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Weld’s Underwhelming Foreign Policy Alternative

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld intends to mount a primary challenge against Trump. To that end, he spelled out his foreign policy views in a new article for Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, Weld makes a number of bad mistakes that undermine his effort to offer a credible alternative on foreign policy. He begins by lambasting Trump for “isolationism,” which misunderstands what Trump’s foreign policy is and why it is so awful. He then explains that he is running on a platform of nostalgia:

I am running against Trump for the Republican nomination for president in part to return the United States to the stable, bipartisan foreign policy that brought the United States through the Cold War. This means restoring deep connections with our European and Asian allies and with Israel.

I’m not sure what the constituency is for such a “return.” It’s not clear that it would be desirable even if it were possible. For one thing, the “stable, bipartisan foreign policy” to which Weld refers was a function of the Cold War rivalry with the USSR. It is not possible to “return” to such a foreign policy without having a major rivalry like that. The U.S. needs a foreign policy that addresses the realities of the present, and running back to an old bipartisan consensus won’t provide that. There is an unthinking dogmatism about Weld’s formula that treats “deep connections” with these other states almost as if they are ends in themselves instead of a means of advancing U.S. security. Why in particular does the U.S. need “deep connections” with Israel as it extends and intensifies its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories? Circumstances and U.S. interests would suggest that the connection should be reduced rather than deepened, but Weld isn’t interested in talking about that.

Weld bangs the drum about “isolationism” several times, and it is as tiresome as it is wrong:

Yet the United States cannot afford to retreat into isolationism, as the Trump administration has done.

The problem here isn’t just that Trump hasn’t “retreated into isolationism,” but that Weld is so determined to shoehorn Trump into this category because his own foreign policy worldview is boilerplate hawkishness and “isolationism” is the only thing he knows to attack. Weld gets Trump’s foreign policy wrong, and his analysis of foreign threats seems to be similarly blinkered. He says this about Russia: “Russia appears determined to redraw its borders to match those of the former Soviet Union—using military force if necessary.” This is false and alarmist.

Weld claims to eschew a “full-blown neoconservative approach,” but it’s not clear where he actually disagrees with that approach. Like them, he insists that the U.S. is a “guarantor of world order,” which implies a similarly aggressive foreign policy of maintaining hegemony and punishing challengers. He says that we should use force “only when it is necessary,” but necessary for what? If he means necessary only for U.S. and allied security, that’s one thing. If he means necessary for preserving “world order,” that is something very different.

His comments on North Korea and Iran are mostly just puzzling:

Every U.S. administration since the Cold War has been determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. As president, I would be no less determined. If North Korea and Iran obtain or build nuclear weapons, then it will be the fault of the United States and its partners.

Does Weld not know that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade? Does he not realize that North Korea isn’t ever giving them up? Does he understand that Iran has repeatedly committed to never build or acquire nuclear weapons? His determination to prevent something that already happened and stop something that isn’t likely to occur is odd. It suggests that Weld doesn’t really understand either of these issues well enough to comment on them.

The one bright spot in Weld’s article is his criticism of Trump’s decision to renege on the JCPOA and his acknowledgment that the crisis with Iran is “of Trump’s making.” He’s right on both counts, but then his proposed solution is so vague as to be almost worthless:

Solving the Iran problem will require a new diplomatic strategy that does not undermine our credibility—as Trump’s decision to tear up the deal did—or appear desperate for a new deal. We cannot ignore Iran’s latest acts of aggression against Saudi Arabia and others, even if Saudi Arabia poses its own set of problems for us with its support for Sunni extremists. But if a new deal can be negotiated—perhaps after we make clear to Iran that naked aggression is a nonstarter—it should be. This is a situation that calls for finesse and attention to events, not ham-fisted actions driven by delusions.

On North Korea, Weld says that the U.S. needs a “flexible approach.” That sounds promising, but he never explains what he means by flexible, and it is hard to square that with his insistence that North Korea can’t have nuclear weapons. At the end, Weld says “to govern is to choose,” but in his article the former governor doesn’t want to make clear choices and would prefer to have things both ways. Weld’s primary challenge is a long shot, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a constituency for his kind of Republicanism. He isn’t doing himself any favors with so many tired and inadequate foreign policy arguments.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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