Those of us who did not buy into the Obama administration’s deep self-regard were long skeptical of the deal brokered with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile. This deal came about back when Democrats were the ones who thought Russia was a potential ally, or at least a nation with which we might find common cause when dealing with international problems. The Obama administration touted the deal as a success for years even as the Assad regime continued to weaponize chemicals such as chlorine against Syrians. (The technicality cited by defenders of one of those administration figures, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice — that she was talking only about Syria’s “known” stockpile — only underscores just how incomplete and ineffective the Russian-led effort was bound to be.)
So it should hardly have come as a surprise last week when the Syrian government again bombed civilians with some kind of poisonous gas. Nor should it have been surprising that Russia again echoed the regime’s denials it did so.
What was surprising was the reaction from President Donald Trump.
Four years ago, Trump publicly and repeatedly cautioned his predecessor against striking the Assad regime for crossing a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Now in the White House himself, Trump apparently was so moved by images of suffering Syrian children that he ordered a cruise-missile strike against a regime-controlled air field.
And, as we did four years ago when Obama proposed retaliatory action against Syria, Americans are left wondering whether this signals a broader commitment to intervention in Syria or a relatively tame, one-time gesture. The action makes some wonder what, exactly, are the guiding principles of Trump’s foreign policy.
But Trump’s response to Assad’s chemical-weapons use fits neatly with a concept I’ve held for a while now. I call it the “weaving car” approach to foreign policy.
We’ve all been on the highway and come upon a motorist who can’t maintain his lane. We wonder: Is he drunk? Distracted? Suffering a medical emergency? Just plain bad at driving? Ultimately, most of us probably decide not to get close enough to answer the question; instead we give the unpredictable car a wide berth and steer clear of it. For the one thing that’s clear is the car poses a danger in its failure to follow the rules of the road and to behave predictably.
For decades, one goal of our foreign policy has been to promote predictability. We try to signal our own intentions and to encourage the same from allies and foes alike. (I’m speaking here of overarching strategy, not tactics.) Order was the goal. That includes the order established by military alliances such as NATO to deter bad actors, as well as the order built by trade agreements to foster cooperation even with countries such as China that aren’t considered our allies. Perfect predictability was of course never feasible, but the theory was that, by eliminating as much happenstance as possible, we were better placed to deal with those unforeseen problems that did crop up.
Those notions of order are obviously rejected by terrorists, who value unpredictability because it helps level the battlefield for them against the world’s leading powers. But lately, the wisdom of seeking order and predictability through international institutions, and pursuing one’s national interests within those frameworks, has also been questioned by populists in the West. That applies to Brexit and to much of what Trump had to say about foreign policy as a candidate.
We might describe the main unifying theme for Trump’s thoughts on foreign policy as: America first, no matter how many apple carts must be upset — among friends or foes.
The problem is that, while order was itself seen as a national interest of the world’s only superpower, this upsetting of order lacks a clear goal. Despite its apparently appealing simplicity, “America first” is not an organizing principle. Actions that seem to put “America first” today may be harmful to our national interest in the long run. Threatening to walk away from NATO because some countries haven’t been spending sufficiently on defense is one example. There may also be situations where yielding on a relatively small matter of national interest brings us allies, or helps avoid conflicts, on more important matters. The adage that countries don’t go to war with their trading partners comes to mind.
In the short run, an erratic America may make some bad actors think twice about coming too close to us. In the long and even medium term, however, this approach is more likely to make our allies wary of us and our enemies tempted to try to use our whimsy to their advantage. Neither is desirable.