A few days before America’s 2022 midterm elections, Ukraine’s President
accused Russia of firing a rocket into Poland. It was a claim with extraordinary implications. Poland, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, benefits from the alliance’s mutual defense pact—an attack against one is an attack against all. The U.S. would plausibly have an obligation to respond militarily to a Russian attack inside Poland. In making the accusation, Mr. Zelensky was pushing on the dominoes that could start the world’s first war between nuclear powers.
The rocket attack, it turns out, came not from
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Russia but from Ukrainian air defenses. Even after NATO made that assessment and acknowledged that Russia hadn’t fired the rocket, Mr. Zelensky continued to deny Ukrainian responsibility. The story faded from the headlines, and Mr. Zelensky enjoyed a hero’s welcome in Washington in December. American taxpayer money has continued to flow to Ukraine. A wiser foreign policy wouldn’t have let such conduct go unnoticed.
Bipartisan foreign policy consensus has led the country astray many times. Leadership in both parties supported the invasion of Iraq, the decadeslong nation-building project in Afghanistan, regime change in Libya and guerrilla war in Syria. All of these policies cost a lot of money and killed many. None of those conflicts has served the nation’s long-term interest. Very few were ever challenged by a leader of national significance.
That is, of course, until
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came along. American partisans view Mr. Trump’s record primarily through a domestic lens. To my fellow Republicans, Mr. Trump lowered taxes and worked hard to deregulate the federal bureaucracy. To Democrats, Mr. Trump was a corrupt narcissist who earned his two impeachments. Yet neither party acknowledges perhaps the most important part of Mr. Trump’s legacy: his successful foreign policy.
My entire adult lifetime has been shaped by presidents who threw America into unwise wars and failed to win them. I had just started high school when
George W. Bush
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was elected president, and his presidency is the first I remember with any detail. Mr. Bush allowed a just war in Afghanistan to turn into a nation-building quagmire and then started an unjust war in Iraq. His successor,
doubled down on nation building in Afghanistan and launched a new war of his own in Libya, with the enthusiastic support of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In Mr. Trump’s four years in office, he started no wars despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration. Not starting wars is perhaps a low bar, but that’s a reflection of the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s predecessors and the foreign-policy establishment they slavishly followed. But Mr. Trump did more than simply keep the peace. He brokered the Abraham Accords, a historic agreement between Israel and Sunni Arab states providing the best hope of a long-term counterbalance to Iran. He began the long, slow process of decoupling the U.S. from its economic reliance on China. He opened diplomatic talks with North Korea after a half century of stagnation. And he pushed hard—to much derision—for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense, precisely so that the U.S. wouldn’t be drawn so deeply and dangerously into a conflict like the one in Ukraine.
A common critique of Mr. Trump, even from his ideological allies, is that he lacks “statesmanship.” Even people who like his policies wish he exercised more verbal restraint. Fair enough. But there’s an implicit critique of America’s leaders hidden below the surface of that accusation. Why is it that the people the U.S. trains for leadership are so careful with their words yet so reckless with their actions? Why does America devote billions of dollars to recruiting and training its best young minds for leadership, only to have those minds orchestrate one foreign-policy disaster after another?
The answer is that, from grand-strategy seminars to the State Department, our entire notion of statesmanship is broken. For many, statesmanship means having a polite social-media presence and throwing out slogans about “freedom” and “democracy” while starting world-historic catastrophes in the Middle East. I prefer a different kind of statesmanship: one that stands athwart the crowd, reminding leaders in both parties that the U.S. national interest must be pursued ruthlessly but also carefully, with strong words but great restraint.
Donald Trump’s presidency marked the first real disruption to a failed consensus and the terrible consequences it wrought. That fact, more than any single accomplishment, is the enduring legacy of Mr. Trump’s first term. But there is much more to do, and I’m supporting him for president in 2024 because he’s the only person certain to do it.
Mr. Vance, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Ohio.
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