Can Donald Trump Implement a Less Interventionist US Foreign Policy?

Trump's challenge is to resolve the tensions between the two parts of his world view – 'America First' and ‘strong man’ belief – and implement a coherent foreign policy that is acceptable to the American public.

Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

While there has been much derision regarding US president-elect Donald Trump’s policy ideas in general, his views on American foreign policy include a substantive critique of contemporary policy priorities. Trump has an intelligent critique of US foreign policy that has partially got lost in the muddled campaign that he waged and the poorly thought out solutions he proposed. By winning the general elections, he faces the challenge of fashioning a foreign policy based on his critiques while making it politically acceptable to the domestic audience.

In a world where the US is still significantly more powerful than other countries, it has the unique problem of deciding where and when to intervene, almost as a matter of choice than of necessity and defined interests. While most politicians in the US presume the necessity of American leadership, Trump has raised questions about the costs of such interventions. This is a view that goes back to the ‘America First‘ movement, which lost its legitimacy after the Second World War, partly because of its association with racism.

Its substantive critique of foreign policy, however, is worth a debate in the contemporary US, though the implementation of a policy based on that critique is going to bring its own challenges.

Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a consensus between the American Right (particularly neoconservatives) and the dominant Left-wing (liberal hawks) that the US is an indispensable power and it is American intervention that has maintained peace and stability in the world. This mainstream consensus has meant that no president since the beginning of the Cold War has questioned the costs and benefits of such an interventionist foreign policy.

While President Barack Obama promised to rethink American foreign policy priorities, and did dial it back in terms of overt military interventions (at least until the rise of ISIS), he compensated with intensive use of covert operations like special forces and drones, thus broadly maintaining an interventionist (even if ‘smart’) thrust of American foreign policy.

Such an interventionist policy since the beginning of the Cold War represented a striking change compared to US foreign policy priorities until then. From its birth until the end of the Second World War, the US tried to keep itself out of European wars (though in the Western hemisphere, it pursued interventions under the Monroe Doctrine). Famously, the first president, George Washington, warned Americans of the dangers of getting into “permanent alliances,” and wasting blood and treasure by getting entangled in European politics.

The formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) after the Second World War changed the foreign policy priorities of the US irrevocably. For the US, NATO was the first peacetime military alliance with a non-Western hemisphere state since the end of the revolutionary wars. By keeping its “trip wire” forces in Berlin, the US was committing itself to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union even at the risk of war.

By the 1960s, as Western European economies recovered, the US still took on the greater share of the burden of military defence. It subsidised the security of its allies even though rich countries of Western Europe and Japan were more directly threatened by the Soviet Union and could have contributed a greater share for defending themselves.

Since then, the US has pursued a policy of intervening across the world wherever it perceived threats, primarily relating to communism, and in the post-Cold War world, to terrorism. Irrespective of criticisms regarding how particular interventions were carried out, a broad section of opinion from neoconservatives to liberal hawks insists that the US should actively lead the world. While the apologists argued that such intervention helped the US lay the rules for an international order in a manner that is beneficial to its interests, critics questioned whether the costs justified the benefits.

This debate became particularly significant in the post-2003 Iraq War period. The US spent the 1990s as an unrivalled power, and it was a rude awakening that even such a militarily powerful state could not stabilise Afghanistan or Iraq. Critics like Ron Paul (here, here, here and here) (in the political arena) and realists (in the academic world) found stronger support for their previously aired critiques about whether these interventions had benefitted US national interests.

A continent-sized country protected by two oceans, pliant neighbours, a nuclear arsenal and the most powerful military in the world, US is one of the safest countries in the world. The last time the country was invaded by a hostile army was during the war of 1812 (against Great Britain). While terrorist attacks like 9/11 suggest that the US does still face threats, it is arguable that an interventionist foreign policy – for example, support for Israel and authoritarian regimes in West Asia – exacerbates such threats rather than alleviate them.

While America Firsters were mostly isolationists, even realists like diplomat George Kennan (here and here) and scholars Steven van Evera, Barry Posen and John Mearsheimer have previously argued that most of the Third World does not matter for US interests (and in exceptional cases where it does, like the Persian Gulf, interests can be managed through local allies). In the political arena, this viewpoint was barely heard, because to question the role of the US in the world was close to blasphemy.

Trump questioned this mainstream consensus and even though he was neither the first to do so nor was he consistent in that criticism, this critique is part of the reason Trump was welcomed by paleoconservatives.

The Trump campaign’s primary message was that the US has made bad deals (for example, on immigration and trade issues) and others are free-riding on US support. This concern is particularly relevant to US foreign policy. Conventional national interest analysis focuses on costs and benefits. Trump brought such an instrumentalist analysis of American foreign policy to the political arena.

This does not mean that Trump’s foreign policy worldview is necessarily a realist one. While Trump, to some extent, follows the substantive critique of realists, his prescriptions are all over the place because he fails to solve the dilemma that also stumped the current president.

After the excesses of the George W. Bush period, Obama called for major retrenchment. However, as neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan has argued, Americans like Obama’s foreign policy but don’t like its results. After the long Iraq War and the never-ending Afghanistan War, the US public had grown tired of wars and supported Obama’s attempt to withdraw (militarily) from the world but failed to come to terms with the presumed weakness and feeling of irrelevance such withdrawal brings.

While Obama raised pertinent questions about whether substantive US security and strategic interests exist in Syria (he also characterised the 2003 Iraq War as a “dumb war”), his withdrawal left the region with the ISIS – a brutal dictatorship in Syria (and likely in Iraq) – a development that frustrated and angered the American public.

During the campaign, Trump insisted that he opposed the Iraq War (even though he had expressed no opposition before the war). He questioned the utility of America’s alliances, wanted allies to share greater burden (which previous administrations have attempted to do as well), seemed to accept Russian occupation of Crimea, supported the likelihood of allies like Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons to defend themselves and refused to commit to defend all NATO countries from Russian aggression, thus violating a core obligation of NATO.

He questioned the value of most trade agreements the US has negotiated. While these may seem ignorant ramblings, these positions, with the exception of his opposition to free trade agreements that most economists have found unconvincing, can be defended on substantial grounds. Even during the 1990s, realist scholars like Robert Art expressed concerns about expanding NATO. The stability of Cold War was conditional on maintaining spheres of interest.

Mearsheimer has argued that attempting to expand NATO (and the European Union) to Russian borders only increased the latter’s fears of being encircled provoking its interventions in the neighbourhood like in Ukraine (similar to American reaction when the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba during the Cold War). While Russia is a diminished power today, it is still strong enough to intervene and maintain its influence in its immediate neighbourhood. What would be the costs of defending Baltic countries from Russian intervention when these countries lie on the Russian border? If Russia captures a Baltic country, how will it affect global balance of power or other US interests? Are the costs of a war with Russia worth the benefits? Why should rich countries like Japan not contribute more to defend themselves?

Trump’s preferred policy suggestions, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. Trump’s answer to nearly every problem the US faces today is that he is a strong man who can negotiate better deals. The strong man belief diverges from the traditional ‘America First’ worldview and has made Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements incoherent even when he had incisive critiques.

Trump’s ‘America First’ inclinations suggested he preferred to withdraw (at least militarily) from most areas of the world. However, if the US is not defending (or rather sharing the greater share of the burden to defend) the ‘free world,’ its perceived influence also comes down. America Firsters were comfortable with that outcome. Trump, being a ‘strong man,’ and wanting to “Make America Great Again” found it difficult to accept or, at least difficult to justify to his supporters, such a loss of perceived influence. His foreign policy pronouncements became a bundle of contradictions. While he proclaimed his opposition to the Iraq War, he also wanted to “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS” to stabilise the Middle East. Strategic bombing (‘shock and awetactics) was exactly how the 2003 Iraq War began.

At the same time, Trump is a mercantilist who measures foreign policy in terms of monetary benefits. According to him, not only should the US allies pay greater costs but it should also have seized control of oil fields in Iraq as financial rewards. This would have been a war crime. Also, if the US had captured oil fields, insurgency against American occupation would have likely been much stronger.

Trump’s mercantilist impulses directly contradict the lessons of the pitfalls of an interventionist foreign policy. Thus, implementing solutions based on his ‘America First’ critiques will be difficult. In fact, Trump is attempting to walk back on at least one issue. In the recent interview with the editors and columnists of the New York Times, he reiterated the ‘America First’ critique (opposing Iraq War) but did not suggest any policy proposals following that critique (though, he spoke off the record on Syria).

Even while criticising Senator Lindsey Graham’s hawkish arguments on Syria, Trump said “We have to end [the] craziness that’s going on in Syria,” which suggests acceptance of a kind of responsibility and leadership that America Firsters were opposed to. His current and presumed foreign policy picks like Michael Flynn (here and here) and James Mattis (here and here) are known for a more conventional interventionist – if not hawkish – approach to perceived threats from terrorist groups and Iran. Currently, among his national security advisers, there are few who have previously argued for a reduced footprint in world affairs.

Trump’s comments on foreign policy – and the world view underlying them – highlight two important issues. First, it raises questions about costs and benefits of the interventionist foreign policy that the US has adopted since the beginning of the Cold War. While this may seem mercantilist, there is nothing wrong in a cost-benefit analysis of policy options. Two, it also highlights the political difficulties of following a policy that one’s own analysis suggests one should adopt.

While Trump highlighted the costs of an interventionist policy, he seems reluctant to acknowledge that the logical conclusion of that critique is that the US should “pull back.” This is both due to his belief in ‘strong’ leadership and the difficulty of selling a foreign policy that implies it is acceptable to have less influence in the world. In a context where the US can still afford to be interventionist (even if the strategic benefits are tenuous), domestic politics complicates the implementation of a rational foreign policy.

Thus, Trump’s comments include a perceptive critique of contemporary US foreign policy priorities, even if his policy suggestions do not follow up on his own critiques. While such critiques did exist in academia, Trump brought it to the political world like it has not been in the recent past. Two political leaders who made similar critiques – Pat Buchanan (here, here and here) and Ron Paul (here, here, here and here) – were never close to winning a major party nomination, much less the presidency, and hence did not carry the political conversation in the way Trump could and did. The challenge for Trump is to resolve the tensions between the two parts of his world view – ‘America First’ and ‘strong man’ belief – and implement a coherent foreign policy that is acceptable to the American public.

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