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‘Strength through peace – not peace through strength’: a reaction to Trump’s America First foreign policy

Constructive alternatives to counter-terror & stabilisation, Global conflict prevention mechanisms

While the new US administration’s foreign policy remains largely an unknown, Saferworld’s Washington DC Head of Office David Alpher looks at the first official statement posted on the White House website on inauguration day, and what this could mean for peace and security.

Saferworld’s Washington DC office – along with everyone else in Washington with an interest in watching and shaping American foreign policy – has spent the past two weeks feeling as though we’re in the middle of a tornado. A barrage of executive orders and directives has kept us on our toes, but has yet to reveal much by way of the coherent foreign policy we’ve been searching for. One of the first clues we saw was posted to the White House website on inauguration day, laying the groundwork for the ‘America First’ foreign policy. Unfortunately, it’s a policy from another age – one the US has spent the better part of a century moving away from (for good reason) and which now reminds us of our greatest failures.

A new American foreign policy could have been a good thing – certainly, there is a great deal in President Obama’s legacy on foreign and security policy that could be changed for the better. He relied too heavily on tactical violence to achieve strategic goals, equated terrorist body counts with greater security, and partnered with repressive regional governments far too often. But rather than a departure, Trump’s policy sounds like more of the same with a new title. A real effort at a new direction would seek strength through peace, rather than peace through strength. It would build greater relationships with progressive authorities and civil societies across ISIS territory from whom secure and lasting governance must arise, and earn their trust and willingness to work with us. It would withdraw support from repressive and autocratic regimes, and turn its attention to the growth of positive, resilient, safe and inclusive societies. It would prioritize diplomacy and development as the primary arms of American statecraft, and would emphasize democratic values of inclusivity, justice and good governance above isolationism and military might.

We found three pieces of the statement itself most informative:

“Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.”

The first point in the new policy also contains the first problem: strength cannot create peace. Military strength can prevent an attack and possibly deter large-scale aggression, but through its use also tends to build the resistance and resentment that fosters insecurity and violence, and contributes to terrorist recruitment.

The world today is heavily interconnected—irreversibly so in some critical ways that mean strength in isolation can actually be counterproductive, as it alienates potential allies and weakens their willingness to negotiate. A better way to look at strength measures is by the quality of relationships with allies, rather than by the number of troops and weapons. American doctrine represents this in the terms ‘resilient’ and ‘fragile.’ Both these terms denote the ability of a given country or society to peacefully withstand shocks, for better (resilient) or worse (fragile). It is entirely possible for a country to be strong but also fragile – North Korea would be a worrying example. Resilience depends upon statecraft, relationships and the greatest possible number of willing allies who share a common view of peace and prosperity.

The second point above has just as big a problem: America First is a clear statement that we have little interest in finding common ground. This was made abundantly clear by Nikki Haley in her first remarks as the newly-minted US Ambassador to the United Nations. Common ground would require a power-sharing strategy, an eye towards mutual assistance and mutual benefit. The isolationism and protectionism implied by America First leaves the rest of the international community with few choices in their dealings with the US – none of which are palatable for long.

“Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

This is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it’s a pretty good description of what the United States has already spent years doing under Obama, with no visible effect apart from watching problems grow and metastasize. Unless Trump intends to follow through on campaign promises to carpet bomb whole cities or mobilize another large-scale military presence, there’s little more we can do—except try a different tack.

America’s existing list of local and coalition partners have thus far proven risky at best, and detrimental at worst. Actions by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen have resulted in mounting civilian deaths and reported evidence of international humanitarian law violations. The situation was bad enough for the Obama administration to pull some of the military hardware off of the list of approved sales and it is unlikely to improve without significant pressure for accountability from the new administration. One of the worst policy errors of the past fifteen years has been partnership with repressive and often violent regional powers in order to benefit from more intelligence sharing and military support. This strategy has only served to build more resistance and resentment than it was worth.

Of all the suggestions made on the White House’s page, the effort to shut down financing is the most promising – the groundwork has been laid already but this time with reasonably good results. Disrupting and disabling propaganda and recruitment on the other hand, has long been understood as futile – commonly met with derision by the local populations it is meant to influence.

Finally, in pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.

Diplomacy is by nature the art of negotiation and compromise. By listing it last and almost as an afterthought, President Trump is sending a clear and uncomfortable message about the level of regard he holds it in. Even if it had pride of place at the center of his foreign policy the ideals and principles of diplomacy are undercut by the idea of America First. Of course, there is always at least some measure of self-interest in negotiations and international positioning. Nobody sits down at the table aiming to ensure they come out ‘second best’. But there is a big difference between ensuring that we do not compromise our own needs and seeking to further our interests at others’ expense. Any serious effort to build peace and security requires making this distinction between the zero sum game of international isolationism and a more collective approach to international relations.

There is some hope that the Trump administration will change course. General Mattis himself, now the Secretary of Defense, gave a strong warning about the dangers of marginalizing diplomacy in American strategy while he was commander of CENTCOM in 2013, saying “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” It’s simplistic to view diplomacy and conflict as a clear either/or choice, but Mattis’ argument had merit nonetheless. Whether or not he’ll be able to push back against the White House enough to put that into practice, however, remains an open question. Rex Tillerson, now Secretary of State, also remains an unknown on this front – some of his statements suggest that he will be a strong proponent of diplomacy, while others are unclear.

In either case, Trump’s evolving mixture of belligerence and isolationism makes prediction difficult. The information we do have suggests that direct intervention will rely more on proxies than on American forces, with the same exceptions President Obama used for special operations raids and airstrikes. That raises the risk that diplomacy will in turn rely more on sticks, while imbuing carrots with more lethality than we would normally expect. The uncomfortable conclusion is that even if the State Department is fully funded, the extra ammunition will still need to be bought – it will just be passed on to get fired from someone else’s weapon.

The actor Will Rogers once joked that “diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock” – a sentiment that sounds familiar reading the new White House website. But experience within an increasingly globalized planet reinforces a different idea: that diplomacy works best when there is collaboration among the negotiators. That’s now a basic tenet of business negotiations and statecraft alike. America First plays well to Trump’s core supporters, but the unintended implication is to undermine the American position in negotiations across the board by setting up a fundamentally confrontational and zero-sum relationship. That in turn undermines America’s global power and standing, inevitably resulting in lowered security in the long term.

The more strength is used, the more it tends to create the resistance it sought to quell. That’s particularly true when we’re talking about terrorist and extremist movements that already consider American strength and the way it gets used on their own populations to be cause for war.  Strength through peace, rather than peace through strength, would be a better place to start.  As it stands, this policy isn’t going to take America where the administration thinks it will.

David Alpher is Saferworld's Washington DC Head of Office.

Photo: Sgt. Jessi McCormick/U.S. Army

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President Trump would do well to remember one thing in particular: good policy doesn’t just tell us what we fight, or what we’ll prevent. It tells us what we’ll build and how to get to where we aspire to be.

David Alpher

The opinions expressed in articles or comments on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Saferworld. Saferworld is not responsible for the accuracy of the information in blog articles written by guest contributors.

Please note that comments on blog posts are moderated, and anything offensive or threatening may be removed.

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