In a May 11 speech at the Claremont Institute in Beverly Hills, entitled “A Foreign Policy from the Founding,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quoted John Quincy Adams to explain how Donald Trump’s foreign policy is grounded in a “realism” that eluded his predecessors, particularly George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Adams, then Secretary of State, wrote in 1821 that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”

According to Pompeo, Trump’s foreign policy is grounded in this prudent tradition of the United States’ founding generation, with an emphasis on “realism, restraint, and respect.” Trump, Pompeo said, “has no aspiration to use force to spread the American model.” Instead, he aims to lead by example. “The unsurpassed attractiveness of the American experiment is something I market every day,” Pompeo said, describing his role as America’s top diplomat. He then quoted George Washington, who predicted that the United States’ democracy might ultimately inspire “the applause, the affection, and the adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”

This is the true model for Trump’s foreign policy, Pompeo says. We do not seek monsters to destroy. We seek to renew ourselves at home, and lead by example.

Pompeo’s speech, if one removes the partisan jabs, outlines a foreign policy based on realism and a careful articulation of American interests. It suggests that Trump is acting in good caution against overextension abroad. “No more,” according to Pompeo, will the United States “engage in conflicts without a clear sense of mission.” Quoting Washington again, he said that Trump is building alliances based upon “humanity and interest” to serve his country’s fundamental values.

Full disclosure: between April and December of last year, I worked for Pompeo at the State Department as a Special Presidential Envoy. I like him. That may be enough for some to stop reading. But he offered me full support both in private and public when I was a diplomat with a difficult overseas mission. Pompeo cares about those serving under him. And he cares greatly about the United States. That comes through in the Claremont speech.

Unfortunately, the policies of Trump and his administration often bear little resemblance to those outlined by Pompeo. A true return to first principles in foreign policy would be welcome, and would perhaps enjoy bipartisan support. In reality, however, Trump’s national security team risks doubling down on what Pompeo himself identifies as the worst excesses of U.S. foreign policy over the last 18 years.


Since 9/11, Washington has pursued grand foreign policy objectives that cannot be met with any reasonable level of investment, let alone one acceptable to the American people. President George W. Bush embarked on wars that began with clear objectives (remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq) but then morphed into multi-decade campaigns to democratize societies that U.S. leaders at first barely understood. Today, Iraq may be emerging as a success story, but one that few Americans would say justified the cost. President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal—regime change—from the outset in Syria and later in Libya but gave little thought as to how and at what cost it might be achieved, or, most important, to what might come next. Today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still in power and Libya is a complete mess.

Listening to Pompeo, one might believe the United States is done with grandiose objectives of regime change and societal transformation. His words suggest that it is time for the United States to harness its own resources to prepare for a new era of great-power competition against China and Russia. Unlike his boss, Pompeo rightly pulls no punches on Russia: “The Putin regime slays dissidents in cold blood and invades its neighbors.” Nor on China: “The Chinese Communist Party has detained more than one million Chinese Muslims in labor camps, and it uses coercion and corruption as its primary tools of statecraft.” Pompeo warned that both countries are “intent on eroding American power,” and that Washington can no longer be “untethered from common sense” in confronting them.

The policies of Trump and his administration often bear little resemblance to those outlined by Pompeo.

This emphasis on realism and restraint, however, does not reflect Trump’s foreign policy. Trump may not even realize it, but particularly since the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser last year, his administration has been pursuing what are effectively regime-change policies in not one but three countries: Venezuela, Syria, and Iran.

In Venezuela, the administration set a zero-sum objective—“Maduro must go”—with no credible plan other than sanctions and tweets to bring it about. Sanctions are an effective tool when tied to limited political aims, but they have never succeeded in changing a regime. Given the stated objective, moreover, for every day that Maduro remains in power, the United States looks weak and feckless, particularly compared to Russia and China, both backers of the Maduro regime. What the White House had initially touted as a likely near-term win in Venezuela now looks as if it will turn into a protracted struggle, with little chance of Washington achieving its stated objective short of a U.S. military intervention that few seem to want. Last month, Pompeo threatened U.S. military action if Maduro refused to step aside; in Beverly Hills, he never mentioned Venezuela, and Trump is reportedly souring on the entire enterprise.

Although the United States is not explicitly calling for regime change in Iran and Syria, it is pursuing policies in both countries that, if carried to their logical conclusion, necessitate a change of government. In Syria, U.S. policy objectives have grown so expansive as to be nonsensical, given Washington’s low level of investment in the country and Trump’s repeatedly stated desire to leave altogether. American officials recently confirmed that U.S. objectives in Syria include ejecting “all Iranian-led forces” and completing a dormant political process through which Assad would be held accountable for war crimes. Neither of those objectives has any realistic chance of being met, even if the United States massively increases its commitment of troops and resources to Syria, which it will not do. Thus Trump is pursuing a policy dead end—one that advantages China and Russia, who seem to have far more discipline in declaring realistic near-term objectives and far less scruple in ensuring they are achieved. (I outlined a more realistic Syria strategy in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs.) 

In Iran, the administration cannot seem to agree on an objective even as it seeks to implode the country through “maximum pressure” and sanctions. Pompeo says he wants Iran to be “a normal country” and has issued a list of 12 maximalist demands (adding a 13th later) that no expert says Iran can ever hope to meet. Bolton last month warned Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, after the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution, that he should not expect “many more to enjoy” (suggesting that Khamenei may be gone in a year). Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly asked Iran to call him directly and reportedly passed through the Swiss a private White House phone number. With seemingly nobody in charge of U.S. Iran policy, the net result is a policy of ever-increasing sanctions, imposed without the support of allies and with no plausible on-ramp for Iran to enter negotiations, since nobody, including the Iranians, knows what Iran is supposed to negotiate about. Without prospect for talks, pressure becomes an end in itself, which begets counter-pressure—and an increasing risk of conflict.

National Security Advisor John Bolton gives an interview at the White House, March 2019
Leah Millis / Reuters


Trump hates looking weak, but that is how his foreign policy is making him look. My office on the Stanford University campus is across the road from that of George Shultz, the 98-year-old veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan administrations. In a recent discussion, an energetic and fully engaged Shultz recounted an anecdote from his first day in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942. “When I was issued my rifle,” he said, “the first rule was never to point it at anyone unless I was prepared to pull the trigger.” The lesson as applied to grand strategy: stop declaring national objectives that we are either unable or unwilling to achieve.

Sound strategy requires leaders to prioritize objectives, carefully align them with available resources, and develop some idea as to how those resources might be effectively marshaled. By this standard, U.S. foreign policy today is by definition nonstrategic, as it continually states objectives with no consideration as to whether or how they might realistically be achieved. The result is that tactics substitute for strategy.

Most American commentators would agree that the world would be far better if Maduro, Assad, and Khamenei were replaced by moderate leaders friendly to the United States. Hoping for their replacement, however, is very different than declaring such hopes official U.S. policy and then embarking on a fruitless and costly course of action in order to turn those hopes into reality. The road to folly in foreign affairs is paved by setting ambitious goals without an honest consideration of the means required to achieve them. Regime change policies in particular are costly, expensive, protracted, and uncertain. They rarely produce declared objectives, and even when they do, the benefits to the United States rarely outweigh their costs in blood, treasure, and unintended consequence.

The American people seem wise to this conundrum. Trump, like Obama, promised during his presidential campaign to reduce the United States’ overseas commitments, and few of the candidates now seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020 advocate for regime change or new military interventions abroad. A recent poll from the Center for American Progress suggests that although the American people are not isolationist, they want their leaders to focus on building strength at home (shoring up U.S. infrastructure, health care, and education) while acting with “restrained engagement” around the world. Such a formula is consistent with the core theme of Pompeo’s speech, even if contrary to the day-to-day workings of the Trump administration. Importantly, a policy of “restrained engagement” is also consistent with the policies advanced by Democratic candidates seeking to challenge Trump, to the extent that foreign policy is being discussed at all on the campaign trail.

Therein lies some hope. In his “long telegram” sent from Moscow in 1947, George Kennan, one of the great diplomat-intellectuals of the last century, focused as much on the domestic situation in the United States as he did on the internal situation within Russia in order to articulate his doctrine of containing Soviet expansion. For strategies in international affairs to succeed, he wrote, they must rest on “the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet.” Whatever might be stated in speeches, or diplomatic communiqués, or inside the White House, the ultimate success or failure of a strategy “depends on the health and vigor of our own society.”

The essence of Pompeo’s speech—a principled foreign policy grounded in humility and restraint—may point ultimately, and contrary to his intent, toward a new bipartisan consensus on the United States’ role in the world. This would be the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet: a policy anchored on building strength at home, aligning ends with means, being prudent in the use of force, and mending relations with allies who also confront a rising China and revanchist Russia. Trump and those working for him might believe they are stewards of such a policy, but Trump seems to have little control over his own national security team, and his impulsive tweeting together with the lack of strategic deliberation or process makes any coherence in foreign affairs impossible. The net result is that Washington’s adversaries are growing emboldened, its allies bewildered, and its alliances frayed, as observers around the world see the “health and vigor” of U.S. society depleting month by month.

One framing quote not cited by Pompeo happens to be from the most famous Founding Father of our time, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was the author of Federalist 70, which outlined the powers granted to the president in Article II of the Constitution, and a keen observer of the United States’ earliest presidents, whom he measured by the standard set in the founding charter. Writing in 1800 about the attributes necessary to guide our country, Hamilton pointed to the “modest and sage” Washington, who as president “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved wisely.”

Trump could not be more different. He rarely consults. Never ponders. Barely resolves. Does little wisely. His is a foreign policy of chaos, not the prudence and restraint envisioned by Pompeo and demanded by a significant majority of the American people. The opportunity for those now seeking the presidency, or who are prepared to contest Trump on the merits of his foreign policy, is to capture this emerging consensus and articulate a smarter role for America abroad grounded in the true meaning of Pompeo’s triptych: “realism, restraint, and respect.”

Republicans and Democrats might even come to agree on such a formula. The United States will be far stronger if they do.

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  • BRETT MCGURK is Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute. He served in senior foreign policy positions under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, most recently as Special Presidential Envoy for the Campaign to Defeat ISIS.
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