Under Trump, Foreign Policy, Scientific Funding, And Other Aspirational Policies Are Threatened: What Can Be Done?
The Trump Administration has proven to be a threat to public policy initiatives rooted in aspirational goals. President Donald Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw from Syria serves as a prime example of how the failure of foreign policy experts to thoroughly justify US engagement in a foreign land can result in an unexpected foreign policy pivot by a President indifferent to the broader consequences of his decisions. Tertiary threats to the United States like that posed by the Islamic State may help support US engagement in places like Syria, but the basis for US engagement in the region, ultimately, centers on ill-defined “vital national interests.” For those who see the world in terms of an international community fueled by global commerce, the need to maintain security and stability around the globe is enough of a vital national interest for all world powers to intervene in foreign conflicts. For those who believe in world peace, human rights, and human progress, the humanitarian cost of war is enough to justify international intervention. For more traditional, more nationalistic thinkers, however, there is rarely justification for the US to go to war outside of self-preservation. The failure of the President’s foreign policy advisers to convince him of the aspirational objectives behind US foreign policy is what ended US intervention in Syria.
With that in mind, President Trump is a business-minded person who makes his decisions based on a minimal amount of information and understanding in a short time-frame. The consequence of that is a tendency for leaders like Trump to focus on the short-term, most apparent costs and benefits of decisions. US foreign policy cannot, however, be understood in terms of individual policies. Every policy decision must be viewed as an attempt to secure US influence and, ultimately, US interests. By cultivating strong US relations with other governments and Peoples of nations, the US is able to forge the allies it needs to ensure its security and dissuade any adversaries from engaging in aggressions. The objective is to create an unrivaled alliance. To make the world safe for Americans, the globe needs to be relatively stable in terms of security and economics, would-be adversaries, including allies, need to have their military might suppressed, and democratic governance is needed to limit the power of world leaders. This requires the existence of an international community maintained and somewhat regulated by international governance. Although the governments of the world set global policies via international institutions and their own foreign policies, those policies mean nothing without an enforcement/ “policing” mechanism, which is something only the US military is capable of facilitating.
America was involved in Syria for a variety of aspirational reasons that go beyond the alleged vital national interests used to justify US engagement, i.e. pacifying the threat the Islamic State posed to the United States. The primary reasons were the systemic threats a fully destabilized Syria posed to Middle Eastern security and the loss of US influence in the oil-rich region due to an emerging power vacuum being filled by powers unfriendly to the United States and its allies. For some, including this writer, limited US engagement, such as the targeted-bombing of regime forces and support for rebel groups, was necessary due to the humanitarian crisis created by the Bashar al-Assad regime murdering its own people for protesting. The latter is certainly the most aspirational, but the simple fact is that public policies, including foreign policies, do not have to be fully justified or actually serve vital national interests, though supporting humanitarian causes helps the US garner support from the Peoples of the world. Public policies, especially for democratic countries like the United States, depend more on who supports them than what arguments support them. Ultimately, either influential members of a society or a critical mass of people must support a policy. If the majority of the American People want to safeguard the Syrian People from their own government, because the US has the military might to do so, the US will do that. If they do not and government leaders do not override public opinion, no matter how strong the strategic argument is, the US will not.
Furthermore, the same is true of all public policies. The justifications and rationales for a public policy can be used to drum up support, but it is the support of a policy that determines its fate. In the case of public policies based more aspirations than strategic and easily-established objectives, it is a lot harder to garner the support among the populous and public officials needed to implement such policies. Under the Trump Administration, a number of traditionally-embraced aspirational policies appear to be under threat by a President whose worldview does not resonate with those supporting such policies. Beyond foreign policy, the government shutdown over border wall funding has impacted a number of areas. For his part, Mr. Trump appears indifferent to the troubles the shutdown is causing. One of those areas happens to be the funding of scientific research. Although the connection between public funding of past scientific research to modern technology, economic gain, and military might is, at least, intuitively understood by the scientific community and the general public, while it can be factually linked, the justification for current and future funding relies largely on aspirational rationales. The reason is that the most important benefits of scientific research are rarely direct or intentional benefits. Because research was being funded in the past based on often dubious justifications, it happened to yield numerous benefits that impact modern life in big ways. Unfortunately, society has grown far more intolerant to aspirational justifications, even as the fruits of publicly funded scientific research have had a unprecedented impact on the world.
Under the leadership and mindset of men like Donald Trump, it is increasingly difficult to institute policies with indirect, long-term, and unclear benefits. It is, therefore, necessary for public policy advocates and advisers to strengthen their arguments for such public policies. They must also create the justifications to support policies that cannot be fully justified or understood in terms of their immediate, direct benefits and costs. Just because the implications of a policy are not fully understood or predictable does not mean the consequences of abandoning that policy will go unrealized. Aspirational policies are just as necessary as well-justified, strategic policies with clear outcomes. It is, however, very difficult to garner the support of people who do not see and support the benefits, or at least the potential benefits, of a public policy. In the past, foreign policy initiatives and funding for scientific research were often embraced on highly questionable justifications. Today, there is a great deal more scrutiny, yet the need to offer some direct and certain benefit still remains. Stronger arguments do not, however, necessarily require more obvious objectives. Stronger arguments can also rely on greater honesty. This means the aspirational goals must be directly argued instead of the largely superficial rationales used in the past to justify aspirational public policies.
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