‘America First’ Enters Its Most Combustible Moment

‘America First’ Enters Its Most Combustible Moment

If the next 150 days turn out to be Trump’s final days in office, he could still wreak a lot of havoc on American foreign policy.

The months before and after a presidential election are particularly fragile for foreign policy. Each of the five presidents I served understood, as did his team, the weight of this time. Politics and legacy were always front of mind. They were all also conscious of the ways they could help pave an easier path for their successors. They all ultimately put country over party. That won’t be the case with Donald Trump. If the next 150 days turn out to be Trump’s final days in office, he could still wreak a lot of havoc on American foreign policy.

As a young National Security Council staffer, I sat in the Oval Office in December 1988 as Ronald Reagan—the fireplace crackling behind him—authorized the first-ever U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He saw it, at least in part, as a way to spare his successor, then–Vice President George H. W. Bush, from spending precious political capital early in his administration on an essential, if controversial, step toward Middle East peacemaking.

At the end of the George H. W. Bush administration, in January 1993, as the head of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, I wrote a long transition memorandum for incoming Secretary of State Warren Christopher. That memo was not appreciably different from a draft I had written six months earlier, prematurely titled “A Foreign Policy for the Second Bush Term.” The point of the exercise was less the title, or even the content, than the commitment to a responsible transition and the national interest.

In the summer of 2008, serving in the No. 3 position in the State Department, I accompanied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Oval Office to discuss with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney whether the administration should reverse its policy and join our international partners at the negotiating table with Iran. No fire burned in the fireplace that July day, but the same unspoken sense of responsibility pervaded the room. The issue was not only whether the decision made sense on its merits, but also whether it would help strengthen a diplomatic legacy and create a little bit more room for the next administration to maneuver. Bush made his choice briskly and authorized me to travel to Geneva for the talks. Cheney objected, arguing that we should not reward Iranian misbehavior. “Dick,” President Bush said with a wave of his hand, “I’m okay with this, and I’ve made up my mind.”

I can’t imagine Trump taking the notion of a responsible transition seriously. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, has argued that the president cannot see any foreign-policy question in terms other than his reelection prospects or ego gratification.

None of this means, however, that the Trump administration is incapable of constructive foreign-policy moves, or ignorant of their legacy-burnishing potential at a moment when Trump’s foreign-policy legacy has unlimited space for burnishing. The recent breakthrough toward normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a significant achievement, with considerable potential if—and it’s a big if—it is tethered to more serious diplomacy on either the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the challenge posed by Iran.

Further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, in accordance with agreements negotiated with the Taliban and in close coordination with the Afghan government, would be a useful step toward extricating ourselves from that forever war. And extending the New START agreement with Russia, which is due to expire early next year, would be important. Without it, what remains of nuclear-arms-control architecture will collapse in a dangerous heap. None of these steps would rewrite Trump’s corrosive foreign-policy legacy, nor would they have any significant political effect on the November election. But they would matter a great deal for American interests.