Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

As unfit for the presidency as Donald Trump may be, he got the 2016 election campaign off to a good start by providing an opportunity to examine the assumptions that had guided U.S. foreign policy over the past half century. Should we renounce multi-party trade agreements? Should we renounce NATO? Should we reconsider our censorious approach to strongmen? Should we concentrate on making a “pathetic” America great in the eyes of the world again? Is America’s immigration-fed diverse population a strength or a weakness? Above all, should the U.S. go it alone on the world stage or work with others to inch toward a better world?

You might even say that Trump deserves thanks for nudging the campaign away from vague political cliches—except that blunt insults and straight out lies are arguably less constructive than the protracted email waffling and flirting with perjury that has turned a peccadillo into a Damocles sword for Hillary Clinton. Oddly enough, when it comes to discussing actual issues, Clinton is a model of concision and clarity, while Trump has only a blustery I’ll-fix-it-and-fix-it-fast promise to offer. Are Hillary’s economic proposals brilliantly original? No. Will they work overnight? No. Will they require cooperation from Congress? Yes. But there’s much to be said for prudence and pragmatism when the alternative depends on the bankrupt mentition of a play-it-close-to-the-chest deal maker.

Diplomacy, for example, requires patience and discretion. Lasting accords do not thrive on duplicity, and effective foreign policy certainly does not work like a jack-in-the-box springing out and shouting, “Surprise!” With the exception of that troika of nasties, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Bashar Al Assad, there’s not a leader in the world who relishes the notion of dealing with Donald Trump, who probably dislikes Angela Merkel mostly because she’s a sturdy, carelessly-coifed, middle-aged woman who spends more time on leadership than applying mascara. And so far as international support is concerned, it appears that the (most likely) Russian hacking of Democrats’ websites has backfired on the candidate it was supposed to have given an advantage to.

Donald Trump is right to say that we need to make this country a better place, but Hillary Clinton had a terrific line when she quipped that if the U.S. really were a ninety-pound weakling, our Olympic athletes would be cowering in the cellar, not winning Gold Medals at a great rate. The Games have shown that the U.S., like any country with a huge population, has a vast pool of talent. More importantly, however, the Games have shown that America has the multiplicity of strong institutions and the economic clout that are needed to turn talented young people into great athletes. Indeed, American athletes are so well trained and motivated that, unlike the Russians, they do not need to rely on doping to win. What Mr. Trump does not realize is that swagger isn’t strength.

Fortuitously, even as Donald Trump has been applying a wrecking ball to U.S. foreign policy, justifiably calling everything into question, but offering nothing in replacement except his own monumental ego, PBS, the citizen-financed jewel of American media, was offering a series of well made, substantive biopics on American presidents. The three-hour look at the life and presidency of George. H.W. Bush turned out to be extremely relevant to the discussion of whether the U.S. should go it alone to protect American interests or work with other nations. Not surprisingly, the answer is: it all depends on the issue.

U. S. President George H.W. Bush had to build on negotiations that his predecessor Ronald Reagan had begun: meeting with Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev to determine the terms for ending the cold war and reducing the danger from nuclear catastrophe. He was also confronted with a crisis which had nothing to do with the previous administration: Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait.

In the former instance, Bush wisely followed Reagan’s lead: one-on-one negotiations. Unilateralism made sense. The US and the USSR were the world superpowers. They alone threatened the survival of civilization as we know it, and only deep personal trust would allow the antagonists to negotiate with any expectation that the terms of any resulting agreements would be carried out. In that case, then, going it alone made sense.

Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, had violated a world norm: invading another country. He had to be repelled, and it was in the interest of all his neighbors and indeed of every country in the world that he not be permitted to get away with it. Therefore, although the U.S. in the end provided most of the muscle, a multi-lateral effort was critical to the maintenance of world order. And so George H. W. Bush built an alliance, and the first Iraq War was a brilliant success: a clearly defined goal unquestionably achieved.

Music lovers don’t confine themselves to solo performances or to symphonic programs. They appreciate both. They attend both. Similarly the conduct of a nation’s foreign affairs depends on the ability of its leadership to explore all avenues, working alone or in concert, as appropriate, opening doors and minds to the prospect of a better safer world for all, thus making walls unnecessary. Unfortunately, as this election season has worn on, week after painful week, there has been little room for serious discussion. We can only hope that the upcoming face-to-face debates will be a little more substantive.