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

28 February 2019, 2000 EST

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.