Does ‘America First’ mean ‘America Alone’?

Steve Clemons: Hi, I’m Steve Clemons and I have a question. Is America an ally that can be trusted? Let’s get to the Bottom Line.

Ever since the United States adopted its America First stance, NATO has been lambasted, Crimea’s annexation looks permanent. South Korea was told they should pay for the US bases in their country, and there’s a renewed attempt to get out of the so-called Forever Wars in the Middle East. So can anyone blame America’s allies if they’re confused? Does anyone believe that the US will stand by them in their time of need? Does “America First” really mean “America Alone” or an America on the sidelines of the big global challenges?

Well, we’re very fortunate today because we have three people in the room that have all the answers to these questions. Kelley Vlahos is the executive editor of the American Conservative Magazine. James Carafano works on national security and foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. And Richard Fontaine heads the Center for a New American Security. Great to have all of you with us here. We have a lot to get through today.

I was surprised by a comment that Bret Stephens in the New York Times made recently where he was agreeing with, of all people, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. And Zarif basically was saying that allies of America were in kind of a bad place today and that they should neither seek America’s permission to do things, nor look at America to secure their security. And he’s basically saying our allies are in trouble. So Kelley, let me start with you. What is the state of America’s allies in the world? Have we organised our national security infrastructure around the world in the right way? Or do our allies need to begin looking for other places to secure their needs?

Kelley Vlahos: I think the latter is correct. I mean, I’m thinking of George Washington’s farewell address when he warned against foreign entanglements. He warned that pursuing these friendships, partnerships, treaties, entanglements as he put it, would put us in a complicated position, in which we were basically selling and sharing our foreign policy, basing our foreign policy on other people’s, other countries’ interests.

Clemons: But those entanglements were things that we built after World War II. That had gone through horrific wars, where we had World War I, World War II. NATO was securing our security, doing a deal with Japan and basing US forces abroad was something where we looked at that time as vital to US national security and our allies around the world put a lot of trust in those relationships. So you think, going back to Washington, that we should never have done those?

Vlahos: Well, I think on paper that looks fabulous. But when we’re looking at today’s situation, when you look at the Kurds, for instance, and the reason why Brad Stevens wrote that column, we’re talking about complex relationships based on expedience in our foreign policy. We have basically maintain this relationship with the PKK, the Syrian Kurds to get rid of ISIS. But at the same time, our Turkish NATO ally has declared the PKK a terrorist organisation. So, we’re in a situation where we brought Turkey into NATO in, which they have completely different interests at any given time than the United States. And then President Trump is being blamed for leaving the Syrian Kurds high and dry, but yet they’re no longer serving our interests in the region. So, it gets so complicated that goes beyond this sort of heroism that you’re speaking of in post-World War II, where we’re creating these alliances to bring peace to the world.

Clemons: Jim, let me ask you, should our allies be worried about the solvency of their relationship with the United States right now?

Jim Carafano: No. And the reason for that is what’s changed with Trump, and the reality is, not much. The United States is a global power with global interest and responsibility. What knits America to the rest of the world? It’s really three reasons. Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific. Can the United States guarantee its interests in any one of those three areas without allies? The short answer is “no”. So, what fundamental allies have we dropped and abandoned?

In Europe, NATO is as strong as ever. In the Indo-Pacific, not only do we have the traditional allies like South Korea and Japan, but we have emerging strategic relationships with countries like India. So if anything, our alliance, our partnership structure in the Indo-Pacific is stronger over the last decade. And in the Middle East, change all the names you want, I mean, who does the US go back to time and time again? We have Israel, which is our anchor into the region. We’re back in a strong relationship with Egypt. We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia. I got to tell you, take the word Trump off of there, it doesn’t look crosstalk

Clemons: So, you’re saying it’s all good, but we’re going to play a clip right now of President Trump on NATO.

D. Trump: NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations. But 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defence.

Clemons: Now, Jim, I know you’re saying that NATO’s never been stronger, never been better, and I know that the president is just kicking the shins of our allies to contribute more and make it even stronger, better. I know that’ll be the argument, but I was at that meeting and if you sat down with those defence ministers and you sat down with those leaders, they don’t feel, they feel like NATO’s wobbly. They feel a little bit like America’s commitment to our mutual security arrangement is not as robust as it once was. Tell me where I’m wrong.

Carafano: Well, OK. Well, every American president going back to Eisenhower has complained about NATO allies kicking in and even President Trump, at the end of the last NATO summit said, “Hey, the Alliance is great. They’ve kicked in a $100bn. This is terrific.” You know what? There is some wobbliness in NATO, but it’s not the United States that’s wobbly. If you go to Germany today and you look at the state of the German defence contribution concerning the size of their economy, that looks a lot wobblier. We talked about Turkey. If you look at where Turkey has done to some of its other own allies, including bringing in the S-400 as an air defence system and sacrificing the F-35, which is an unbelievable asset, which would not only tremendously increase Turkey’s ability to defend itself, but would absolutely expand the capacity of NATO to do collective self-defence. So yeah, there’s wobbliness in NATO, but it’s not coming from Washington.

Clemons: Rich, what is your dashboard on this look like in the sense that, I know from your role as head of A New American Security that you’ve written it, you sort of lament we had before. I don’t think you agree with Jim, do you, that that NATO’s in as healthy a form as it could be?

R. Fontaine: No, I think it’s obvious that it’s not, in part, it’s due to the fact that the German military is not as well-funded and developed as it should be. But a lot is based on Washington and President Trump, in particular. An alliance is an insurance policy, particularly a mutual defence agreement, like with NATO where we say, we will defend you if called upon to do so and you’ll defend us if called upon to do so. Now, it’s mostly been the United States that’s called upon our NATO allies to help us in Afghanistan and other places.

We’ve not had to come to defence of Estonia or Poland or something like that. But of course, that’s their end of the bargain. And in like in any insurance policy against a threat that may or may not materialise, you try to think, what is the chances that if I need this, it’s actually going to be there for me? What is the chances, not only that the American military is big, but the American president is going to use it to protect me if called upon to do so? And given the president’s rhetoric, which is really most of what these leaders have to go by, they wonder whether if push came to shove, the United States would actually go to war to defend Montenegro, a NATO ally, or to defend Poland and defend Estonia or defend a country like that because the body language and some of the rhetoric of the president suggests that he would not.

Clemons: Do you think we should?

Fontaine: Yes. If they’re a NATO ally, we have made that commitment. I think if one falls away, then the entire edifice crumbles. You can have the debate before a country comes to NATO about whether there’ll be a crosstalk 00:08:14.

Clemons: Come back to Kelley’s point. Kelley’s point is that these entangling alliances get us deeper and deeper into… It sounds very much like pre-World War I, right? It sounds a little bit like all of these side deals may get us into something where all of a sudden we have a kinetic conflict. We have a war, we have deployment of troops and all other means of war brought in, in something that seems smaller than we should be using American muscle and power for and lives.

So Kelley, come back to you for a minute on this question, because I think it’s fascinating. Are we at an inflexion point where you believe we need to or the United States needs to come back and redesign its alliances and pull back a bit?

Vlahos: I do. And I think that you could take the example of Russia and our evolving relationship with Russia as an example. Russia has been increasingly aggressive as we’ve been increasingly involving former Soviet countries into NATO. So, as much as the Washington establishment likes to say that Russia has been acting aggressively on its own, it has been in response to the fact that we’ve brought in these former Eastern-bloc countries into NATO, under our security umbrella.

Clemons: The Balkans.

Vlahos: The Balkans, yes.

Clemons: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary.

Vlahos: Correct. So as much as we’ve pushed, they’ve pushed back. And I think that we have to sort of look at what are our policies moving forward, who are the predominant powers. We’re seeing Russia playing a more predominant role in things that are happening in Syria right now. They’ve reached to China and vice versa in responses to some regional and global issues.

We’re finding our power diminishing as the power of China and Russia have escalated. We need to, like you said, maybe recalibrate those relationships and you know, our footprint, whether it be in Europe or South Korea and Asia. So, I think it’s time for some sort of reckoning to sort of look at the past and find out and kind of consider where the mistakes these entanglements are and how we can move forward. I know that President Trump has sort of upset the apple cart coming into Washington and talking about NATO and their responsibility, even the validity of NATO itself. And you know, that’s upset a lot of people here in Washington. But I think looking forward, we’ve seen the pulse of the power structure change and we haven’t kept up with it. And I think in Syria you’re seeing that in stark relief right now.

Clemons: So, I’ve talked to lots of supporters of President Trump just out in middle America and one of the things that came up is something I had heard, you know, 20 years ago, but it still feels real to them, is that America fought the Cold War and China won, and that people feel as if for everything that they have expended in lives and energy around the world, other nations are free-riding on American power and that they look at it as a sort of an entitlement that is due them.

And Jim, I want to ask you in that, one, would you agree with that? Because that’s where a lot of President Trump’s supporters are, that they want to see America get something back for all of its investment in the world. They feel they are due. And when you listen to the president’s rhetoric, whether it’s on Ukraine or talking about NATO or talking to Japan or South Korea about doing more, it’s almost a transactional arrangement. You need to pay us to defend you. We’ll decide later if that security guarantee is good, if you buy a lot of weapons. So, should we bring something, I hate the word that you used the words “quid pro quo” –

Carafano: Yeah.

Clemons: But that has a transactional dimension to it to show Americans that they’re getting something out of these commitments.

Carafano: So like I said, I think not only is there an enormous amount of continuity in our alliance structure and I would argue Kelley, that’s because it works and the alliance structures sustain because people feel like they’re giving them value. And to your point, I mean, the data I’ve looked at in the polling is NATO is actually more popular among Americans and it’s actually more popular among conservatives. So, there isn’t really a kind of a runaway from Europe attitude in the American public. But I mean that’s what the data says. And part of it though, I agree with you, it is the Trumpian rhetoric of “Hey, people need to pay up and have skin in the game.” Because I think Americans intuitively understand that collective defence is not us defending you, collective defence is that you’re involved and that if you are in the game and you participated, you’re actually a much more reliable partner.

So we look at, for example, a country like Poland, which has captured the president’s attention and which to me makes me very hopeful about NATO. That here’s a country on the front lines of NATO that values even more the NATO engagement and the US commitment and Poland is increasing its defence expenditures. And I think, I don’t see a distinction between Europe and China. I think if there’s one thing that’s kind of a bipartisan consensus in the US is the rise of China is destabilising inaudible the United States. The president’s taking that head-on.

So, I think strengthening the alliance structure and partnerships in the Middle East, in Europe, in the Asia Pacific, that makes sense to Americans because what do we want the president to do to protect us against the people that could so global disorder and eventually come crosstalk 00:13:46.

Clemons: Let me hold that thought there and let’s run a clip of the president’s comments during his inauguration.

D. Trump: We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

Clemons: Rich, let me ask you this because this is something I’ve been struggling with and Jim just put it on the table, which is China. Should this have been, we will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilised world against the destabilising rise of China? Did we get distracted with the wrong task by overemphasising radical Islamic terrorism as the rationale for all the things we were doing when in fact there’s a geo-strategic threat to the United States, as we see it, that’s on the China side? We didn’t organise things differently.

Fontaine: To some extent. So, you know, after 9/11, everyone woke up and said, “Oh my God, we have not paid enough attention to terrorism. We took a holiday from history. It’s all about counterterrorism.” Now, we’re waking up and saying it’s all about China. It’s all about great power competition. Why did we spend so much time in the Middle East? Why do we do these counterterrorism operations? And of course, the answer is, you have to protect the American people from terrorism. You also have to protect the American people and their way of life and their economy from the kind of world that autocracies like China and Russia seek to build.

So, we’re not a regional power, not a one-issue power. We got to do both at the same time. And it depends on what the proportions are. The president actually deserves some significant credit for the defeat of ISIS, which, you know, if we were still watching Americans being beheaded on TV and having a tax inspired in the United States, we would be very focused on that. It’s a good thing that we don’t have to be as focused on it as we are now. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t focus on it at all. And yes, it’s true. The Chinese have ridden free for a long time. You have a little bit more of a sort of – kind of approach to building up the alliances and partnerships in Asia because if the United States were to go around and say, “Okay, country in Asia, you’re either with us or you’re with China”, no country will make that stark decision. But they quietly will align themselves more with our side than with China as an insurance policy. And that’s exactly what we want.

Clemons: crosstalk right now.

Carafano: Can I just crosstalk 00:15:55.

Clemons: Please.

Carafano: Because there’s a really important point that I don’t think should get lost here. And I think you’re right, Trump’s been strong on the terrorism war, but the fact is the last three presidents who fought Islamic terrorism and I think logically nobody really inaudible just that. But the point about the great power competition, I think, is important because if you went back and you said, “Bush, what’s your bad guy list?” He’s going to go… We’re all going to say terrorism, but he’s going to go, “China, Iran, North Korea and Russia.” And you ask Obama, “What’s your bad guy list?” China, North Korea, Iran and Russia. And you ask Trump, “What’s your bad guy list?” I mean, what we actually knew, it’s the same. That’s remarkable. That’s the first time since the end of the Cold War where we’ve had across three presidential administrations, two different parties, three very different presidents essentially have a very similar threat perception. And now-

Clemons: So Jim, tell me this whole thing about Vladimir Putin and his buddy and Kim Jong Un, I mean, I buy what you’re saying structurally. crosstalk 00:00:16:49.

Carafano: Come on, that’s the most superficial –

Clemons: Calling the president –

Carafano: No, no, no. That’s the most superficial criticism because if you actually look at our policies in North Korea and on Russia, let’s be honest. I mean, the reason why either they talk to those guys or the North Koreans is going to tables because those policies are pretty tough and in some ways tougher than Obama was.

Clemons: But can South Korea trust what Trump is going to do on North Korea?

Carafano: A lot more than the US can trust what South Korea is going to do on North Korea.

Clemons: Right.

Fontaine: Right, but this is the question, right. So, when the president says that he cares about long-range missiles, shot from North Korea, that can hit the United States but doesn’t care about short-range and medium-range missiles that can hit South Korea and Japan, if you’re a South Korean or Japanese government official who is relying on the American security guarantee that will make you worry. Now, what happens if there’s an actual attack? Who knows? Right? You’re always in the realm of who knows, but you look at the signalling up to that. But you know, but Jim’s point is why we don’t live in George Washington’s world. He was a great man, but that was 240-some years ago. There were European empires and he didn’t want to get…

Clemons: So, just let the record note that Richard Fontaine says George Washington’s a little dated.

Fontaine: A little dated. The powdered wig.

Carafano: Particularly crosstalk 00:18:02.

Fontaine: The question is, do you want to deal with –

Clemons: I want to bring Kelley into this.

Fontaine: Russia, Iran and North Korea with allies on our side or without? Those countries don’t have either.

Clemons: But Kelley was getting at something that lies a level beneath the discussion. And I want to tip my hat to it because she’s getting back at the question of what and why. Why are we doing what we’re doing in the world? A lot of national security decisions in this country, in the United States, are driven more by a nurture than by planning in my view, and I lived in Japan, I grew up on a military base in Japan. I saw 39 US military installations on Okinawa. And I would ask, why are they there? And you would see some of the irresponsible behaviour of these leaders in the region over their history and what not. They could do that because US forces were there. So, it raised the question of what we’re trying to achieve and would everyone’s behaviour change if they counted on us less, counted on the United States less? Kelley?

Vlahos: Well, and I agree with that entirely and unfortunately my magazine seems to be in the minority when we’re talking about these issues. We have writers talking about all the time, whether or not we need to reduce our footprint in South Korea, for example.

Clemons: So are you advocating isolationism?

Vlahos: But it’s not isolationism because it is basically reducing our reliance on a military solution to every problem globally. We’re not talking about reducing our diplomatic entreaties, we’re not talking about reducing of the treaties we make or, or even the trade involved, the communication, the alliances. It is a matter of reducing our military footprint, which in many cases has actually been an instigating factor in some of these hotspots that you’re seeing. And I’d just like to go back to the ticking off of the different enemies so to speak. You know, one of them is terrorism and we’ve talked about ISIS, but ISIS would not exist today if it wasn’t for the invasion of Iraq.

And I feel like when we have these meta conversations about foreign policy, we normally talk about in terms of old alliances and current threats, but we don’t talk about how we got there and we invaded Iraq. That was a complete, that was a conversation that Washington was having, but it was a foregone conclusion. Now we find ourselves there. We created, you know, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which wasn’t there before and then Iraq, al-Qaeda was diminished and what came up was ISIS. So, we’re talking about a threat that wouldn’t have existed if we didn’t make some of the foreign policy decisions and get into some of the entanglements that we find ourselves in.

Clemons: Jim, you’re lifting your eyebrow.

Carafano: We wouldn’t have had to fight World War II if we hadn’t won World War I. I mean, you could play the historical game on infinitum, then pick a point where you want to blame somebody. One is we could debate that all day long. I’m not sure it gets us anywhere. The other thing is the reality in foreign policy is you are where you are. Maybe you don’t like how you got here, but… Shake your head all you want, but we’re here and –

Vlahos: We should have learned from our mistakes. Is that not, is that that’s something that we shouldn’t expect from our leadership?

Clemons: Let’s get Rich in here. Rich-

Carafano: That’s the most crosstalk 00:21:13, we should learn from our mistakes.

Vlahos: So, we shouldn’t learn from our mistakes? We keep putting the same people into power and authority in Washington and then say we have to put military in the places to fight – crosstalk 00:21:19.

Clemons: Rich?

Fontaine: So, we are where we are and yes, we should learn from mistakes that we’ve made in past decisions. But the question now is, are we better off doing X or doing Y? Are we better off staying in Syria and Iraq and putting pressure on ISIS? Are we better off leaving and not doing that?

Clemons: crosstalk That’s what the idea of fair validate the president?

Fontaine: No, no. Well no –

Clemons: Because crosstalk killing.

Fontaine: No, I mean look at all the people that he – look who he thanked. He thanked the troops that were on the ground, he thanked our intelligence partners, he thanked… I mean without partners, allies and troops on the ground, we’d not been able to carry out that mission. So, maybe it would be better if we didn’t carry out the mission, Baghdadi was alive today. I think it would not be, but that’s the kind of costs you absorb if you make those sorts of decisions.

Clemons: We have just a few minutes.

Clemons: I want to ask each of you a question because we haven’t brought it up, hasn’t come up in this discussion, but your former boss, Senator John McCain, would not have allowed this discussion to take place without mentioning America’s commitment to the human rights needs of others in the world. And so we haven’t discussed human -. So in this discussion, where should human rights fit or not fit? Have we moved beyond that?

Fontaine: I think it’s a huge, well, I think on its merits, it’s a huge element of American foreign policy, but it’s also a comparative advantage for us that Russia and China in this great power competition, want to build a world that is safe for their particular brand of autocracy. They’re using technology and other means to export their own values. And yet we have a very different view. We should be defending our own democracies and we should be supporting the aspirations of democracies and the human rights abroad because it gives us strategic advantage as well as being good on the merits.

Clemons: Do you think we’re doing it?

Fontaine: Well, we do it to a much less degree in the Trump and Obama administrations, and the high point in the Bush administrations. There’s a happy medium that we need to sort of wobble towards because the State Department will do stuff, the White House will do it differently.

Clemons: Kelley?

Vlahos: You brought up the Obama administration and Obama’s administration had escalated the drone war more than the Bush administration, so the whole idea that he was promoting this sort of humanitarian intervention sounds good, but how he was doing it was killing other people in places like Pakistan and Somalia and other places, which created more terrorists and we know that. And that is part of learning from mistakes.

Clemons: Jim, I’m going to give you the final word.

Carafano: I think in some places the administration has got a great record. I think they’ve been great for advocating for the rights of citizens of Venezuela. They’ve been terrific on the Rohingya, in other areas I’d like to see them stronger, but America is always a nation of interests and values. Which one do we advance, and the answer is we try to advance both to the best of our capability and I think that’s the right balance.

Clemons: Fascinating conversation. This was great. I’d like to thank you all for being with us. Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for A New American Security. James Carafano, vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation and Kelley Vlahos, executive director at the American Conservative Magazine. Thank you all so much for being with me.

So what is the bottom line? As the US continues to rearrange its alliances, no ally can be blamed for not knowing which way is north. America was joined at the hip with the Kurds in Syria, the Kurds who clobbered the Islamic State, but today, America hardly knows them. And as for human rights, Trump’s White House clearly hasn’t made them a priority. The value of being allied with America has simply plummeted. Allies can’t count on the US to really stand by them in their dark times. And that’s the Bottom Line. See you next week.

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