President-elect Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs comes down to this: put America first, and deliver victories rather than defeats. What might this mean in practice?
From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, presidents have imagined that, as Eliot A. Cohen recently wrote, the notion of “vital U.S.interests is almost infinitely elastic,” and hence that “anything — from a loss of American prestige to the protection of American citizens, from attempts to deter aggression to even minimal efforts to fulfill our treaty commitments — can be defined as vital either to us or to our allies.” Mr. Trump should reject that, and hew to the Constitution’s provisions which make sure that these distinctions and choices ultimately are the American people’s business.
U.S. policy has also suffered from a surplus of commitments over the power to fulfill them. Committing to China’s territorial integrity in 1921 while reducing the U.S Navy and renouncing the fortification of our Pacific bases helped bring on WW II. The 1994 commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, coupled with encouragement to give its nuclear weapons to Russia, made possible Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Donbass. Today, U.S. policy is helpless in the face of Chinese and Russian assertiveness, and as Islamist extremists inspire Americans to kill Americans in America.
To translate America’s powers into victories, Mr. Trump will have to maintain a surplus of power over commitments, embracing the pre-Progressive Era statesmanship of presidents from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt and, since then, only of Ronald Reagan, whose foreign policy motto was “we win, they lose.”
Keeping the United States at peace — the definition of success in international affairs — depends on the country being willing and able to win at all levels of warfare, especially the highest: nuclear war. This means, as Herman Kahn wrote long ago, “coherent and plausible policies for the use of nuclear weapons.” As nuclear weapons and delivery systems proliferate, it is incumbent on U.S. nuclear policy to reverse our forlorn attempt to strip them from U.S. armed forces’ routine operations. Above all, this means protecting Americans against ballistic missiles from Russia and China.
Mr. Trump should also rethink U.S. deployments overseas. Except for units fighting the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. forces are spread out to project political influence and to act as “trip wires.” rather than in strength to fight and win. Current plans call for deploying more ‘trip wires,” to deter Russia’s further expansion in Eastern Europe. But fruitless debate over what to do once these “wires” are “tripped” exposes such deployments as projections of weakness rather than strength.
Similarly, the value of faraway naval bases as well as of ships and planes operating close to potentially hostile shores depends on the capacity to defend them. But in fact, maintaining U.S bases in the Western Pacific or merely securing access to the shipping lanes there in the face of determined Chinese opposition would take our entire naval power. Taking account of such an eventuality requires not putting the fleet in harm’s way piecemeal.
Recognizing that the Muslim world’s warfare is its business, Mr. Trump should not interfere with its exhausting course, reducing human contact with it is as with areas infested with Ebola or Zika. Ending state or neo-state sponsorship of terrorism will require holding the potentates in any given place responsible with their lives for anything injurious to us from whence they hold sway, while guarding American lives by prioritizing firepower. This is the opposite of sending Americans to search for individual enemies by kicking down doors and driving around replenished minefields.
Washington cannot expel Russia from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. But because Russia in possession of Ukraine can be a world power capable of overawing Europe and threatening America, Mr. Trump should make clear that the United States is prepared to support the independence of Western Ukraine (and the Baltics) with substantial military aid, backed in the last resort by U.S. power to devastate Russia economically.
China understands that its expansion has limits. Resistance sets those limits. China is projecting power through deeds — missiles, planes, and ships to control the nearby seas, extended eastward by a network of artificial islands bristling with sensors, equipped to support military forces. Mr. Trump will have to answer with deeds of corresponding seriousness — defending America as well as Guam and Japan against any and all of China’s ballistic missiles and showing China that, in the case of war, a well-protected United States would target each and every one of its bases beyond its capacity to defend. Then, perhaps, China might listen to a promise that, in exchange for dismantling its artificial islands, Mr. Trump would forbear fortifying Taiwan. That is an offer China could not refuse.
• Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. His latest book is “To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations” (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).