Better Alternatives to President Trump’s Foreign Policies

By Louis Kriesberg

(Re-published from OUP Blog | April 16, 2017) President Donald J. Trump has hastily undertaken many misguided foreign policies. They are purported to meet terrible threats; but the threats are misdiagnosed and the crude policies to deal with them are often inconsistent with each other and counter-productive. Going beyond just saying “no,” I will discuss a few core ideas of the constructive conflict approach and relate them to current Trump’s foreign policies and better alternatives.

 “American citizens must resist the current backward steps and work for the better possibilities.”

A primary idea of the approach is that adversaries wage conflicts by various mixtures of non-coercive as well as by coercive inducements. Coercion itself ranges widely in degrees of violence and non-violence. Non-coercion includes diverse forms of persuasion and the provision or promise of benefits for compliance. Trump clearly unduly stresses reliance on military and other forms of coercion. This over reliance in countering the threat of terrorism against the American homeland is particularly misguided. In significant degree, the groups resorting to terrorist attacks are waging an ideological war, which requires recruiting supporters and fighters. Persuading members and potential recruits to such groups that America is not an enemy that aims to harm them is a central element in wining that war. Indeed, America is widely seen in many parts of the world as a model society. It possess great soft power, and was crucial in winning the Cold War. American-Soviet cultural exchanges and other experiences helped undermine Soviet leaders’ faith in their authoritarian Soviet system and seek democratic changes.

Another core idea is that conflicts are socially constructed, since the adversaries seek to define who the enemy is and seek to define themselves. Adversaries contend about these definitions, which undergo changes in the course of a conflict. It is generally useful for an adversary party to characterize the enemy in terms that shrink its size and capacities and characterize itself as large and inclusive. Since each side in a large-scale conflict is heterogeneous, the possibility of splintering the adversary is often present. This and related ideas have important implications for US efforts to defeat ISIS and other such organizations deriving from extremist Islamic thinking. This includes strengthening ties with Muslims in the United States and abroad as well as with the governments of countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Nearly all of them are already hostile to the extremists who claim their radical views of Islam are the only correct one. Another implication is to avoid US immigration policies that target Muslims in any categorical way. That lends credence to Islamic extremists’ accusation that the United States is against all Muslims.

Another core idea is that each conflict inter-connects with many others. Thus, adversaries in smaller conflicts are often also adversaries in larger ones (over time and space) and adversaries in one conflict also engage in different sets of other conflicts. Consequently, a change in salience of one conflict may affect the salience of others, as when a minor enemy moves up to be a major one, new alliances are likely. Bi-lateral relations turn out not to be isolated. Trump is beginning to recognize the problems this can cause, for example in trying to improve bi-lateral relations with Russia. However, there are also opportunities that these complexities can foster constructive conflict transformations. This is the case especially in the Middle East.

Finally, an important constructive conflict idea is that understanding the perspectives of one’s opponents is conducive to better policies. Interestingly, the new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis (retired Marine General), stresses this. Having expert knowledge of the countries where US officials are engaged should not be limited to bilateral issues. Indeed, such knowledge can help discover shared or complementary interests and thereby transform a conflict.

A major implication of these observations is that the possible contributions of the US State Department are more important than ever. The State Department must play a major role in expanded persuasive efforts on many fronts. It needs to help assess the priority of various foreign issues, utilizing expert knowledge of the foreign actors’ perspectives. Furthermore, much work must be done to alleviate the consequences of wars and prevent their recurrence. Civilians fleeing wars and oppression and entering nearby countries desperately need assistance. The State Department is needed to help build peace in war-devastated countries so that wars do not re-emerge. Yet Trump is dangerously deconstructing the Department of State.

Trump and his close advisers are disrupting many achievements of US foreign policy. The considerable influence of Stephen K. Bannon on Trump regarding these matters is unfortunate. He offers a grand political theory about economic, ethnic, and cultural nationalism, the primacy of sovereignty and borders, and the deconstruction of the administrative state. This theory consists largely of assertions or preferences, but they are not grounded on solid evidence …

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INSCT Afilliated Faculty Member Louis Kriesberg is Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Syracuse University.