The United States and indeed the Western world face four quite different challenges on the horizon: China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. All these threats were analyzed at length in the 68-page U.S. National Security Strategy assessment of December 2017, written by then–national-security adviser H. R. McMaster and his staff.
The encompassing theme of that blueprint was dubbed “strategic realism.” In popular parlance it may have been better known as a new “Jacksonianism” — defined loosely as something like the self-composed epitaph of the Roman strongman Sulla found in Plutarch’s life of the general (“No friend had ever surpassed him in doing kindness, and no enemy in doing harm” [οὔτε τῶν φίλων τις αὐτὸν εὖ ποιῶν οὔτε τῶν ἐχθρῶν κακῶς ὑπερεβάλετο]), or perhaps the reactive principle enshrined in the motto of the Stuart dynasty of Scotland, Nemo me impune lacessit — “No one provokes me with impunity.”
One overarching goal of the NSS white paper was to synthesize U.S. and allied interests while isolating enemies and winning over neutrals — and all in the context of a new domestic paradigm of enhancing the economy of the American interior while securing the nation’s borders. That assessment of continued, though recalibrated, engagement abroad explains the considerable increases in U.S. defense spending, the preservation of some 800 military bases and installations, the steady deployment of 170,000 active military personnel overseas, and the assignment of 30,000 State Department officials outside the U.S. Isolationist powers simply do not commit such massive resources outside their borders; declining nations “in retreat” do not allot such forces to protect the interests of so many allies. The aims of restoring economic vitality in the U.S. interior, pressuring China for reciprocal trade, and establishing a secure southern border and energy independence are not just campaign props, but foreign-policy assets that allow America to extend its strategic reach, if need be, well beyond its borders and on its own terms.
There is nothing radical in the American idea that NATO allies must meet their promises of military investment if the alliance is to survive in the 21st century. Who would disagree that our military, after 19 years in a stalemated Afghanistan, should rethink its strategic agenda and indeed the utility of its presence? What is controversial in concluding that policies that led to interventions in Libya did not enhance U.S. interests or regional stability? The Iraq War is now mostly seen, in a cost-to-benefit analysis, fairly or not, as not having been worth the price in blood and treasure. And if isolationism is defined by taking out General Qasem Soleimani, or bombing ISIS into retreat, or taking unprecedented action in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, or reestablishing good relations with Egypt and the Gulf monarchies, then such isolationism is a strange sort of blinkered standoffishness.
In truth, the U.S. is in a far better position to deal with its strategic challenges than it was in 2016. The old Western consensus concerning Chinese globalized mercantilism and imperial aspirations could be summed up only as an uncertainty about when — not whether — China would assume world dominance. For all the upheavals of the coronavirus pandemic, the prior trade standoff with China had prepped the world for the unacceptable Chinese reaction to the Wuhan outbreak.
After America’s pushback to Beijing in 2017 — leveling tariffs on key Chinese industries and warning China to cease copyright and patent infringement — exposed Chinese mercantilism to the world, few were surprised in 2020 by China’s chronic lying, subversion of transnational organizations, and laxity in allowing its Wuhan virus to infect the world. Certainly, once China calibrates the full damage done to the U.S. economy by the coronavirus and the baleful effects of the subsequent lockdown on American social equilibrium, we should prepare for the chance of episodic appearances of more SARS-CoV-2-like viral “accidents.” Beijing may soon not so subtly warn the U.S. that in a matter of weeks it could suffer more economic and social devastation from an “inadvertent” release of a “new” virus from a Wuhan wet market, lab, or wayward pig or bat.
When the contagion reached the U.S. in early 2020, Americans were already aware that China was on notice that it could not continue routinely violating almost all post-war commercial protocols. Its disdain for global commercial norms was quite stunning. It offered no apologies when it stole technologies, violated copyrights and patents, dumped subsidized goods on the export market, manipulated its currency, ran up artificially huge trade surpluses, and sought to siphon off key domestic industries.
No one knows what the balance of power will look like after the end of the COVID-19 epidemic. Yet at least now the world recognizes that Beijing’s systematic deceit and corruption of transnational organizations were exactly what the U.S., alone since 2017, had been warning about. The lessons of 2020 were not that America had unduly taken on China, but that America had ripped off the veneer of Chinese intentions, which now were revealed as unapologetically imperialist and bellicose, without the prior dissimulating claims of furthering world harmony.
One reason that the Middle East has ceased being the world’s hotspot is current U.S. foreign policy. The decision to accelerate fracking and horizontal drilling has crashed oil prices, robbing the Middle East of billions of dollars in U.S. importation revenue and making its oil optional, not essential, in American strategic thinking.
The Obama policy of championing Iran over both Israel and moderate Arab states — and by extension Iranian terrorist surrogates, such as Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, Hezbollah, and Hamas — is deservedly in shambles. It was destroyed by the Trump administration’s departure from the flawed Iran deal, its leveling of tough “snapback” trade sanctions on Tehran, and the forging of a new de facto tripartite alliance of America, Israel, and moderate Arab states against Iran. The effort to bleed Iran economically through sanctions and boycotts, and the retaliatory strikes on its military aggression abroad — most notably the killing of Soleimani, the arch-terrorist-architect — put Iran in an especially vulnerable position. Its position became even worse when oil prices crashed in February 2020 and Tehran clumsily tried to hide the fact that its Chinese patron’s imported coronavirus had reached epidemic proportions throughout Iranian territory.
Obama’s failed multiyear effort at a reset with Russia (2009–2014) only whetted the appetite of Vladimir Putin to absorb eastern Ukraine and Crimea and to carve out an imperial zone of operations in Syria — given that the Putin regime has often seen American outreach not as magnanimity to be repaid in kind but as timidity to be leveraged. John Kerry, the Obama administration’s secretary of state, invited the Russians back into the Middle East after a 40-year hiatus, ostensibly to become a stabilizing influence in controlling Syrian weapons of mass destruction. They have never left, although the cost of their presence suggests it may ultimately prove as unwise as other such Mideast interventions have been for a long array of Western nations.
For all the false talk of its “collusion” with Russia, the Trump administration has repeatedly opposed the surreal German–Russian natural-gas deal. It upped sanctions on Russian oligarchs, jawboned NATO to beef up its expenditures and defenses, especially in the context of Russian bullying of Eastern Europe, and sold lethal weapons to Ukraine after the Obama administration had refused to do so. The U.S. pulled out of an asymmetrical 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that was continually violated by Moscow, and it increased defense spending — also the exact opposite of Obama-era appeasement of Russia.
Yet one casualty of the Russian-“collusion” myth was the end of traditional Kissingerian realist triangulation, or the old American policy that neither a nuclear China nor a nuclear Russia should become a better friend to the other than each was to the U.S. One of the reasons China has so brazenly moved on its Indian border, threatened Taiwan, cracked down on Hong Kong, and carved out bases in the South China Sea is that the U.S. has not worked with Russia in areas of mutual advantage to curb Chinese aggression.
The Trump administration inherited a North Korean menace that boasted it had the ballistic-missile capability and the unhinged will to hit the cities of the U.S. West Coast. Past administrations had tried all sorts of multilateral agendas to denuclearize North Korea. All had not merely failed, but in their appeasement had further encouraged Pyongyang to accelerate its nuclear proliferation and become more bellicose.
Ultimately there are only four ways of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear capability. One is to increase missile-defense efforts to neutralize any sudden attack, allowing the U.S. to remain safe while providing good cause for a devastating response on North Korea’s entire missile-launching infrastructure.
A second, of course, is to pressure China to rein in its useful client. In the past, appeasing Chinese trade violations conveyed the same sort of weakness to Beijing as the Agreed Framework (1994), the Six-Party Talks (2003), and other assorted U.S. outreach had shown to Pyongyang. Beijing wondered why it should corral North Korea when the latter’s studied recklessness and feigned rogue independence from China had proved so valuable in consuming U.S. attention and resources.
Third, South Korea and North Korea could denuclearize the peninsula, each pledging to dismantle existing weapons or disband nuclear-weapons programs. This is unlikely because an impoverished failure such as North Korea feels it now enjoys diplomatic parity with a rich, democratic, and successful Seoul — but only because it boasts as a failed state that it has the spoiler power to destroy its rival.
Fourth, America can easily impose sanctions, and not relax them on reports of near starvation in North Korea, but rather tighten them on the rationale that, in such lose–lose arithmetic, short-term callousness is preferable to a nuclear exchange.
Yet efforts to denuclearize North Korea in these ways always seemed to fail, for obvious reasons. North Koreans understand that denuclearization, either voluntary or coerced, is tantamount to regime change or emasculation of the kind that occurred in Iraq, Libya, and Syria — as John Bolton at one point seemed to hint.
Beijing finds a nuclear North Korea a useful pit bull to let off its leash occasionally as a way to remind China’s neighbors of its own clout and warn the United States that it is not responsible for a rogue missile launcher. And South Korea’s sometimes left-wing governments naïvely cling to the idea that spillover prosperity might liberalize the North, or that advantageous unification could follow from mutual nonproliferation agreements, or that warming up to China might entice Beijing to pressure the North to work with the South.
The Trump administration has mostly rejected these nostrums. In reductionist fashion, it assumed that the only method the U.S. possessed to deter North Korea, aside from imposing far tougher sanctions or encouraging Seoul to become a nuclear power, was a frightening message of Armageddon to Kim Jong-un that any use of North Korean nuclear assets against the U.S. or its Asian allies would be synonymous with the nation’s utter destruction.
Why, then, is all of the above written off as rank isolationism?
Donald Trump was the first president without either elective office or military service in his past. He was elected to the chagrin of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment and most of the permanent administrative class of the State Department and the Pentagon. Trump also was the first president to question the 75-year-old post–World War II status quo, by asking whether there was a shelf life on America’s role in subsidizing the defense of affluent Europeans and Asian allies, many of whom ran up huge trade surpluses with America and were not always so friendly to the U.S.
Trump was the first president to reject the standard view that granting trade concessions to dictatorial nations such as China is a necessary cost to ensure their good behavior — on the dubious theory that globalized wealth inevitably leads to political liberalization and consensual government. He was instead elected on the argument that a hollowed-out American interior, an open border, millions of foreign nationals living illegally in the U.S., a stagnant economy and middle-class wages, and an inability to win often-optional wars in the Middle East were all unsustainable and weakened the economy — and eventually would erode U.S. stature abroad. And he doubted the notion that military forces could achieve strategic results in the Middle East by fighting on behalf of dubious allies or coerced democratization, and in ways that limited or neutered conventional American military strength and advantage.
Effective criticism of the Trump foreign policy not only would entail rejecting all these premises, but also would address why almost half the country believed in 2016 that many of their domestic problems arose from a foreign policy that had not yet adjusted to a world far different from what their grandparents had created in 1945.
This article appears as “Reactive Engagement” in the August 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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