Analysis & Opinions - Wall Street Journal

Impeachable or Not, Trump's Foreign Policy is Reckless

| Dec. 16, 2019

As Congress debates whether President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine constitute an abuse of power, Americans should ask what Mr. Trump’s behavior says about his foreign policy. Mr. Trump’s conduct sends conflicting signals and risks big mistakes.

Why was Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, usurping policy toward Ukraine, which is not in the EU, and under whose instructions? What did Mr. Sondland seek to accomplish—beyond arranging meetings and calls—regarding Ukraine, Russia and Europe? Rudy Giuliani dropped in as a bizarre presidential emissary, a mishmash of Mr. Trump’s private lawyer, unseemly deal-maker and political fixer. The secretaries of state and defense, along with the national security adviser, shrank to the shadows.

The civil servants and military officers who testified before the House Intelligence Committee were trying to execute legacy policies to counter Russian aggression. Moscow had seized Ukrainian territory, threatened to widen the battleground, probed the security of the Baltic states and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, manipulated U.S. and European elections, and assisted in shooting down a civilian airliner. If President Vladimir Putin could reabsorb a broken Ukraine, he could re-establish a Russian empire for the 21st century, pressing upon Europe’s weak eastern border.

The career officials saw Ukraine as a troubled young democracy on the European frontier—plagued by corruption and a struggling economy, under attack overtly and covertly by Russia. American policy recognized Ukraine as a trans-Atlantic borderland, geographically and politically. U.S. officials were seeking to help Ukraine defend itself, perhaps creating a basis for negotiations with Russia once the U.S. changed Moscow’s calculation of easy gains versus minimal costs.

There is no evidence that Mr. Trump recognized this analysis of Russian aggression, or this legacy Ukraine policy, although many in Congress approved of both. So how might one make sense of his policy?

Walter Russell Mead postulates in these pages that some Republicans play down Ukraine in the belief that “the center of gravity of American policy must move from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.” This assessment would fit Mr. Trump’s nagging of Germany, a key actor in Europe; his delight at Brexit; and his dismissal of the political-security logic of an integrated Europe as an American partner. Ironically, President Obama’s diffidence and “pivot” to Asia foreshadowed Mr. Trump’s disdain for Europe.

If Mr. Trump’s disregard for Europe amounts to a de facto strategic choice, then Americans ought to debate it.

Mr. Trump ignores geography and international politics. The idea of geopolitics arose just over a century ago from a recognition of the strategic importance of Eurasia—Europe and Asia. The vast territory, population and resources of Eurasia make this landmass more significant than any other. More recently, Johns Hopkins historian Kristina Spohr has observed that in 1989 Eurasia’s two Communist giants chose different paths. The Soviet Communist Party yielded power, and the country fragmented. China maintained strict political control while adapting party ideology to allow a market-oriented “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which President Xi Jinping is now reframing to underscore the dominance of the Communist Party.

Russia and China both understand Europe’s importance. Mr. Putin wants Russia to have a hand in Europe’s affairs, while standing apart, thereby re-establishing Russia’s historical role as arbiter, manipulator and sometime protector of European states. Mr. Xi’s China is building Belt and Road transportation corridors across Asia to Europe as the foundation for a new international hierarchy of tributary relations.

Thus in geopolitical terms alone, a U.S. strategy to address China’s rise and Russia’s restoration needs a European dimension. Europe’s population size, level of development, technical capacity and military potential demand American attention. Henry Kissinger has warned that Europe may become a strategic appendage of Eurasia if it fails to develop a unified perspective and strategic outlook.

U.S. strategy, however, does not rely on geopolitics alone. President Reagan recognized that the American standard of freedom is both a strength and a rallying point for allies and aspirants. Europeans are America’s natural partners, ideologically as well as geopolitically—as are Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other democracies along the Pacific Rim.

This wider lens reveals that foreign-policy methods must involve more than military might, even though armed power is vital. Diplomacy aims to build coalitions and develop mutually useful rules and institutions. The U.S., as a full-service power with global reach, has been best-positioned to muster and persuade, as well as to deter and dissuade. America’s experience and contacts in Europe and Asia—as well as in other regions—build diplomatic capital. This diplomatic strategy sounds very different from the discordant notes of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Fire without light, fury without purpose, activity without aim—each of these summarize Mr. Trump’s misadventure in Ukraine. Policy for this president is all about personal politics. He begins with disruption—breaking things—but lacks the patience and attention to rebuild. The U.S. is a powerful, resourceful country with a reservoir of resilience. But Americans cannot afford to dissipate their strengths—and tarnish their purposes—without end.

Mr. Zoellick is a former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Zoellick, Robert.“Impeachable or Not, Trump's Foreign Policy is Reckless.” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2019.