The White House’s pledge to put “America First” in its policymaking implies that the president has a responsibility to prioritize his country’s problems over the rest of the world’s. But making good on that promise isn’t as easy as it sounds. After all, the foreign policies of great powers are crafted, not imposed.
If we can assume that every nation follows its own interests, we can also expect the executor of its foreign policy to make sense of a complex geopolitical landscape by internalizing the imperatives and constraints shaping the behavior of itself and its peers. In part this means identifying potential points of competition and collaboration, giving priority to the issues that pose a strategic threat to the republic. It also means teasing out and testing implications, determining the most critical points of stress that demand attention. Excessive ambition, whether driven by egotism or romanticism, will inevitably seep into the foreign policy realm, but it can be tamed. And the greater the power, the more tools at its disposal to form a policy designed to subtly steer its adversaries and allies toward its desired course without any party losing face.
Of course, this approach doesn’t preclude conflict. A successful foreign policy, however, will anticipate, manage and even harness clashes to ensure a balance of power that is ultimately intended to preserve the might of the republic. The unique collection of foreign policy challenges facing the United States today will require a particularly deft hand to address as Washington looks to parse the unavoidable disputes from the avoidable ones, and to prepare Americans for them. But the ongoing power struggle between the ideologues and professionals on the White House’s policy team seems certain to only intensify, leaving little room for strategic planning and ample room for error in some of the world’s most pressing conflicts.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Consider Venezuela, where a government led by the narco politicians largely responsible for the economy’s self-destruction is using a constituent assembly to create a one-party state. Naturally the United States doesn’t want a failed Venezuelan state to destabilize its Caribbean sphere of influence. Unfettered narco states thrive on American drug consumption and create a robust market for arms traffickers, which in turn spawns violent crime and waves of migration. Even during the reign of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the United States managed to find institutional partners in Bogota with which to join forces and tackle the multidimensional threat posed by the narco state. Imagine how difficult it will be to do the same in Caracas once narco politicians have formalized their position in power, all while persistent clashes between security forces and protesters give rise to humanitarian calls for an intervention.
Though policymakers in Washington feel compelled to respond to this blatant power grab, the nature of their response matters tremendously. By all appearances, the U.S. administration is preparing new hard-hitting sanctions that set Venezuela’s all-important energy sector, in addition to specific individuals, in their crosshairs. The sanctions could target the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, ban U.S. light crude exports to Venezuela and cut off Venezuelan oil imports; such comprehensive measures would essentially accelerate the country’s downward spiral. Depending on the sanctions’ scope, dollars from Venezuela’s vital oil trade will dry up, severe shortages in basic goods will become intolerable, unrest will intensify, and splits within the ruling party, military or both will risk the government’s collapse, creating a mess that no one player will be willing or able to clean up.
So, the United States will have to weigh its options. Does it make strategic sense to exacerbate the Venezuelan crisis, knowing that there are still other, larger foreign policy matters that need Washington’s attention? Or should it avoid a premature crash by incrementally increasing sanctions, undermining the most incorrigible elements in Caracas, and working with those desperate enough to strike a deal to create a softer landing for the Caribbean state?
Iran can be seen through a similar lens. The past week has brought to light a particularly raucous debate within the White House over whether the executive branch would consider Iran to be in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal’s five other signatories, the International Atomic Energy Agency and foreign policy professionals within the administration — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to name a few — maintain that Tehran is abiding by the terms of the agreement. But President Donald Trump and a group of like-minded staffers seem determined to make the case that Iran is not in compliance with the deal’s stipulations, and they have raised the prospect of the United States’ unilaterally withdrawing from the deal when it reviews Iran’s compliance again in 90 days.
Rather than basing this assessment on the deal’s actual terms, the president and his allies have founded their position on the United States’ other grievances with Iran, including its weapons testing and support of regional militant groups, as well as a general belief that Tehran should be treated as an axis of evil. But does it make strategic sense to abandon the agreement, when doing so will renew the prospect of a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf and when the United States lacks the European support needed to keep effective sanctions in place against Iran? Or will Washington take into account that the Iranian government will not be easily uprooted by force, is serious enough about keeping the nuclear deal in place and already has its hands full in competing with its neighbors for influence? If the United States’ goal is to avoid further destabilizing the Middle East while it has so many other foreign policy conundrums to grapple with, then relying on the more subtle tools of covert intelligence to maintain oversight of Iran’s nuclear program while playing off existing tensions between Iran and the Middle East’s major Sunni powers may be a more effective way to keep Tehran’s ambitions in check than single-handedly reigniting a nuclear crisis that could easily consume the United States’ military capacity.
When It Comes to Russia, Proceed With Caution
Meanwhile, for all the recent drama surrounding the U.S.-Russia relationship, Washington’s policy toward Moscow is fairly straightforward. Aware of the internal issues it faces in the coming years, the Kremlin is trying to reach an understanding with the United States and the West at large that recognizes Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. For instance, by trying to draw the line at NATO’s expansion and persuade the West to lift its sanctions, Moscow hopes to insulate itself from the United States and its allies while it is still powerful enough to do so.
To this end, Russia has devoted a considerable amount of energy to inserting itself into conflicts where the United States has a vested interest. There, Moscow believes, it can build a collection of carrots and sticks that it can use to steer Washington toward more fruitful negotiations. The United States isn’t pitted against Russia in an ideological war, as it was during the Cold War, and there is certainly room for cooperation between them in some areas of mutual interest. But Russian concessions — even on tactical matters — often come with hefty price tags attached, and selling out European allies on Moscow’s doorstep is simply too steep a cost for Washington to pay. Even without the immense complications created by Russia’s information operations against the U.S. administration and by Congress’ growing compulsion to check the president’s influence over Washington’s Russia policy, Moscow and Washington will remain fundamentally at odds with each other on several fronts. Nevertheless, the United States will need to stay alert to areas of emerging conflict where Russia will attempt to throw a wrench in Washington’s plans — not least of which is North Korea.
The Real Fight Is in Asia
When it comes to Venezuela, Iran and Russia, the United States still has options in how it chooses to proceed. Depending on how carefully it weighs the implications of its own actions, it can either exacerbate or temper the threats stemming from each country. North Korea, on the other hand, leaves the United States with dangerously little room to maneuver.
Pyongyang and Washington have passed the point of viable negotiation. North Korea is on track to develop a nuclear deterrent, and as it nears the point of possessing a reliable nuclear weapon and delivery system capable of striking the continental United States, Washington will be compelled to seriously consider military action against it. That decision will fall to the Trump administration, perhaps within the next 18 months. In trying to forgo military action, the United States will be forced to rely on China’s and Russia’s cooperation in sanctions or covert action intended to destabilize the North Korean government and thwart its nuclear ambitions. Yet even as Washington pursues this policy out of diplomatic necessity, it knows it is unlikely to bear fruit. Because as much as they dislike the idea of a nuclear North Korea on their doorstep, China and Russia do not want to face the broader repercussions of an unstable Korean Peninsula or open the door to a bigger U.S. military footprint in the region.
And so, the two states will try to get as much as they can out of negotiations with the United States as they try to push Washington toward inaction. Unable to rely on the clout of China and Russia to moderate North Korea’s behavior, the United States will resist their demands to curb its military presence in the Asia-Pacific as the North Korean nuclear threat mounts. Washington’s need to address the North Korean threat will thus clash with Beijing’s own imperative to consolidate its maritime sphere of influence, raising the stakes in an increasingly complicated conflict zone.
The beat of the war drums in Northeast Asia is deafening compared with the low rumble emanating from Venezuela, Iran and Russia. But it is the confluence of these crises — some of which are more avoidable than others — that risks creating a foreign policy cacophony that even the political squabbles in Washington won’t be able to drown out in the months to come.