Administrations generally base foreign policy on a set of principles reflecting worldviews that include domestic considerations, historical precedents, and a desire to have a legacy that will endure beyond the end of their tenure. With the end of foreign policy bipartisanship in the 80s, collateral damage from pendulum swings after Vietnam, the rise of insurgencies sparked by non-state actors, and a growing disaffection between Congress and whatever administration was in power, defining core US interests became murky and inconsistent from one term to the next.
No region has been immune to these inconsistencies, with the possible exception of NATO-linked Europe. And the Trump Administration has made it clear that even a ‘principled’ foreign policy will not interfere with its definition of national interest.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. It complements an earlier one that listed challenges confronting the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regarding obstacles to growing the kind of political and economic institutions central to long-term stability and security. Whatever the homegrown definition of democracy guiding each country, at some point an accountable relationship between citizens and government (the social contract) evolves as a touchstone for measuring its development.
Given the challenges outlined previously, it is not clear if a US foreign policy, or rather policies, consistent with the ‘American First’ national interests defined by the Trump Administration, can be defined with any certainty. Early indications are that what we have so far are muddled, regardless of the country or region. This may reflect the “art of the deal” approach to keeping an opponent off guard, a determination that offers should not be set in concrete until the other side’s hand is exposed, or any other feints in a negotiator or card player’s handbook.
In any case, the choral approach of everyone on the same page is still emerging in the Administration so in that absence, I’ll suggest some ideas for how debates about our domestic policy could enrich options perceived by those across the table from us.
Tying together domestic and foreign policy lessons learned
Let’s begin by recognizing that I believe that an integrated strategy on our part is essential – combining ‘all of government’ attention to shaping approaches that clearly calculate the odds of success and results of failure in achieving our objectives. Domestically, this should be applied to issues ranging from upgrading our infrastructure to facing domestic terrorism. Internationally, upcoming steps on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will be instructive in this regard: do we adopt a piecemeal approach or a comprehensive settlement? I argue that what we can learn domestically can be applied to relations with our counterparts and help generate strategies that integrate as far as possible all sectors of governance in a national consensus on next steps…the new social contract.
Why should the promotion of economic growth and equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities, certainly on President Trump’s national agenda, be avoided in conversations with other countries? If American voters see these as vital to our country’s future, why would we think these goals are foreign to foreigners? For example, enabling economic growth through increased competitiveness of our products and services can serve as an example of a benefit of better governance by other countries. Technical assistance focused on advancing models of teamwork, efficiency, and accountability in government programs using US funds can be a step in that direction. Of course, how this messaging is accomplished will, by necessity, be informed by lessons learned from generations of US assistance programs.
Job creation is another overlapping goal of the US and its partners. If the readouts of Trump’s talks with industry leaders are accurate, the President is learning that young and jobless Americans need to be educated in marketable skills that enable them to be active in our transitioning economy. The only difference with our overseas partners is the perceptions of their youth that some jobs are unsuitable for them…even though their parents may complain about the high price they pay for maintenance and technical support services at home and at work. No, I take that back…many American youth are also allergic to jobs that require manual labor, operating machinery and computers, and vocational skills that are the backbone of imported and immigrant labor.
As we look forward to a robust commitment to building infrastructure across this country, we can share those experiences with others. For example, when the US provides economic assistance to build the partner country’s economic capacity, we should insist on a few conditions. The first would be to limit the effect of “wasta” or influence through engendering merit-based recruitment and advancement. Another useful condition would be to align donor programs to minimize redundancy, promote efficiencies of scale, and thereby have additional capacity to address issues. A third factor in which we have experience is the promotion of small and medium-sized job creating enterprises through enabling services from financing to legal and marketing resources. While some of these factors are already in play, frankly, we don’t have a great results to date.
Another area in which the Trump administration may create replicable patterns is the recruitment and use of foreign labor. Just as the US has become addicted to legal and illegal immigrants to handle the jobs that Americans resist, the same is true throughout the MENA region. Tens of thousands of South Asians are working in countries where few labored previously. Countries are caught in a bind between jobs that citizens will do versus what foreigners will do at much less cost and often more diligently. It is a dilemma that may not have any solutions, in the US or abroad.
Finally, one quality of American business that should become a key component of the Trump foreign assistance program is to redefine what we lump under ‘transparency.’ American companies with US contracts here and abroad should be models of integrity in business dealings and support that value with their counterparts overseas. When we look at the sums mentioned for the proposed US infrastructure program, many still remember the obscene abuses of contractors rebuilding Iraq, supplying forces in Afghanistan, and myriad other examples that trouble our procurement processes.
If we are unwilling to behave within the bounds of propriety (however defined), then why do we expect it of our partners? The President would be wise to establish a proactive IG corps to monitor and assess infrastructure initiatives, which will incorporate broad private sector participation, as a good faith commitment to US taxpayers. If we insist on a similar transparent approach with our partners, including public bid processes, regular auditing and reporting, and incentives tied to better outcomes, then we will have made ‘America First’ a model for international cooperation that has extensive benefits for both parties and brings more stability and prospects for economic growth.
While these ideas may seem a bit faded, in this time of transition, fresh thinking about formulating and implementing domestic policy can help influence how we re-imagine foreign policy. Sharing lessons that we learn as we retool the American dream, can be both a humbling experience and potentially make a significant contribution to how the US moves ahead in these challenging times.