March 1, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – A Big Idea for Foreign Policy, Revisited

In a recent New York Times column, Ross Douthat makes an interesting case for thinking big in the age of Trump. He writes that the appeal of unconventional candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as well as an onslaught of domestic and international crises, suggests that now may be as good a time as ever for new and daring policy ideas.

Fair enough. I agree that a bold new policy conversation would be instructive on several fronts. And yet, looking out at many of the ideas currently in vogue—from economic protectionism to the rebirth of nationalism—I fear that some of the policies of the future will not be informed by the lessons and mistakes of the past. More and more, I have come to appreciate the old Samuel Johnson saying that we “more frequently need to be reminded than instructed.”

So in this spirit, let me put forward a bold foreign policy idea that is familiar but underappreciated and, to a significant degree, under siege: the United States should embrace a clear strategy that upholds and defends the post-WWII liberal world order. It should define its national interests beyond its borders, supporting the global economic and security structures that have promoted decades-long peace and prosperity. Europe and Asia need to be at the core of this effort, which nevertheless needs to be global in scope. Doing so, I believe, would not only serve American interests, but would result in a freer, safer, and more prosperous world.

Unfortunately, this proposition is now widely questioned—both in the halls of American power and in many parts of our country. At the core of President Trump’s worldview is the belief that the liberal world order has been a bad deal for America—in terms of jobs lost, economic output foregone, and excessive military expenditures to defend others. The focus has been on the costs, and not on the benefits of global leadership. And the sentiment is shared in wide swaths of our country, where opposition to trade, support for alliances, and concern about immigration has taken hold among more and more Americans.

What we need, then, is a robust debate about the importance of America’s global leadership. We already see this debate taking place within the Administration, where the voices of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and (hopefully) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for strong American engagement still ring loudly against the voices of economic nationalism that emanate from parts of the White House.

Strong outside voices can help. One important such argument comes from a bipartisan group of influential scholars and policy experts convened by Brookings, which has put forward a comprehensive plan for upholding and strengthening the American-led order. The new report, Building “Situations of Strength,” concludes that American retrenchment would be a serious strategic error, and posits that the US should devise a set of integrated regional strategies to deal with a more geopolitically competitive and chaotic world. The full report is impressive in its scope and analytical rigor, and well worth a close read.

This week’s reads examine some of the internal and external challenges to the American-led order, as well as some of the big ideas for reforming it.

A Time for Immodest Proposals

Ross Douthat/The New York Times

“The Trump campaign (and the Bernie Sanders campaign across the aisle) suggests that there is a public appetite for ideals that are well outside the ideological boxes,” muses Ross Douthat in an op-ed he promises will be the first installment of a series prescribing policies that push the boundaries of traditional American conservatism. His first proposal tackles the crisis of jobless men discussed in Ebernstadt’s path-breaking article referenced below. Douthat’s solution is “a large wage subsidy and a large per-child tax credit and a substantial corporate tax cut and an employer-side payroll tax holiday to encourage hiring,” coupled with job-producing infrastructure spending and cuts to disability and unemployment benefits as well as tighter restrictions on Medicaid eligibility.

Building "Situations of Strength:" A National Security Strategy for the United States

Derek Chollet, Eric S. Edelman, Michèle Flournoy, Stephan J. Hadley, Martin S. Indyk, Bruce Jones, Robert Kagan, Kristen Silverberg, Jake Sullivan, and Thomas Wright/The Brookings Institute

President Trump should continue the US tradition of shaping the current world order rather than abandoning it, according to this new Brooking report. Today, international engagement is characterized by geopolitical competition in East Asia and Europe, the ripple effect of instability in the Middle East, technology’s propensity for disruption and Western disillusionment with internationalism. The authors argue that “in the coming decades, the United States needs a strategy that begins with the setting of a clear goal: the renovation and reinvigoration of the postwar international order.”

The Immigration Debate We Need

George Borjas/The New York Times

Many of the elite opinion-makers in the news media recoil when they hear "America First" immigration rhetoric, label such thinking as racist and xenophobic, and marginalize anyone who agrees with it, says George Borjas. But, he writes, those accusations of racism reflect an effort to avoid a serious discussion of the trade-offs of immigration. He outlines the trade-offs that need to be considered in the immigration debate he says we need, including wage gaps, skill gaps, short-term and long-term economic gains, and the costs of a large, unassimilated minority.

The Insurgent in the White House

James Kitfield/POLITICO

H.R. McMaster is an unusual choice for Trump’s National Security Advisor. He is an intellectual, historian, and strategist with a demonstrated willingness to provide frank criticism. McMaster will enter a National Security Council in crisis, after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn stepped down amid scandal, and a White House full of large egos and conflicting opinions. In this profile, Kitfield describes McMaster as an “outspoken and independent-minded field officer who attracted and even courted publicity,” which some, including George W. Bush, admire and others condemn. One characteristic that Trump will not object to is McMaster’s drive to “win.”

Will Trump Take ‘Brutally Forthright’ Advice from McMaster?

Peter Baker/The New York Times

McMaster’s doctoral dissertation, published years later, examined what went wrong for the United States in the Vietnam War. Among the faults was the Joint Chiefs of Staffs’ failure “to confront the president with their objections.” This is likely a lesson McMaster will apply to his new position as National Security Advisor. When asked about McMaster, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot questions whether the president, whom he suspects needs to be handled with kid gloves, will respond well to McMaster’s characteristically blunt approach to constructive criticism. Gordon M. Goldstein, another author of an account of the Vietnam War, questions whether Trump can “absorb and benefit from the advice of a strong adviser who probably doesn’t share many of his biases.”

Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War

Evan Osnos, David Remnick, Joshua Yaffa/The New Yorker

The United States and Soviet Union relied on “active measures” throughout the Cold War, attempting to influence events through the dispersal of funds and information. During the 2016 election, these “active measures” appealed to Russia more than ever, say Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshua Yaffa: The American political landscape was ideologically divided, reliance on technology made the Democratic National Committee an easy target, and social media was a perfect conduit for disinformation. The degree to which Russia interfered in the election suggests that Russia is ramping up its campaign to embarrass the United States, posing a threat to the wider international world order and threatening Western democratic values.

Russia’s Assault on America’s Elections is Just One Example of a Global Threat

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

On the subject of Russian interference in the US election, David Ignatius warns against losing sight of the big picture: Russian meddling in elections throughout the Western democratic world. A report to Germany’s parliament in December claimed that last year the government detected weekly attacks on German computer networks, many of which it attributed to Russian intelligence. In France, Russia has loaned money to right wing party National Front and is believed to be behind the hack that temporarily disabled news channel TV5 Monde. These attacks are part of a worrying trend of attempts to manipulate and discredit Western democracy.

Russia Mobilizes an Elite Band of Cyber Warriors

Sam Jones/Financial Times

An elite group of Russian hackers known as APT 28 was responsible for an April 2015 attack across TV5Monde's network, the world's largest francophone broadcaster. A year later, they attacked the DNC, releasing thousands of files to discredit Hillary Clinton. In this “Big Read,” the Financial Times spoke to more than a dozen leading professionals with close knowledge of APT 28’s activities — including senior intelligence and military officials and civilian cyber security experts who have firsthand experience of the group’s hacks, to describe how Russia has mobilized an elite band of cyber warriors and speculate as to why.

Our Miserable 21st Century

Nicholas N. Ebernstadt/Commentary Magazine

Nicholas Ebernstadt takes on the bursting of the US policy bubble last November, asserting that the “Great American Escalator” broke down in the 2000s while the media, academia, and policymakers failed to notice. Ebernstadt paints a dismal picture of one of the United States’ most overlooked groups, “millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work, and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.” The unemployment rate fails to account for the rising rate of unemployed adults who do not seek employment. Medicine costs are exorbitant, though advances are minimal, and opioids are overprescribed, which contributes to increased death rates amongst white Americans. As he says: “We have a lot of work to do together to turn this around.”

Kim Jong-Nam’s Death: A Geopolitical Whodunit

Richard C. Paddock and Choe Sang-Hun/The New York Times

The very public killing of Kim Jong-Nam, the estranged elder brother of North Korea’s erratic leader, Kim Jong-Un, appears to be another remarkable episode in the annals of bizarre North Korean behavior, a whodunit with geopolitical implications. North Korea has denied any involvement in the killing, but in the days since has been accused of assassinating him at the behest of Kim Jong-un. Richard Paddock and Choe Sang-Hun dive into what we know.

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