Learning from the Ghosts of Foreign Policies Past

Perhaps the scariest words in Joe Biden’s speech to the joint session of Congress were, “America is back.” Combine this with former President George W. Bush’s recent charge that the Republican Party of today is isolationist, protectionist, and nativist, and one could be forgiven for imagining Biden and Bush were harkening back to some golden age of foreign policy. 

But let us take a closer look at how the ghosts from the pre-Trump era still haunt us.

As my colleague Fred Fleitz pointed out in a recent opinion piece, China should be viewed as a hostile state power and adversary, not a competitor. China has evolved into a strategic threat economically and militarily because, prior to President Donald Trump, the United States coddled China. 

In 2001, the United States signed the final documents granting China permanent normal trade relationship status. For the next 16 years, successive presidents took their eyes off of China as Beijing aggressively exploited our trade relationship and put American workers out of work and job providers out of business. They also watched as China launched a massive military build-up to challenge us.

Just as striking are the other colossal foreign policy failures during those 16 years. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Arab Spring, and the ISIS caliphate spanning much of Syria and Iraq are major policy blunders from this time. They cost America precious lives and treasure. Since 2001, these costs have included the lives of more than 7,000 American service members, an estimated 8,000 U.S. contractors, and approximately $5 trillion. This was far from a golden age in American foreign policy.

So, as we evaluate this “golden pre-Trump era” what do we find? America continues to fight and be attacked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and across Africa. The ISIS caliphate, which was allowed to rise during this golden era, was dismantled, but Syria remains an unstable humanitarian and environmental nightmare. 

These foreign policy results are why the American people responded so positively to President Trump’s America First foreign policy to keep the United States out of endless and unnecessary wars and not start new ones.

Now is not the time for George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Joe Biden to be taking victory laps. Americans do not want to go back to the policies of that era—adventurism masquerading as global engagement, conceding our economic position to China on the altar of free trade, and open borders.

Is it fair to attack people for nativism just because they are opposed to open borders? Slandering Americans who believe that immigration to the United States should be managed is disappointing. I am a naturalized citizen of the United States. I have witnessed and participated in numerous naturalization ceremonies and seen the joy in people’s eyes when they receive their new status—citizen of the United States of America. Those naturalization papers are among the most valued documents in the world that a person can receive. They should be treated as such.

Returning to the failed policies of 2001-2016 as Bush and Biden say we should will lead to the same failed results. Does anyone really believe that doing the same thing, will somehow yield different results? As someone who once advocated some of these policies, I do not. We should all be willing to learn from what did not work in the past.  

President Trump tried something new and got different results. Rather than more wars, he tried diplomacy and economic sanctions. He exhibited strength, without resorting to military force, by using tough rhetoric and rebuilding the U.S. military.  

The results include the Abraham Accords, which was a major foreign policy breakthrough towards normalization in the Middle East. On the border, Trump restored the rule of law and used diplomacy with Mexico and Central American countries, resulting in significant decreases in illegal border crossings. On trade, Trump challenged China on trade policy, intellectual property theft, human rights, and the role of the Chinese Communist Party. This finally put China on notice, and there are few signs Americans want to go back to the way things were.

Joe Biden is reading too much into the November election. America never left the global scene during the Trump presidency. Under the leadership of President Trump, America started to expunge the ghosts of the previous years. Biden should not bring them back.

About Peter Hoekstra

Peter Hoekstra was U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump Administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently chairman of the Center for Security Policy’s board of advisors.

Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

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