From President Donald Trump’s counterproductive trade war to his disastrous summit diplomacy with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un to his defense of brutal autocrats to his alienating of NATO allies (and more), he arguably has earned a place among the worst presidents on foreign policy in U.S. history.
That, however, doesn’t mean that the eventual Democratic nominee need not present his or her own foreign policy views. To the contrary, the Democratic nominee still will need to pass the credibility test as commander in chief and should, if able, use foreign policy as one more reason to boot out Trump.
What, then, should Democrats be saying about foreign policy? It’s important but hardly sufficient to knock Trump for ignoring the presidential daily briefing and experts, hiring third-rate advisers and Cabinet members, refusing to consult with allies, and willfully remaining ignorant about the world. It would be reassuring to hear a candidate say she’ll get the briefing every day, hire and pay attention to top experts, work in concert with allies and work diligently to understand the intricacies of national security — but that’s an applause line, not a foreign policy vision that will engender confidence in her judgment.
Let me suggest five main areas on which Democrats can make a compelling case for a post-Trump foreign policy.
First, they should confront head-on the notion that allies have taken advantage of us because we have acted out of misbegotten altruism for others. To be clear: The only sucker here is a president who takes the word of tyrants over the unanimous view of our intelligence community. Allies lighten the national security load, provide support for our interests and values, act as reliable trading partners and — this is key — as democracies, do not destabilize regions of the world. Trump has strained these relations, giving adversaries such as Russia an advantage and encouraging anti-American governments and regimes to go their own way or, worse, join with opponents. As the world’s only superpower, we of course lead the Western alliance and occasionally must act unilaterally, but we would be far weaker if we had to do it all on our own.
Second, the West is in an existential battle with illiberal regimes. Some of them, such as Russia and China, have the ability to do significant harm through espionage, intellectual property theft, asymmetrical attacks on the United States and our allies, and assistance to rogue states and nonstate actors. We need to marshal all instruments of power — military deterrence, diplomatic and economic pressure, and exposure of their human rights abuses and kleptocracy. We set back our interests by ignoring or, worse, excusing their domestic repression.
Along with those powers are rogue states (e.g. Iran, Syria, North Korea) who pose a threat through possible acquisition and use of WMDs, support of terrorist groups and violations of international law. When we create dissension on our side, as Trump did by pulling out of the Iran deal and shattering NATO unity, we weaken ourselves. Our aim should be to sow division on our opponents’ side and promote unity on our own. Trump does the reverse. And by modeling civil liberties at home and exerting pressure (behind closed doors or publicly) on autocratic regimes, we enhance our prestige and influence and get the upper hand in exposing, shaming and sanctioning countries that do not respect international human rights.
Third, we must maintain adequate military readiness, equip and compensate our armed forces properly, and secure a predictable stream of funding commensurate with the job(s) we ask the military to perform. We should never use the military as a prop for domestic purposes or raid its funding for partisan stunts. We need to fix Veterans Affairs once and for all. (For starters, don’t let Mar-a-Lago members influence it.) One way to reduce our defense costs, most informed Americans know, is to rely in part on allies, including the bases and ports they afford us for forward positioning of forces. Creating new bureaucracies (a space force!) or wasting money on parades is an distraction from the military’s mission.
Fourth, part of maintaining our prosperity and our international stature depends on our trade and immigration policies. Free trade deals have not resulted in mammoth job losses, but they spur efficiency and drive down costs, which can adversely affect certain industries and workers. The goal of our trade policy should not be to protect weak domestic industries, drive up prices for consumers and cut our businesses out of foreign markets, but rather to do the opposite. Whether by multilateral or bilateral trade deals, we can create new markets, box out competitors (like China) and write the rules of international commerce. We should use the World Trade Organization rather than trade wars to encourage fair trade and be generous with domestic legislation to help those people who are displaced by trade deals.
On the immigration front, we are the world’s only superpower at a time when millions of refugees are fleeing war, tyranny and poverty. We already vet refugees more systematically than any other group of immigrants; we should continue those practices but raise the number of refugees to a reasonable level, in part to encourage others closer to world crises to do the same. Likewise, we need to seriously upgrade our system for processing asylum seekers at our border and work with countries from which they are fleeing to resolve the violence and economic deprivation that sent them on an arduous and dangerous trek to the United States. Under no circumstances should we forcibly separate children from their parents (unless needed to protect the child from abuse), and we will be wholly responsible for the care, safety and well-being of any unaccompanied minor we take into custody. Our borders will be more secure if we have an orderly refugee system, a robust legal immigration structure and an ample guest worker program. “Dreamers” and other noncriminal, longtime residents of the United States should be eligible for a pathway to citizenship after meeting certain criteria.
Fifth, we have prospered and become the world’s dominant economic power thanks to a rules-based international order we constructed. (Pretty clever of us.) That means it is in our interest to maintain and reform international bodies as well as use foreign aid — a pittance in terms of our overall federal budget — to prevent health epidemics, head off situations that create even more refugees, raise the standard of living for potential trading partners and promote respect for human rights. Cutting or threatening to cut foreign aid as a political stunt (to avoid facing the real drivers of our debt) diminishes our influence and empowers adversaries.
See, how hard is that to espouse? Yes, candidates should answer specific questions. (Might we need to leave troops in X country? How do we fight cyberterrorism?) But if Democrats get the big picture right, they’ll expose Trump’s utter unfitness and earn the confidence of voters. They’d better do so, because four additional years of Trump would permanently and seriously impair our national security.
(Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.)