Foreign Policy: Continuity Versus Partisanship

The hyperpartisanship of the last five years has posed a threat to national security by dividing the American people and distorting how foreign policy is discussed. The “resistance” mounted by the Democrats against President Donald Trump even on issues of longstanding common concern, such as trade policy and infrastructure, was carried into foreign policy even when differences had to be contrived, a case in point being the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Democrats have tried to make the alliance into a partisan issue when in fact it is an example of the kind of continuity needed to keep the U.S. and its western allies in command of world affairs.

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have described the busy European trip that includes a G-7 meeting, a U.S.-EU summit, a NATO conference, and a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin as proof that “America is Back” as if America had disappeared during the Trump administration. This is an absurd example of crass partisanship. It weakens the U.S. posture by calling into question whether the country has fundamental interests to protect and challenges to meet that transcend domestic politics. Anyone who takes a serious look at the world knows that this is true. And it was President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy that made explicit that we are in an era of great power competition centered on “Revisionist powers, such as China and Russia, that use technology, propaganda, and coercion to shape a world antithetical to our interests and values.”

Democrats tried to make a partisan issue out of President Trump’s use of the term “America First” and his criticism of those NATO members who were not contributing enough to alliance capabilities. They tried to portray it as an isolationist policy. Nothing could be further from the truth. A key part of the NSS plank on building domestic prosperity was “to succeed in this 21st century geopolitical competition, America must lead in research, technology, and innovation. We will protect our national security innovation base from those who steal our intellectual property and unfairly exploit the innovation of free societies.” Power cannot be projected into the world until it is generated at home. The NSS proclaimed “America will use all of the tools of statecraft in a new era of strategic competition -- diplomatic, information, military, and economic -- to protect our interests” and that “We will ensure the balance of power remains in America’s favor in key regions of the world: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.” This was not an expression of isolationism.

Globalization, which truly was an isolationist government approach to international economics allowing “invisible hands” to reallocate assets without regard to strategic consequences, was rejected by President Trump using language that had primarily been used by Democrats. The subtle difference was that Democrats talked about jobs and Trump talked about both jobs and the capabilities generated by the industries that provided the jobs.

Democrats attacked President Trump for criticizing NATO members who were not paying their share. But President Barack Obama had done the same. At the 2014 NATO meeting in Wales, the U.S. forced a mandate that each alliance member would spend at least 2 percent of its nation’s gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Unfortunately, there had been very little action taken by most members towards this goal when President Trump took office. So, he turned up the heat and got results. He reportedly told NATO that he wanted an increase to 4 percent of GDP to match the military buildup he was implementing in the U.S. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg publicly "thanked him for his leadership on defense spending" stating that "Since President Trump took office, NATO allies across Europe and Canada have spent an additional $41 billion extra in U.S. dollars on defense.” President Trump strengthened NATO.

And NATO went global in line with President Trump’s focus on countering a rising China. NATO had already moved out of Europe by joining in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. But the “pivot” from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific that started under President Obama was accelerated under President Trump and is continuing under President Biden. The NATO 2030: United for a New Era report (written during the Trump administration) shows how the alliance has expanded its vision over the last five years. The report states “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China -- based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders.” The Brussels NATO meeting went further: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security… It is opaque in implementing its military modernisation and its publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy.  It is also cooperating militarily with Russia.”

More telling was the final communique at the G-7 which stated, “We reiterate the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of law. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait… We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.” President Biden also got cooperation on pushing back Chinese economic power. Again, furthering campaigns started by President Trump.

Britain and France have taken the lead in joining America’s Asian allies in joint military exercises which grew larger and more frequent under President Trump. France has not only held joint naval exercises with the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific but with India and Japan. British and French warships have conducted “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea. As this is being written, a carrier strike group based on the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is sailing from the United Kingdom towards Japan. In addition to its British escorts, this armada includes a U.S. destroyer and a Dutch frigate to make it a NATO show of force across the region. This is the result of continuity in policy evolving over three administrations. While China would like to exploit any divisions in American politics and society to advance its quest for global leadership, its brash behavior and ominous military buildup have alarmed governments around the world. Beijing’s offensive actions, if successful, will have severe negative effects on rival nations regardless of how their people vote. No one can reasonably expect to do well if the society they live in fails.

If President Biden wants to bring his long career to a successful conclusion by being elevated from politician to statesman, he needs to tap down the partisan rhetoric and move to heal social divisions. Only then can the United States lead the world from the foundations of prosperity and security that President Trump worked so hard to build. 

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.

Image: Pixabay

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