By Kent R. Kroeger (August 6, 2018)
Born in 1964, my lifetime has witnessed three transcendent U.S. foreign policy achievements:
(1) Richard Nixon visiting China in 1972,
(2) Jimmy Carter facilitating a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978,
(3) and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presiding over the end of the Cold War and eventually the Soviet Union without doing a gratuitous endzone victory dance.
Those three master achievements still largely define the U.S. relationship with those countries and regions today. And what do these achievements have in common? They all deescalated the chance of a war, though in the case of Nixon’s China visit the intention was more to contain the Soviet Union’s influence than to bring about Sino-American peace.
Nonetheless, Nixon’s China overture may yet have the most lasting impact of all. Today, even with tensions in the South China Sea simmering and the prospects of a trade war looming, China is fully integrated into the world’s market economy and will, in our lifetimes, become the globe’s largest economy. But, more importantly, while China is a major competitor to the U.S. and arguably still engages in unfair trading practices (though many U.S. business leaders dispute this), the long-term forecast remains positive for Sino-American economic cooperation.
As for Israel, Egypt and the Greater Middle East, the region remains a minefield of religious and ethnic prejudices with the constant potential to devolve into an open conflict. Yet, the Camp David peace accords still stand in full force today, unbroken and resolute. And even as most Arab countries don’t officially recognize Israel, the reality is shifting.
“Israel has become a key intermediary in the shipment of goods between Arab and other Muslim-majority countries, primarily because of the unrest in Syria,” according to journalist Joe Charlaff, who covers Israeli business and technology for The Media Line news service. “Israel has been serving as a continental bridge for Turkish-Jordanian trade, in particular, as well as for freight making its way to Turkey from other nations.”
And, finally, the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, occurring on George H. W. Bush’s watch but initiated towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s administration, marks one of history’s most unique moments when two bitter and highly armed adversaries ended their hostilities without resorting to a large-scale, direct military conflict.
Three extraordinary foreign policy achievements within a 20-year period.
And President Donald Trump has put all three in jeopardy during the first two years of his presidency.
Failure defines U.S. foreign policy since 1993.
From Bill Clinton to the present, American foreign policy has been ineffective, at best, and dangerously incompetent, at worst.
Clinton’s administration competently shepherded the downsizing of the U.S. military in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, but failed to call attention to the Rwandan genocide when it could, and grossly misunderstood the source and significance of radical Islamic extremism’s rise.
George W. Bush, in contrast, was an unmitigated foreign policy disaster on every conceivable level that cannot be adequately dissected here. Suffice it to say, today, we still suffer the consequences of the actions of W. and his neocon compatriots.
The next eight years under Barack Obama did little to rollback W’s mistakes and, in fact, amplified them through his ill-advised expansion of America’s military footprint into Syria, Yemen and the northern half of the African continent. Moreover, the escalating use of drones to attack terrorists (including Americans) was another policy low point for the Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
It is no accident Russia initiated two unprovoked invasions late in the administration of both G. W. Bush (Ossetia 2008) and Obama (Crimea 2014). Both were weakened U.S. presidents unwilling to risk an escalation of hostilities with a relatively weak but aggressive Russian adversary.
Trump is making the same mistakes and some new ones
Any optimism inspired by Donald Trump’s campaign promise that he would ‘drain the swamp,’ is forced to accept that what Trump really meant was farming out American foreign policy to the capitals in Riyadh and Jerusalem, two American allies with decidedly parochial interests compared to the U.S.
The probability of a direct military conflict between Iran and the U.S. is increasing with the renewed imposition of economic sanctions against Iran by the U.S. and its allies. Australia’s state-owned television network (ABC) recently quoted senior sources within the Australian government as saying a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as could occur as early this month (August).
“A war with Iran would define, consume and potentially destroy the Trump presidency, but exhilarate the neocon never-Trumpers who most despise the man,” writes Pat Buchanan, generally a Trump supporter and a vehement opponent of U.S.-led regime change wars. “If we start a war with Iran, on top of the five in which we are engaged still, then the party that offers to extricate us will be listened to, as Trump was listened to, when he promised to extricate us from the forever wars of the Middle East.”
Establishment Democrats and the Never Trump Republicans are noticeably silent on the growing prospects of a hot-war with Iran.
Even Trump’s greatest potential for a foreign policy triumph, the de-nuclearization talks with North Korea, looks increasingly like a diplomatic dud.
And, finally, we have the Russians. With some prominent Democrats even calling Russia’s meddling during the 2016 U.S. presidential election an act of war (it wasn’t), the chances of at least a mini-Cold War starting back up is a real possibility.
No U.S. foreign policy in the past twenty years however has been more unnecessary and ill-advised than the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet bloc countries, some of whom border Russia today. It started with the additions of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, the accession of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, and, more recently, the adding of Albania and Croatia in 2009.
Why that would be provocative to Russia has never been fully appreciated by the U.S. and its NATO allies, but can reasonably be cited as an important causal factor behind not only Russia’s military annexation of Ossetia and Crimea, but also behind its meddling in recent European and U.S. elections.
Of the three foreign policy achievements cited at the beginning, only the peaceful rise of China remains largely intact. And though Trump’s ill-advised tariff penalties targeting some of China’s more egregious trade practices threatens to expand into a wider trade war, if Chinese leaders have one predictable trait, it is that they do not over-react to short-term crises.
As for the survival of the other two foreign policy achievements (End of the Cold War and the Camp David Accords), my confidence is shaken.