Tag: foreign policy

Will Trump’s Foreign Policy Matter for the Midterms?

In a recent piece at The Hill, I argue that Trump’s terrible approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy will matter more than most people think.

The basic argument consists of four points:

1. Trump has made foreign policy more important to Americans today thanks to his “America First” approach:

The genius of Trump’s “America First” slogan was the way it allowed Trump to connect foreign and domestic politics under a single populist and nationalist banner. When Trump says he’s protecting American workers, he could be talking about tax cuts, illegal immigration, “horrible trade deals,” or terrorism. Trump’s America First strategy has blurred much of the historical difference between foreign policy and domestic policy. All of this makes foreign policy more important moving forward.

2. Trump’s foreign policy has been historically unpopular:

Not only does Trump suffer lower approval for his handling of foreign policy than all presidents back to Ronald Reagan, but majorities of Americans oppose Trump’s calling card issues. Fifty-eight percent oppose building a wall along the Mexican border and 67% think that illegal immigrants currently living in the United States should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. Twice as many Americans (49%) think raising tariffs will hurt the economy as think it will help (25%)…

3. Foreign policy approval feeds into overall presidential approval:

… even though the impact of foreign policy is most obvious during a war or international crisis, it plays a key role in shaping the general narrative of a president’s performance while in office. One analysis, for example, found that public approval of the president’s handling of foreign policy has a larger impact on his overall approval rating than does his handling of the economy.

4. Trump’s net-negative presidential approval ratings signal big trouble for Republicans at the midterms:

Research suggests that Trump’s current 41% approval rating historically would typically result in about an 8-point national advantage in voting for Democrats…. Looking at data from each president’s first midterm elections going back to 1946, the four presidents who did not enjoy a net-positive approval rating saw their party lose an average of 49 seats in the House and 6.5 seats in the Senate.

The bottom line is that Trump’s handling of foreign policy hasn’t done Republicans any favors this year and is likely to be an even bigger problem for Trump himself in 2020.

Thanks to Hannah Kanter for the background research and contributing to the writing of the original commentary.

Arms Sales: Pouring Gas on the Fires of Conflict

Do arms sales cause war? Or do wars cause arms sales? Critics of arms sales often argue that selling weapons abroad fuels conflict. And indeed, one can point to one or more sides using American weapons in many recent conflicts including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Skeptics argue, on the other hand, that weapons don’t start the fire and that conflicts would arise whether or arms exporters like the United States sell weapons abroad.

The debate has important implications for foreign policy. If selling or transferring weapons abroad makes conflict more likely, or intensifies conflicts already in process, then the United States should rethink its long-held policy of selling weapons to pretty much any nation that wants them. If, on the other hand, arms sales have no impact on conflict or make conflict less likely, then the Trump administration’s intention of expanding arms sales should be seen as a positive move. 

As it turns out, several academic studies have looked at this question. The primary conclusion of these works is that although arms sales do not create conflicts out of thin air, they do make conflict more likely when the conditions for conflict are already present.

The basic logic behind this conclusion is fairly straightforward and has been noted in the academic literature for some time. In a 1998 article, “Arms Transfer Dependence and Foreign Policy Conflict,” David Kinsella argues that states that enjoy a steady flow of arms – especially from multiple countries – tend to pursue more aggressive foreign policies. The increase in the recipient’s military capability makes victory in a potential conflict more likely, which in turn raises the likelihood that the state will start disputes, demand concessions from its neighbors in those disputes, and to escalate to conflict if negotiations fail to produce the desired outcome. Using case studies from Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Somalia Kinsella finds that, when a country has more than one weapons supplier, arms sales drastically increase the chances of conflict.

In their 2002 article, “The Arms Trade and the Incidence of Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1967-97,” Cassady Craft and Joseph Smaldone identify another mechanism by which arms sales can fuel conflict. They find that autocratic governments importing weapons are more likely to use those weapons to oppress/mistreat/kill their own citizens since they now have a greater coercive capability.

But despite the straightforward logic behind the arms sales/conflict connection, most work on the topic to date has relied on case studies, which are wonderful for highlighting potential causal mechanisms but not much use for establishing whether those mechanisms hold across the time and space. Until recently there had not been any work using statistical methods that would allow scholars to state with confidence which direction the causal mechanism actually flows – that is, do arms sales precede conflict or do impending conflicts lead to increased arms sales? Happily, the most recent article on arms sales by Oliver Pamp and his colleagues in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Peace Research entitled, “The Build-Up of Coercive Capacities: Arms Imports and the Outbreak of Violent Intrastate Conflict,” uses a simultaneous equations model to overcome this problem. Looking at the relationship between arms sales and the outbreak of civil conflicts, the authors confirm the general thrust of previous research, concluding that:

“…while arms imports are not a genuine cause of intrastate conflicts, they significantly increase the probability of an onset in countries where conditions are notoriously conducive to conflict. In such situations, arms are not an effective deterrent but rather spark conflict escalation.”

This new confidence in the arms sales/conflict connection should compel serious revision to American arms sales policies. Since 2002 the United States has sold over $286 billion dollars of weapons to 167 countries. These exports have gone to numerous countries where the conditions were or remain ripe for conflict. U.S. arms transfers to an unstable Iraq preceded the emergence of the Islamic State, but wound up helping amplify the Islamic State’s military capability when it took vast quantities of American weapons from defeated Iraqi army units. U.S. arms sales over the past decade also helped prepare Saudi Arabia to launch its disastrous intervention in Yemen and enabled the Nigerian government to unleash more effective violence on its own citizens, just to list a few examples.

Academic research often gets a bad rap in policy making circles. In the case of arms sales and arms transfers, however, the scholarly literature has correctly pointed out the serious risks involved. If the United States is serious about preventing conflict and managing regional stability in trouble spots around the globe, it would do well to stop pouring gas on the fire.

This blog post was written with help from Jordan Cohen, a Ph.D. student in political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Trump’s New Arms Sales Policy: What You Should Know

On April 19, 2018 the Trump administration released an updated version of the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, the primary document outlining the strategy and guidelines for American arms sales abroad. Compared to the Obama- and Bush-era guidelines, the Trump administration’s policy emphasizes the economic benefits from arms sales. As a result, the new policy is focused on streamlining the arms sales process, loosening controls on what can be exported, and encouraging the U.S. government to be more active in brokering deals. At a news briefing announcing the new policy Peter Navarro, assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said that, “This will keep our defense industrial base in the vanguard of emerging defense technologies while creating thousands of additional jobs with good wages and generating substantial export revenues.”

Though the consequences of this policy change will take years to unfold, there are several things we can already predict about the limits and dangers of the new policy. Below we list the most important areas to watch and provide links to some of the best analysis available to date around the web.

It’s all about jobs, but it won’t create many.

If the administration’s primary goal is to enrich a few major defense contractors, it may succeed. If, on the other hand, the goal is to create American jobs and bolster the economy more generally, disappointment is inevitable.

Jonathan Caverley, writing at War on the Rocks, argues:

Even if the Trump administration boosts sales against such headwinds, this will not create many additional jobs. Arms exports are a surprisingly inefficient means of employing people at home. Using census data, the Commerce Department estimates that a billion dollars of defense exports would “create or sustain” 3,918 jobs, considerably fewer than the 5,700 jobs per billion created by increased US exports more broadly. Doubling the United States’ annual arms exports to $40 billion, a highly unrealistic goal, would thus create fewer than 80,000 new jobs. There are other industries the United States can promote that will have larger effects on jobs.

Unleash the drones

Until now the United States has kept a close hold on armed drones like the Predator and Reaper, allowing China to meet most of the global demand. Under the new policy the United States will begin to sell some drones through the direct commercial sales process.

In an oped for the the Washington Post Michael C. Horowitz and Joshua A. Shwartz write:

The new policy goes further than the Obama administration’s 2015 guidance in a few ways. This means U.S. manufacturers can export more directly to other countries and bypass the foreign military sales process, which entails more time-consuming involvement from the U.S. government. Second, the new rules reclassify drones with strike-enabling technology, like laser target designators, as unarmed, which will make it easier to export them.

Counterterrorism baked right in

A much less visible policy change with important ramifications is the move by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to amend the Arms Export Control Act to include counterterrorism as an explicit strategic justification for weapon sales.

As Caroline wrote for Ink Stick, this seemingly subtle change in language expands the legal and institutional footprint of the war on terror and does so despite the fact that most of the major conventional weapons for sale by the U.S. aren’t much use for fighting terrorism or insurgencies. 

Every fed is now a salesperson

With this increased sales push, the Trump administration has established a new “whole of government” approach. From the same Inkstick article, Caroline also notes,

The change will effectively turn civil servants who had been third-party brokers between foreign governments and American defense contractors into de facto salespeople. Officials talking up American defense products isn’t new, but giving them the directive to increase “economic security” gives profit a greater emphasis — with the commander-in-chief and his 2017 sales pitches to the Saudis, for example, offering model behavior in this regard.

Arms sales will now (likely) cost U.S. taxpayers more money

It’s still unclear how this strategy will be implemented at the guidance and framework level, but there are several logical changes that could flow from a new emphasis on profit. This could include a transition from deals that use offsets as incentives to increased use of Foreign Military Financing and other incentives that would shift the burden of incentives from industry to the federal government. Caroline explained the implications of this change, writing

Currently, the majority of incentives to foreign buyers of American weapons come in the form of offsets. These agreements are made once the US government has cleared a sale and the company can liaise with whichever foreign government is purchasing the product. Offsets are meant to make the deals more attractive, and can include anything from co-production to technology transfer to Foreign Direct Investments. This takes a major cut out of any profit for the defense contractors, who shoulder most of the cost. In 2014 alone, contractors reported $20.5 billion in defense-related merchandise exports, with $13 billion worth of those sales including some kind of offset. The total value of reported offset agreements for that year was $7.7 billion — over one-third the value of total defense exports for that year.

Obviously, this makes offsets an unattractive option for increasing economic security. The defense industry would prefer not to bear that burden—so then how will diplomats sweeten the deal for interested buyers while still protecting profit margins? …

Foreign Military Financing…to the rescue?

This type of financing comes directly out of the US federal budget—specifically out of the State Department’s portion. The final budget omnibus that was signed into law in March settled on $6.1 billion to give freely to other countries to purchase American weapons. That’s right—$6 billion of American taxpayer dollars this year alone will go towards subsidizing the arsenals of other nations so that they too can “Buy American.” Foreign Military Financing had, until now, been on the decline. From 1985 to 2015 the program decreased 50 percent in real terms. With this new economic security component to stated guidance on arms sales, there is a very real possibility that Foreign Military Financing could continue to rise.

Arms sales will continue to be a risky business

As we wrote in a Cato Policy Analysis published in March, the United States has a poor track record when it comes to assessing the potential risks from selling weapons abroad. Since 2002 the United States has sold over $300 billion worth of major conventional weapons to 167 countries including places with repressive governments, histories of human rights abuses, and which are engaged in active conflicts.

Unfortunately, despite the many negative unintended consequences that arms sales can spawn, nothing in the Trump administration’s new policy suggests it will pay any more attention to these risks than previous administrations. Given the administration’s zeal to sell more weapons abroad, the most likely outcome is even less sensitivity to downstream risks. Stay tuned.

Ukraine, Trump, and Javelin Missiles

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in early April Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered his chief federal prosecutor to halt four anticorruption investigations involving Ukrainians connected to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and a central figure in Robert Mueller’s investigations here in the United States.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ukraine announced on April 30 that it had received 210 Javelin antitank missiles, purchased from the United States to bolster its fight against Russian proxies in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Though the State Department initially approved the sale in December and Pentagon gave its blessing in March, Trump himself was reluctant to arm Ukraine given the potential effect on the U.S. relationship with Russia.

The burning question is whether anyone in the Trump administration suggested this course of action to Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, is free to pursue whatever policies it deems necessary to defend itself from encroachments by Russia. But to use arms sales to interfere with the Mueller investigation would represent obstruction of justice on a truly epic scale.

To be sure, Ukraine already had plenty of motivation to help the Trump administration. If Ukraine shuttered the investigations to curry Trump’s favor, it was only one of several efforts designed to garner American support. Concerned that Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin would translate into anti-Ukraine policies, Ukraine has gone out of its way to butter up Trump since he took office. Ukraine has promised U.S. construction firms contracts for future infrastructure projects in Donbass, brokered a $80 million coal deal with the U.S., signed a $1 billion deal with GE Transportation for new locomotives, and hired former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour to help Ukraine lobby the Trump administration.

But even if this has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine reflects both poor judgment on the part of the Trump administration and a longstanding neglect of the potential negative consequences of American arms sales.

Arming Ukraine makes little strategic sense. A couple hundred antitank missiles will not alter the military balance between Ukraine and Russia in Donbas in any meaningful way. Russia can quickly move additional forces and equipment to the region at will. The bigger danger is that arming Ukraine will in fact prompt Russia to do just that, thereby risking an intensification of the conflict and potentially leading to more casualties than the 10,000 already suffered. It is clear, in fact, that this is exactly how Russia sees things. In December after the State Department approved the sale, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The United States is, in fact, encouraging the resumption of large-scale bloodshed in Donbass, where the situation is already on the edge due to continuing shelling from the Kiev-controlled side…Washington, in fact, becomes an accomplice in the killing of people.”

Arming Ukraine also raises the political stakes and risks turning Ukraine into a test of the president’s foreign policy effectiveness, increasing the likelihood of the United States getting entangled more deeply in the conflict. It seems clear that encouraging greater U.S. involvement is a key element of Ukraine’s strategy. Major General Volodymyr Havrylov, Ukraine’s defense attaché to the U.S., told a reporter that the missiles were “a political symbol that allows others to understand that Ukrainian security is important to the U.S.” The risk of entanglement is not trivial given the presence of powerful advocates for doing more in the U.S. Congress. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved of the sale back in December, telling the press that “This decision was supported by Congress in legislation that became law three years ago and reflects our country’s longstanding commitment to Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.”

More broadly, the dangers generated by U.S. arms sales go well beyond Ukraine. Ukraine is just one of many risky customers to whom the United States has sold advanced weapons over the past fifteen years. In pursuit of short-term foreign policy influence and economic gains, the United States has turned a blind eye to what happens after the deals are done. Among the list of questionable clients are countries like Saudi Arabia, which has used American weapons in its disastrous intervention in Yemen; Iraq, whose army managed to provide the Islamic State with three army divisions’ worth of American tanks, armored vehicles, and infantry weapons; and Nigeria, whose human rights record, internal conflicts, and overall state fragility call into serious question whether it will use its latest purchase of Super Tucano attack aircraft in a responsible manner.

Time will tell if the smoke surrounding the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine stems from collusion to obstruct the Mueller investigation or simply misguided foreign policy making. Either way, arming Ukraine reflects a reckless approach to the use of arms sales that the Trump administration seems all too eager to embrace.

The Trump Doctrine and Public Opinion at One Year

In advance of the January 30 conference here at Cato—The Trump Doctrine at One Year—I review public attitudes toward Trump’s “America First” vision and his foreign policy handling over his first year in office. Join us for a what will undoubtedly be a spirited conversation with a fantastic group of experts.

Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign marked a sharp departure from the fundamental tenets of liberal internationalism that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Trump’s tirades against free trade, NATO allies, immigrants (legal and otherwise), and his general disinterest in engaging with the world unless there was money in it for the United States horrified the foreign policy establishment of both parties.

Beyond concerns about Trump, many observers worried that his success reflected the demise of public support for internationalism. Though the public supported robust internationalist policies after World War II and during the Cold War, Trump’s emergence coincided with rising economic insecurity and inequality, intense political polarization, and dropping confidence in government to solve the problems facing the nation. Had the public perhaps decided that internationalism’s time had come and gone? Would Trump’s presidency usher in rising support for nativist and protectionist policies and calls to turn inward, away from the international arena?

A wide array of poll data from Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests the answer is no. A large majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy and his America First policies are among the most unpopular elements of his foreign policy.

Trump’s fiery attacks on unfair trading practices by China and Japan and his criticism of NAFTA as “the worst deal ever made” may have energized his base during the campaign, but since taking office Trump’s course on trade has not been a popular one. Though Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he took office and appears likely to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Americans remain committed to free trade. A June 2017 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 72% of the public thinks international trade is good for the United States. An October 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center echoed this result, finding that Americans are more likely to believe NAFTA is good for the United States by 56-33%. 

America’s Foreign Policy Attention Deficit

We Washingtonians rightly get criticized for being hyper focused on politics. While D.C. natives gossip about the ups and downs of the powerful elite, most Americans are worrying about their marriages and mortgages. The disjuncture is even greater when it comes to foreign policy, an area in which public interest and knowledge are particularly limited. As many scholars have pointed out, to some degree this dynamic is the result of “rational ignorance” on the part of the public. Given the many other priorities citizens have in their private lives, the benefits of following policy debates closely is quite limited so long as people are generally confident that more knowledgeable people are paying attention. 

Taken too far, however, public apathy toward foreign affairs could become a problem for a democratic system. A central pillar of democratic politics is the ability of the marketplace of ideas to foster debate and produce sound policy. Without a certain level of public engagement, the marketplace of ideas cannot function effectively. If no one is paying attention, how can we have a meaningful debate over U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Africa, or what to do about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, or China’s growing power? 

The traditional method for criticizing the public’s attentiveness to foreign policy is to note Americans’ astonishing lack of knowledge about the world. The June 2017 Pew Research “News IQ” survey finds, as usual, that most Americans know little even about events and people that have appeared regularly in the news. On the four questions most closely related to foreign policy, 60% of those surveyed knew that Britain is leaving the European Union, 47% could identify Robert Mueller as the person leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, 44% could name Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, and just 37% could identify Emmanuel Macron as the president of France.

The public also typically lacks key facts informing specific foreign policy issues. Even as the Trump administration calls for new kinds of nuclear warheads, polls have routinely found that few Americans are aware that the United States already possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. And though 67% of Americans in 2014 knew that the Islamic State controlled territory in Syria, only half could identify the nation of Syria when it was highlighted on a map. In 2009, fewer than 30% knew that the United States had 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Thanks to Google we have another way to measure America’s foreign policy attention deficit. Google Trends gives us the ability to track how often people searched for a given term over a particular time period. If public ignorance is due to lack of interest, search activity on the Internet is a good way to measure that.

All I Want for Christmas Is…Civilian Leadership of U.S. Foreign Policy

In their infinite wisdom, the Founding Fathers warned against the dangers of standing armies and determined that it should be civilians, not military leaders, who had final authority over the size, shape, and use of America’s armed forces. Their reasoning was simple. Without civilian control of the military there would be no bulwark against military coup or dictatorship. 

But civilian control should not stop at simple control over the armed forces. Civilian officials must provide active leadership and management of the full spectrum of American foreign policy efforts, from intelligence gathering and alliance building to arms sales and crisis diplomacy and, most importantly, the decision to make war. The old chestnut that “War is too important to be left to the generals” is an old chestnut for a reason: It’s true.

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