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How to Make Right What Trump Gets Wrong

Making nice: Pompeo at the UN Security Council, New York City, January 2019 Carlo Allegri / REUTERS


U.S. President Donald Trump’s sharp-elbowed nationalism, opposition to multilateralism and international institutions, and desire to shift costs onto U.S. allies reflect the American public’s understandable weariness with acting as the global order’s defender and custodian. Over the last three decades, post–Cold War triumphalism led to hubris and clouded strategic thinking. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington stumbled badly in Afghanistan and Iraq; more recently, Russia has reasserted itself in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China’s economic and military power have significantly expanded. Even among Trump’s opponents, these developments have led many to conclude that the only solution is a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy.

This is an overreaction. In truth, the pillars of U.S. strategy for the past 70 years—committing to the defense of countries that share U.S. values or interests, expanding trade, upholding rules-based institutions, and fostering liberal values internationally—have achieved remarkable successes and will continue to serve the country well going forward. Although some changes are certainly necessary, the biggest risk now is that the United States will in the process of making those changes scrap what is best about its foreign policy. In his blunt and often crude way, Trump has proved brilliant at poking holes in pieties and asking pointed questions about long-standing principles. His answers to those questions, however, have been self-defeating at best and dangerous at worst. By revealing what happens when U.S. strategy becomes untethered from the ideas that built the American-led order, Trump’s time in office should serve as a wake-up call—but not as a cause for fundamental change. On the contrary: as the costs of an “America first” approach become clear, advocates of a more traditional, global-minded American leadership will get another hearing. They should seize the opportunity by offering a vision of a reformed and updated U.S. foreign policy. But a new vision of the U.S. role in the world should reaffirm some core

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