KYIV, Ukraine—America’s post-9/11 global fight against terrorism is another year older. After 18 years, American troops are still deployed around the world combatting terrorism; a fight in which they will likely remain engaged for another generation, or more.
Yet, even as America’s counterterrorism campaigns go on and on, and casualties continue to mount slowly, the country’s foreign policy challenges have become far more diverse—and arguably far more dangerous—than they were when dawn broke on Sept. 11, 2001.
After a generational focus on counterterrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers are adapting to a new reality in which so-called strategic competition between nation-states and the specter of major conflicts are once again driving world events.
This new era requires a top-to-bottom rethinking of how America should exercise its role as the world’s top power. To that end, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, the Trump administration has given American foreign policy a much-needed course correction after the Obama era.
“My sense, from having now traveled a bit, is that when President [Donald] Trump came into office people were confused that [President Barack Obama] had traveled much of the globe apologizing for many of the things that America had done around the world over the past decades,” Pompeo tells The Daily Signal in an exclusive, wide-ranging telephone interview.
“I and President Trump have a very different take. Every place we go, America is a force for good. I believe that with all my heart,” Pompeo says, adding:
We don’t always get it right. Not always perfect. But our efforts are noble and important, and we try to make America secure and at the same time [improve] the lives of people in every country … to improve their capacity for freedom and liberty in their own nation.
Totalitarian governments in China and Russia are increasingly turning to foreign adventures to advertise their legitimacy to domestic audiences. Meanwhile, with the rising use of “gray zone” tactics among America’s adversaries, a country’s power on the world stage no longer is measured by economic clout, military force, or even diplomatic sway.
Rather, the audacious use of misinformation to shape public opinion at home and abroad allows countries like Iran and Russia to punch well above their hard and soft power weight classes in influencing world events.
The world not only is a dangerous place, but numerous global hot spots remain just one so-called Franz Ferdinand scenario away from disaster. To name a few: Russian artillery thunders daily in eastern Ukraine; Iran’s aggression is ratcheting up in the Strait of Hormuz and across the Middle East; China and the U.S. are embroiled in a trade war as Beijing ramps up its militarization of the South China Sea; Venezuela muddles along as a failed socialist state in waiting; and the denuclearization of North Korea remains elusive. The list goes on.
“When President Trump took office there were a … number of places where America had been absent from the stage and allowed challenges to be presented to American national security,” Pompeo tells The Daily Signal.
Evidently, the arc of history is not automatically bending toward a global utopia. Consequently, in the eyes of the Trump administration, the world needs American leadership. However, choosing the country’s foreign policy commitments requires some tough tradeoffs, Pompeo says.
“An America that seeks to be everywhere and police everything is destined to minimize its capacity to actually achieve good ends for America, and frankly, for the most countries as well,” Pompeo says, making the case for the Trump administration’s “America first” doctrine of prioritizing U.S. interests.
“So when I think about our role, it’s in that light,” Pompeo says. “It’s about making sure that where we go, wherever we expend our energy and our time and our resources, wherever we put our young men and women in the military at risk, that we’re doing so with a clear vision of how it makes America more secure.”
A key plank of Trump’s “America First” philosophy, Pompeo says, is to shore up America’s economy as a hedge against today’s myriad international threats.
“The president has focused very much on the fact that without a strong American economy all of these risks become greater,” Pompeo says. “Much of the diplomatic effort we’ve been engaged in … has been aimed at ensuring that America has access to markets, that we are using our diplomatic efforts to help make sure that America’s economy can continue to grow and prosper; knowing that when we get that right, we can … handle the security issues appropriately as well.”
Afghanistan is one place where the Trump administration believes the U.S. can streamline its military footprint, freeing up counterterrorism resources to wage a fight that is now more globally dispersed than in the period immediately following the September 2001 terror attacks.
“The question today is how do we make sure that we match today’s requirements with American resources to most effectively keep America safe,” Pompeo says.
Today, about 14,500 U.S. troops remain deployed to Afghanistan, providing air support and other types of assistance to Afghan forces.
After more than a year of negotiations, Washington and the Taliban appeared to be nearing a breakthrough deal last week for the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. However, Trump announced Saturday that he was cutting off those talks after a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul killed an American soldier—the 16th U.S. fatality in Afghanistan this year.
Peace talks with the Taliban, for the time being, are dead in the water. So, too, is the prospect of an American exit from Afghanistan in the near future.
Yet, the global fight against terrorism cannot be reduced to one theater. And, according to Pompeo, the Trump administration scored a key win in that broader conflict in March with the territorial defeat of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
“ISIS had risen when [Trump] came into office. We’ve laid out a strategy and now have delivered the defeat of the caliphate in Syria,” Pompeo says, using an alternative name for the Islamic State terrorist group.
“We know … the radical Islamic terrorists are still out there and they want to do harm to America,” Pompeo adds. “But we took down the caliphate and reduced the risk from that particular place, so we’ve been very focused on that and we’ll have to continue to be.”
A frequent criticism of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is that by pursuing “America First,” it has diminished the nation’s global standing. Critics contend that Trump’s sometimes-sharp criticism of America’s allies has unnecessarily chafed formerly dependable relationships.
Also, the president’s challenge of the utility of legacy international institutions—NATO, in particular—has led to warnings from many quarters about the impending ruination of the liberal world order.
“The order that has structured international politics since the end of World War II is fracturing,” wrote the authors of a December article in Foreign Affairs magazine. Trump has “upended” the “rules-based international order,” which, the authors noted, concurrently is under assault from countries such as Russia and China.
Pompeo doesn’t discount the historic security challenges facing Western democracies. Yet, the secretary of state also challenges the notion that America’s national esteem is on the decline, or that the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine somehow had dimmed the global promise of democracy and undercut the stability of the so-called rules-based world order.
For his part, Pompeo argues that the U.S. brand is as strong as ever in the eyes of those who want to achieve a better life by emulating America’s founding values in their own countries. The world is always watching, and the example set by America’s democratic republic—warts and all—has global repercussions, the secretary of state says.
America’s role in the world is to “be that beacon, to be that shining light, to be demonstrably right when it comes to freedom and liberty,” Pompeo says. “That exceptional place that we know America to be, we can never lose sight of that. We have to demonstrate that each and every day.”
U.S. foreign policy cannot rely solely on either coercion or enticement to influence the behaviors of foreign governments. And not every outcome that America seeks to achieve around the world comes at a price.
Rather, Pompeo says, the U.S. retains a singular ability to effect geopolitical change through the inspirational power of “those founding ideas that underlay the American vision and the American story.”
“When you exert America’s influence around the world in a way that is reflective of our country and its founding ideas of individual liberty and freedom, and a sense [that] each nation has its own sovereign right to make decisions for itself, [then] we’re going to do things that are best for the American people,” Pompeo says.
“When you start to get that right, we can travel around these conflict regions and conflict issues … and see that in every case we’ve put America in a better place than we were, even in the course of just two and a half short years,” he adds.
Ongoing protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s rule, along with the recent anti-government protests in Russia, suggest that the global appeal of freedom and democracy may not be as passé as the Trump administration’s critics contend.
“I see this in many pockets of the world where authoritarian regimes are in control,” Pompeo tells The Daily Signal. “I see human beings seeking to make life better for themselves and their family. That’s certainly economically. But more broadly, I see them seeking to assert their rights.”
In the interview, Pompeo doesn’t link the parallel protest movements in Hong Kong and Russia as part of a gathering global tide against authoritarianism. He does, however, say that free access to information in today’s digitized world has helped spread expectations of basic human rights and freedom worldwide.
“As we now live in this age where information can flow across boundaries in a way that it couldn’t five years ago, or 25 years ago, and the world now has the capacity to see that there is opportunity … and that freedom and democracy actually work to deliver better economic outcomes as well,” Pompeo says. “I do see this happening in countries across the world, and I’m thankful for that.”
A Human Face
Pompeo has worn a lot of hats in his life—Army officer, congressman from Kansas, CIA director, and, since April 26, 2018, America’s 70th secretary of state.
Through it all, the 55-year-old California native has participated in the exercise of American power abroad at nearly every level of government.
During Pompeo’s sweeping career, some experiences stand apart, offering a uniquely human face to the consequences of decisions made at the very pinnacle of U.S. governmental power.
One such moment happened while he was in North Korea in May 2018. As the new secretary of state paved the way for the first summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he also negotiated for the release of three American prisoners held by Pyongyang.
“We’d had a long day of discussions with Chairman Kim and we believed we were going to get these three Americans out, but we weren’t sure,” Pompeo recalls.
After 13 hours in North Korea, including a 90-minute meeting with Kim, Pompeo reboarded his jet, still unsure whether the prisoners would be released.
Then the vehicles pulled up, and the three Americans got out.
“I remember when they climbed out of the van, and they could walk, and it looked like their health conditions were good,” Pompeo recalls of the prisoners’ last-minute deliverance.
“What a relief it was for me. What a proud moment it was for me to have been able to be there and engage in the conversation on behalf of President Trump that led these three men to be able to return to their homes and to their families,” Pompeo says.
“And it was truly, personally rewarding to watch as they climbed the stairs into the airplane and get a chance to shake their hand and give them a hug and tell them they were on their way home.”
With the frenetic pace of his duties as secretary of state, Pompeo has little time to reflect on his place in history. But, given that America is on the cusp of a new era of geopolitics, the Trump administration is, perhaps, setting the tone for American policy for generations to come.
“This isn’t academic,” Pompeo says of his responsibilities as secretary of state, adding:
This isn’t just about something that happened at a think tank, or a policy that someone’s going to write about in a magazine. The decisions we make, and the way that we execute them, impact real people every day. It keeps me going. It reminds me of how focused I need to be and how good my team needs to be.
Ultimately, Pompeo says, he aspires to put America’s interests, as well as those of its partners and allies, “on a trajectory that will lead to good outcomes … that go far beyond the time of service that I’ll have.”
“But I spend my time focused on trying to deliver outcomes, and then the history books will be written,” he says.