Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Demise of Anti-War Liberals?

During the post-World War II period, opposition to U.S. militarism and involvement in dubious military conflicts has usually been stronger on the political left than the right.  Left-wing, anti-war sentiment reached its peak during the Vietnam War, when groups opposed to that conflict could sometimes mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators.  Opposition to subsequent U.S. military crusades was less robust, but even as late as the Iraq War, there were sizable anti-war demonstrations in the streets.

There have been warning signs for some time, though, that opposition to unnecessary armed conflicts has lost its appeal to much of the political left.  For one thing, there was always a partisan bias to anti-war movements.  Even during the heyday of resistance to the Vietnam War, the criticism became more intense after Republican Richard Nixon took over the White House than it had been when Democrat Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office.  The bias was even more apparent in later decades.  There was far more criticism of Republican George H.W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War than there was of Democrat Bill Clinton’s wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Indeed, a distressing number of prominent liberals found reasons to praise Clinton’s military crusades in the Balkans.

The partisan factor has grown even more intense in the twenty-first century.  Left-wing groups mounted a fairly serious effort to thwart Republican George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  But when Democrat Barack Obama greatly escalated U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and led a NATO assault to remove Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from power, the reaction was very different.  Except for a few hard-left organizations, such as Code Pink, the sounds coming from the usual supposed anti-war liberal quarters were those of crickets.  Likewise, there has been little push-back to Obama’s gradual return of the U.S. military presence in Iraq or the entanglement of the U.S. military in Syria.

How President Trump Can Fix Veterans’ Benefits Once And For All

Another Veterans Day brought another round of lamentations about the Department of Veterans Affairs and promises to fix it.

President-elect Donald Trump promised to do so throughout the campaign. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is skeptical. Veterans are “used to big promises and disappointing results,” he says. “Fixing the VA might be one of the biggest challenges for President Trump. Every president says they’re going to do it, yet we’ve still got a VA with backlogs and massive problems.”

If Trump tries to fix the VA the same way other presidents have, he will fail. But there is a way he can succeed.

Trump’s predecessors failed because they tried to work within a model of top-down, centralized economic planning. The Veterans Health Administration is America’s only purely government-run health system. Its closest analogue is probably the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. The VHA even produces the same results as the NHS: chronic shortages and long waits for care alongside idle and wasted resources, instances of horrific care, and often good care, you know, if you can get it.

Presidents can and have fixed such problems temporarily by moving resources from here to there, or investing in some new system. It never lasts, though. The VHA is a socialist enterprise. Unlike a market system, it has no price mechanism or competitive pressures that automatically fix such problems when they re-emerge. And not only do they always re-emerge, Congress usually takes forever to get off its duff. If Trump retains the VA’s basic structure, he will join a long line of presidents who have failed our nation’s veterans.

How to Privatize the VA 

Trump can distinguish himself from other presidents by working with Congress to create a system of veterans benefits that fixes problems automatically. Here’s how.

First, the federal government should increase military pay sufficient to enable workers to purchase–from private insurers at actuarially fair rates–a package of life, disability, and health benefits equivalent to what the VA provides. Benefits would kick in as soon as they leave active duty and cover veterans’ service-related disabilities or illnesses for life.

Second, having privatized the insurance component of veterans benefits, the federal government should then privatize the delivery component. It should incorporate the VHA as a private company and issue shares to active-duty personnel and veterans based on length of service or other criteria.

You read that right. Military personnel and veterans would literally own the VHA, including its many hospitals and other facilities. Privatizing the VA would both increase the pay of active-duty personnel, and create a massive wealth transfer to active-duty personnel and veterans. Veterans would be able to receive medical care from health systems owned and operated by veterans, for veterans.

Third, the federal government should give current veterans vouchers to purchase insurance and medical care from the insurers and health systems of their choice, including the new veteran-owned and -operated systems.

Privatization Means Better Benefits for Veterans 

Privatization would improve the quality of veterans’ benefits immeasurably.

The federal government promises veterans’ benefits to military personnel once they leave active duty. Only it’s not an explicit promise. And Congress doesn’t fund it. As a result, Congress can–and does–renege on that commitment.

The Enemy Gets a Vote

Resolute Desk

In the week since election night, foreign policy watchers (myself included) have rushed to speculate about the effects that President Trump’s administration will have on the world. The most dramatic effect is the potential upending of the international order that the United States built after World War II. Of course, at this point it is impossible to determine whether or not such a consequence will come to pass, but it deserves consideration.

Baked into the idea that Trump will tear down the international order is the assumption that Hillary Clinton would have maintained the order if she was president. Jeffrey A. Stacey argued as much in Foreign Affairs when he wrote, “The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine…could likely prevail.” However, the idea that the United States can influence events through “leadership” ignores the fact that in foreign policy the enemy gets a vote. In other words, the growing relative power of America’s adversaries will still pose a challenge to the international order, regardless of what actions the United States takes or who sits in the Oval Office.

America’s ability to rein in the bad behavior of other states has diminished, not because the United States is in decline, but rather because the power of our adversaries has grown. In East Asia, for example, the two most important challenges to the security status quo are North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s improving conventional military capabilities. Both developments threaten the regional order in East Asia, and resist American attempts to stop them. Multilateral and bilateral sanctions efforts have failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has come a long way with minimal external assistance.

China’s growing military power enables more assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas, despite displays of resolve by the United States and its allies. While many have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more against China, the simple fact is that as its military grows strong it becomes harder to deter China from using it. Beyond East Asia, after years of neglect following the Cold War, the Russian military is fielding new capabilities and pushing back against NATO expansion to countries along its border.

The growing relative power of America’s adversaries does not make the president obsolete, but the individual behind the Resolute desk is not omnipotent. They cannot always prevent changes in the balance of power or maintain the international order by dialing up the “leadership” they demonstrate. We don’t know what impact Donald Trump will have on the world, but the threats America faces would exist regardless of who won the election. The assumption that Hillary Clinton would be able to prevent negative outcomes through greater leadership on the international stage disregards the growing power and agency of America’s challengers. 

Trump and NATO—Redefining the U.S. Role

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s attitude toward NATO has engendered significant consternation throughout both Europe and the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Although the president-elect has not explicitly advocated pulling out of the NATO, he has suggested that the United States should rethink its involvement since the United States continues to bear a disproportionate share of the defense burden within the alliance. The incoming administration could thus be poised to conduct the sort of “agonizing reappraisal” that John Foster Dulles threatened 63 years ago. Although a complete withdrawal from NATO would be unwise, the time to redefine the United States’ role in the alliance may have arrived.

Critics have attempted to undermine Trump’s intimation that he might refrain from defending NATO allies such as Estonia by suggesting that the United States is treaty-bound to do so. The day after Trump’s election, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, insisted that “NATO’s security guarantee is a treaty commitment…All allies have made a solemn commitment to defend each other. This is something absolutely unconditioned.” But that is only true to a certain extent. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that in the event of an attack against a NATO member state, each ally “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The key phrase “as it deems necessary” gives the United States a great deal of latitude.

Were the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article V in response to a Russian incursion into Estonia, for instance, the United States could fulfill its treaty obligations in any number of ways. The Pentagon could certainly deploy the U.S. military to combat Russian forces directly. On the other hand, the United States could restrict its role to the provision of military equipment and logistical support to its European allies. To borrow a phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States could serve as the great arsenal of NATO.

Isolationist or Imperialist?

In the hit musical Hamilton, King George, newly estranged from the revolutionary American colonies, challenges his former subjects to justify their choice. “What comes next?” he asks, “You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own. Awesome, wow! Do you have a clue what happens now?”

We might well ask the same question.

The unexpected elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency presents a failure for pollsters, a reorientation of American politics, and raises the fundamental question of what kind of policies a Trump administration is likely to pursue. On foreign policy, Trump’s statements throughout the campaign have been profoundly incoherent, ranging from more traditional hawkish Republican views on issues like the Iran deal, to more unorthodox, restrained views on Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts, to his more conciliatory approach to Russia and truly bizarre fixation with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

So what comes next? How will the Trump administration approach foreign policy? As Elizabeth Saunders notes over at the Monkey Cage, advisors wield substantially more power under an inexperienced president. So to a large extent, Trump’s foreign policy choices will depend on who he chooses, not just to be his key foreign policy advisors, but to staff his administration’s foreign policy positions more generally. There are two potential scenarios that we can imagine:

Early Thoughts on Trump’s Peace through Strength

With Republicans retaining control of the House and Senate, President-elect Donald Trump might think it will be easy to push through his plans for “peace through strength” but he’s offered dubious rationales for why we need a much larger military. And his proposals for how he would pay for the additional spending are incomplete and inadequate.

He outlined his plans in a speech in early September. The high points include:

  • Active-duty Army: 540,000, up from 491,365 today, and currently projected to hit 450,000 in 2018, and stay there through 2020;
  • Marine Corps: 36 battalions, up from 23 now;
  • Navy: 350 surface ships and submarines, up from 276 today (the Navy’s current plans call for 308 ships by 2021, peaking at 313 in 2025);
  • Air Force: 1,200+ fighter aircraft; which is close to today’s inventory of 1,113;
  • A “State of the art missile defense system”; and
  • Major investments in cybertechnology, both offensive and defensive.

Estimates for what it would cost to implement these changes vary, but most experts doubt that Trump can make up the difference without raising taxes or adding to the deficit. His call for “common sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks,” is extremely vague, and it seems unlikely that Democrats will agree to relax the Budget Control Act caps on defense spending while leaving non-defense caps in place.

The bigger question is what Trump plans to do with this much-larger military. He is right to be skeptical of nation-building in foreign lands. He scorned Hillary Clinton’s support for the regime-change wars in Iraq and Libya. Those types of missions often require vast forces, especially ground troops, willing to remain in those countries for decades, or longer. But if he doubts that such missions are needed or wise, why does he call for increasing the active duty Army and Marine Corps? What does he expect them to be doing that they aren’t already?

Trump, Trade and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump has been touting staunchly protectionist and isolationist rhetoric on trade policy throughout his campaign. Whether this was merely campaign-talk is still to be seen.

However, at his core, Trump is a businessman. In the business world, isolationism is synonymous with self-destruction.

So when Trump brandishes protectionist rhetoric and sullies the role of international trade, he’s ignoring the fact that, in international relations, trade also serves as an expression of diplomatic goodwill and a means for constructive connectivity. Trade could also promote and advance free market principles abroad.

Take China, for instance. Beijing is embarking on a new era of “economic diplomacy”: trade and foreign investment have become the preferred tools for engaging with the international community, as well as for boosting domestic economic growth. China’s relatively new $1 trillion New Silk Road trade and investment initiative spanning several countries and continents attests to just that.

Instead of taking the opportunity to forge beneficial economic and trade ties with Beijing, Trump is instead threatening to impose high tariffs on China and declaring it a currency manipulator. However, doing so would actually isolate the United States’ economic interests rather than “protect” them, especially in the long run.

Trump will now have to quickly transition from a businessman into a statesman. In the business world, there is something to be said for taking a tough, zero-sum approach to negotiations. But in international relations, flippant threats and tough-talk—especially when it comes to the world’s second largest economy, as well as a nuclear power—is tantamount to recklessness, and likely to cause more harm than good.

Lastly, there are reasons to doubt whether Congress will comply with Trump’s trade and foreign policy stance. Members may instead insist that trade within a mutually beneficial arrangement, and not economic isolationism, will lead to more U.S. jobs and overall economic growth.