, potentially raising domestic
audience costs of backing down. Thursday there were signs of de-escalation,
with Pakistan announcing
it would return the captured Indian pilot promptly. This came
after a Saudi mediation, amid Pakistani complaints of a lack of US
involvement in addressing the crisis. The US has previously been much more
involved in efforts to maintain peace on the subcontinent, and with more India-Pakistan
clashes likely
in the coming months , the weakness of the US State Department will be
exposed once again. There is no ambassador to Pakistan, no Assistant Secretary
of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, and no UN ambassador. As Chris Clary suggests, India and
Pakistan will have to work this out more
on their own than in the past. The second nuclear story, of course, was the Hanoi summit
between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The summit ended
with no agreement on Thursday, as Trump left earlier than planned. The US had dropped
demands for a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program, a sticking
point in the past, but also necessary to move forward any plans for
denuclearization, which is ostensibly the Trump administration’s goal. Talks
reportedly broke down over North Korea’s demand for sanctions relief. Trump had
gone ahead with the summit despite no preexisting common ground for an
agreement, as Victor Cha highlighted ,
likely wound up exposing
the extent of US intelligence on North Korea with little to show for it,
and sided
with Kim over US intelligence on Otto Warmbier’s treatment. North Korean statements
suggest that talks will continue, which is a good sign, but there’s no
timeline and it’s unclear what the Hanoi summit accomplished positively from a
US perspective, beyond, as the
Guardian argues , stoking Trump’s
vanity. Crisis number three is in Venezuela, where attempts to
deliver aid across the border from Colombia resulted, predictably, in clashes
between opposition activists and government forces. There were worries that the
US would use such clashes as an excuse for military intervention to topple
President Nicolas Maduro, especially after Marco Rubio’s inflammatory tweet
featuring an image of the torture of Muammar Gaddhafi. Rubio continues pushing
for US military intervention, but Adam
Isacson lays out clearly how disastrous
this would be , regardless of one’s stance on Maduro and his regime. There seems
to have been a softening of the US stance however, or perhaps distraction,
with little increased US commitment this week beyond some money for the
opposition and limited
further sanctions . The hardline stances of Vice President Pence, Rubio, and
National Security Advisor John Bolton and UN Security Council discussions
without a US ambassador make it difficult to know, however, if this is just a
temporary lull while the hawks keep the US “ stumbling
towards war ,” in Dan Drezner ’s
words. There are plenty of reasons to argue that the US should
adopt a grand strategy of restraint ,
offshore
balancing , progressive
internationalism , or non-intervention
as alternatives to the prior status quo in US foreign policy. Rather than
having this debate or even taking a clear stance, the Trump administration has
instead enacted a foreign policy that, as Jeanne Morefield put
it , “reflects, like a funhouse mirror, a twisted image of U.S. imperialism.”
The US has always supported some dictatorships and decried others, for instance,
but Trump does not give the ideological or strategic reasoning once offered,
but instead goes off his gut and those around him (e.g. decrying Venezuela as
socialist while praising the leader of North Korea). Hence we get Jared Kushner’s palling
around with Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman affecting policy toward Saudi
Arabia and the broader Middle East, or aggressive policy toward Venezuela shaped
by a personal White House meeting and Venezuelans visiting Trump’s golf
clubs. This gives space to hawkish advisers like Rubio and Bolton to push their
agendas, absent bigger questions about how approaches to specific relationships
or crises affect US interests elsewhere, and what collateral effects they may
have globally, something that had clearly negative effects in the undermining
of the Iran nuclear deal. As Elizabeth
Saunders ’ work discusses, when presidents lack experience in foreign
policy, as Trump does, they are easily manipulated
by advisers . Between Trump’s impulsiveness and his surrounding
neoconservative advisers, chaos seems the only reasonable prediction for US
foreign policy over the next two to six years. I write this not as a hot-take jeremiad against Trump’s
foreign policy, but rather to highlight that in the absence of strategic vision
in this administration, there lies an opportunity and an imperative for scholars
and activists who seek to move US foreign policy and grand strategy in new
directions to develop their ideas and push them further into the public sphere
and political discourse. Or follow Daniel
Bessner ’s call and take
over think tank spaces and the government! Much of this work is already
ongoing (I’ve quoted or cited many publicly-engaged scholars here), but this
week provided a very stark reminder of the state of play and the stakes of the
game heading into 2020 and beyond.

2019-03-01 | Security, US Foreign Policy, India | English |