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Precept, Aspiration, and the Foreign Policy Debate Under Trump

Given the vagueness, some might say vacuity, of the foreign policy slogans being offered by Donald Trump’s presidential administration—chief among them the bumper sticker ready “America First” whose limits even his own top advisors don’t appear to fully understand—Francis Gavin’s recent critique of foreign policy buzzwords certainly is timely. More than that, it is also timeless, in so far as it reprises a long-held dissatisfaction that scholars and commentators have had with obsessive categorization in American foreign policy.

Image courtesy of the JFK Library, © 1962.

Debates over the future of American foreign policy often are cyclical, meaning issues—such as the utility and dangers of the American commitment to NATO—are fought, resurrected, and refought in a maddening sequence. When confronted with what at first glance appears to be an unprecedented situation, such as the rise of Donald Trump and his infuriatingly cavalier yet surprisingly powerful catchphrases, it is instructive to look to the past for not only reassurance but also a path forward.

Gavin offers an illuminating criticism of the tendency amongst observers of American foreign policy to place far too much stock in what we call our policies as opposed to what those policies actually contain. He notes that although “the urge to create these slogans is understandable… such breezy labeling also has its dangers.” The argument is an important one, and has been a clarion, if intermittent, theme in past debates over American foreign policy.

In the mid-1950s, for instance, Thomas K. Finletter offered a similarly harsh Gavin-esque critique of the use of foreign policy “catchwords” in his book-length treatment of American strategy during the early Cold War, Power and Policy. For Finletter, a future U.S. ambassador to NATO under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations whose work is rarely read or cited today, catchwords may be useful “to describe the policies of the past or those which are fully accepted,” but are pernicious when applied to “policies which are still contentious, because in such a case the catchwords are given different meanings as the user wishes to favor or discredit the policy.” Simplifying a complex situation down to a catchy buzzword therefore provides equal ammunition to both the supporters and critiques of any given policy.

This phenomenon is strikingly at play as writers run circles around themselves trying to understand what Donald Trump’s administration might do in the realm of foreign policy. For instance, the debate over whether Donald Trump is or is not a foreign policy “realist” has been raging for over a year and proven no more illuminating or insightful for all the ink that has been spilt. Unfortunately, this incessant nattering has not only failed to clarify what Trump will do, but even more gravely what he should do. To take but one example, on the question of Syria, foreign policy pundits have argued both that Trump needs to confront Iranian militias and proxy forces or pull back to avoid mission creep, and that Syria is Trump’s most dangerous foreign policy area or a successful restoration of a red line on chemical weapons.

Principled disagreements over policy should be lauded, biased incoherent musings should be damned, and in a crowded media space it can often be difficult to tell one from the other. The most depressing part of these apparent discrepancies is that rather than laying out the underlying assumptions behind their policy prescriptions and having a serious conversation about how these assumptions might drive their analysis, supporters and critics of Trump’s foreign policy alike appear content to bask in siloed ideological applause, dismiss their respective detractors, and gossip over palace intrigue.

Having diagnosed a similar problem in his day, Finletter helpfully also offered a solution. Moreover, it is one that modern day observers would do well to remember. Finletter argued that the United States needed to clearly differentiate between two distinct aspects of its foreign policy, precepts and aspirations. A precept, in Finletter’s conception, is a policy “we intend to try to put into practice immediately, a policy so well agreed upon and so important that we intend to press it vigorously in the day-to-day working of our government.” In contrast, an aspiration is a policy “we would like to see in effect but is either so impossible to realize at the moment that we cannot do anything about it,” or carries with it such a high risk of catastrophe or failure that it is decidedly unwise. Importantly, Finletter acknowledges policies can “of course, shift from one category to another. They are indeed in constant motion.”

There is certainly a great deal of irony in criticizing the use of foreign policy slogans and then offering up new buzzwords as a potential solution. Nevertheless, given the general unhelpfulness of the current debate surrounding the Trump administration and its foreign policy, a clear bifurcation between practical, urgent policy issues and those which are useful only as a future desire would go a long way towards progressing the conversation. For instance, should action on climate change be a precept or an aspiration of American foreign policy? Similarly, is stability in Syria a short-term or long term endeavor? What about China? Finletter is no prophet, and his differentiation between precept and aspiration is in and of itself no panacea. Recognizing the turbid stagnation of current foreign policy criticism, however, and emphasizing clarity, rigor, and practicality in proffered solutions, is in an important first step out of our current foreign policy muck.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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