America First Diplomacy

April 25, 2017

When it comes to budgets and media attention, American diplomacy often plays second fiddle to the military and intelligence community. But the work done at the State Department and U.S. embassies around the globe is integral to American interests at home and abroad.

Very often, our military and intelligence missions depend on the prior success or failure of our diplomatic efforts. Prudent investments in diplomacy and foreign assistance can mitigate and even prevent threats that might otherwise cost the American people dearly in blood and treasure.

Like much of the federal government, American diplomacy under the Obama administration took a decidedly leftist turn, often elevating ideological politics above core national interests. Whatever one’s views about abortion, energy regulation, and alternative family structures, they are neither core international priorities of the American people, nor essential to our national security. They are domestic political controversies, the pet causes of a privileged, globalist elite. Yet for eight years under President Obama, they were the substance of a global re-education campaign, funded by American taxpayers, from whom they were hidden under the guise of innocuous sounding program titles like “democracy assistance”, “government transparency”, and “human-rights”.

Some may counter that, “to the victor go the spoils.”  President Obama won the presidency, after all, and therefore the authority to prioritize whatever diplomatic goals he chose. And of course, that’s true. But those same observers are now no doubt wondering what a similarly cavalier attitude from President Trump might yield. It seems to me that the American people might be better served by a little more constitutional prudence, and a little less partisan point-scoring in our diplomacy.

American diplomats should not traverse the world using the name and credibility of the United States to push leftist policies – and not simply because conservatives like me do not approve.  They shouldn’t undertake such activities because it defeats the very purpose of our diplomatic efforts – the engagement of foreign governments to promote our security and economic interests and better enable American citizens to exercise their own rights.

A current example of how this backfires can be seen taking place in Eastern Europe.

Many Eastern European countries are still recovering after decades behind the Iron Curtain. They deal with problems such as corruption, ethnic tension, illicit drugs and human trafficking, and an increasingly aggressive Russia.  The United States has provided assistance to these countries since the end of the Cold War in an attempt to stabilize the region and cultivate new allies.

Eastern European countries are also traditionally more conservative than Western Europe, both culturally because of the influence of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as economically and politically because of their suffering under communist rule.  The southeastern European country of Macedonia, for example, has some of the toughest regulations in Europe on abortion and has had a flat tax for nearly a decade. 

Conservatives in countries like Macedonia, Poland, and Albania are the ones who have felt the most ostracized by the United States since 2009.  What State Department progressives may describe as routine democratic and human rights assistance is often seen by citizens of these countries as well-funded external political activism that undermines legitimate governments and long-held cultural norms of their nations with leftist policies and politicians.

And who can question their concerns, when the State Department and USAID have provided millions of American taxpayer dollars to organizations in Eastern Europe associated with well-known progressive advocates like George Soros and his Open Society Foundation, who make no secrets about the politics they support?

This creates problems for the United States that goes beyond political concerns about what principles we are promoting abroad.

Macedonia today is embroiled in a governing crisis that has been brought about largely by external interference in domestic issues and political processes. The crisis has deepened the political divide in the country and threatens to enflame ethnic tensions.

Such unrest is like an engraved invitation to an opportunist like Vladimir Putin, who can inflame divisions and actively court populations who feel that they have been betrayed by the United States.  U.S. foreign assistance is supposed to help create and strengthen diplomatic partnerships and strengthen our own security. The promotion of progressive politics – under the guise of such assistance - has driven potential allies towards geopolitical rivals, undermining the very purpose of our diplomatic efforts and giving Vladimir Putin low-cost victories.

Because of concerns that we have heard from trusted foreign officials – not just in Europe but around the world - five of my colleagues and I wrote to Secretary of State  Tillerson in March asking him to review funding to democracy and human rights programs and end any practices that might be harming our national interests. The Department’s initial response was dismissive of our concerns, and refused to promise any such review.  Instead, current and former Soros-organization associates took to the press to accuse the State Department’s critics of being agents of the Kremlin.

This episode perfectly illustrates the need for Congress and the Trump administration to break-down the bureaucratic obstacles within our own government to meaningful reform.

President Trump’s inauguration signaled the start of a new era of American diplomacy and statecraft. Not only were traditional Republican initiatives like the Mexico City Policy strengthened and reapplied, but President Trump promised to change the direction of foreign policy away from the globalist-progressive agenda. The State Department was to become, as originally intended, a tool of our republic to enhance the freedoms and further the interests of American citizens.

In his inauguration, President Trump stated:

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.  We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.  We will shine for everyone to follow.”

This statement harkens back not only to Reagan’s farewell address, but to early colonists who fled to the new world seeking freedom and opportunities that were denied in their home countries. To achieve this vision, President Trump and his team must change the culture of American diplomacy towards one that prioritizes American interests and respects the sovereignty and self-determination of other peoples.  In essence, a golden rule for American diplomacy.   

The immediate priority for the Trump administration is to get the right appointees into key positions at the State Department and USAID. Obstruction from Senate Democrats has made this a difficult endeavor, but with key meetings in organizations like the Organization of American States coming up this summer and important diplomatic efforts ongoing in the Middle East and Asia, it nevertheless needs to be done.  As evidenced by the January cable signed by thousands of State Department employees regarding President Trump’s executive order on immigration, it is important to ensure that the President’s vision is being implemented by people who share it.

The State Department and USAID, like all other federal agencies, are undergoing an extensive process to review their budgets and management with an eye towards becoming more cost-effective.  Having the right people leading this initiative is again important, and they must identify the programs that are not benefiting the core interests of the United States while prioritizing funding where it is needed. Republicans in Congress must be willing partners in this endeavor to help identify priorities to the administration and prevent Democrats from blocking reform efforts legislatively.

 President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, and other administration officials must also clarify the position of the United States on a number of foreign policy issues, especially in areas where the Obama administration left a damaging impact or caused confusion about U.S. priorities. I respect that Secretary Tillerson is being deliberate in the way he is coming into his new position and hope that it will pay dividends as he undertakes reforms at State. But there is great need for leadership to be asserted and the direction of American policy to be communicated effectively to the foreign policy community and U.S. citizens. Until that happens, there will be a continuation of the diplomatic problems that we’ve seen in places like Eastern Europe.

Diplomacy is hard. Foreign policy, especially for a country as large and successful as the United States, is an art, not a science, and consensus is difficult to come by even within the same political party. But overall it must be guided by a prudent understanding of our national interests and endeavor to enhance our standing around the world, not harm it. The policies of the Obama administration and the way they were promoted internationally were tantamount to a cultural and politically liberal imperialism that did not support our core interests and in some cases undermined them. I hope this panel today can help initiate some of the much-needed changes for our government to put our diplomacy on the right track.