Transitioning American Foreign Policy

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar Province, Afghanistan, August 7, 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)For better or worse, we are returning to the mentality that followed Vietnam until the first Gulf War.

Both officially and unofficially, Trump’s foreign policy has been described as “principled realism.” What does that mean?

Neither nation building nor apologetic isolationism? Hurting Iran by not sending ground troops into the Middle East, but by ratcheting up sanctions and deterrent U.S. naval and air power in the region?

More often, proponents define that term as punishing enemies and helping friends, and thereby persuading observant neutrals to make the right choices. Principled realism is charitably described as an effort to enhance U.S. power, commercially and economically, but to use it sparingly abroad for U.S. interests — and with maximum effect when force is called upon.

Critics, on the other hand, lament that America has now become isolationist, and overly “nationalistic” in diminishing the role of idealism in its foreign policy. The United States is supposedly cynically resigned to the idea that the world is forever a dark and gloomy place and the U.S. can hardly lead a crusade to bring consumer capitalism, democracy, and human rights to 7 billion people.

Yet most would agree that the U.S. is not so much withdrawing from its 75-year postwar role of leadership of the free world as much as radically redefining it.

So, what is current Trump’s foreign policy?

Before answering that question, first pose another: Why would anyone wish to radically recalibrate our role in the world after 2016?

The answers are many:

  • The U.S. has lacked the strategic insight, will, knowledge — call it what you will — to translate tactical successes on the ground into strategic advantages, from Afghanistan of the last 18 years to postwar Iraq to the Libyan misadventure of 2011. More bluntly, in a cost-to-benefit analysis, a majority of Americans do not believe the ensuing cost in blood and treasure in these overseas interventions was worth the results for either the U.S. or our friends.
  • The postwar order had a clear purpose between 1945 and 1989 — to contain global Communism and to ensure that the Soviet Union and Red China did not create a bloc that threatened the Western and democratic world. While both countries remain belligerents, there is no longer the same danger of a nuclear exchange, of proxy wars to spread totalitarianism, of an “iron curtain” preventing travel and communications between competing totalitarian and Western blocs, or of a compelling threat that Communism will spread into Asia, Africa, and Latin America in fealty to Moscow or Beijing.
  • The American-inspired postwar bilateral, international, and regional institutions — the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and so on — were all designed both to resurrect Europe and parts of Asia and to do so under anti-Communist and democratic auspices. But such efforts apparently entailed vast imbalances in trade and commerce between the U.S. and its clients in Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the former British Commonwealth. That was necessary perhaps until 1989, and even affordable. But now it is neither required nor sustainable: The defeated former Axis powers were long ago restored; Europe is self-sustaining; the Cold War is over and the U.S. heartland need not be any longer the blood bank that is transfused abroad to revive anemic would-be allies.
  • The Middle East was considered the world’s powder keg since 1947, requiring frequent U.S. interventions and costly military subsidies. But the U.S. is now energy independent. So is Israel. Critics of the U.S. are more dependent on Middle East oil than is America. Israel is now part of an Arab, anti-Iranian bloc. There are very few reasons to send any U.S. troops into that region in sizable numbers. Elections are as likely to bring to power Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as constitutional moderates, posing the question whether a constitutionally elected (usually one-time) thug is preferable to an autocratic one.

Given these realities, apparently this administration has made three conclusions.

One, the United States does not have sufficient resources or wisdom to intervene on the ground abroad in the Middle East — nor elsewhere either — unless there is an existential war threatening U.S. security. It cannot readily translate competent operations into strategic resolution; and to the degree that it might after years of trying, it is still not worth the cost to America or the disharmony it instills within the body politic of the United States.

As a result, the U.S. will either use clients when it thinks shared interests are at stake, or stage retaliatory air, drone, or missile strikes without much worry over changing the larger climate that spawned such anti-Western aggression. For better or worse, we are returning to the mentality that followed Vietnam (1975) until the first Gulf War (1991).

Two, in the past, assumed U.S. strategic responsibilities were too extensive and not matched by U.S. military resources: intervening in one place left us more vulnerable in another, often in regions where our national interests were greater than in the Middle East. As a result, the U.S. will apparently limit its areas of exposure and responsibility to our real allies: NATO members, Japan and South Korea, Australia and Canada, and a few other close friends, mainly to deter Russian or Chinese aggression, radical Islamic terrorism, or rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.

Three, U.S. strategy will focus on economic growth, full employment, and an all-powerful military that is used sparingly and thus far more lethally. If, in the past, asymmetrical trade and non-reciprocal commercial treaties were considered necessary to subsidize our allies, now they will be redefined as weakening the U.S. and thus in no one’s interests. The fairer the trade, the stronger the U.S., and the more America is able to help its small circle of friends. It was George H. W. Bush, not Donald Trump, who most prominently calibrated American interventions in terms of shared costs and the need for burden sharing among allies and beneficiaries, most notably during the first Gulf War.

If we were once to be the “arsenal of democracy,” we are apparently now the “arsenal of American democracy.” That is, the U.S. will seek to become so powerful economically and militarily that our enemies would likely be foolish to prompt an attack, which would manifest as focused, narrowly defined, and overwhelmingly lethal. The less we use our military, the more powerfully it can be used.

It is hard to envision where, when, how, or why the U.S. would intervene on the ground with hundreds of thousands of troops. Retaliation for Iranian or North Korean aggression would largely consist of air power and naval blockades. In the post–Middle East period, it is also difficult to believe that any U.S. president would enter a Middle Eastern country with sizable ground forces to change governments and rebuild the nation along liberal auspices.

Nothing is static in war and diplomacy other than human nature. But we are entering a period in which U.S. strength is calibrated by both economic and military power, a rough match between ends and means, and predicated on using force for U.S., rather than supposed international, interests.

The final irony? The Trump foreign policy is beginning to approximate what Europe over the last three decades always claimed it preferred — a smaller footprint abroad for a more cautious, less reckless hyperpower. Some of us long ago predicted that the Europeans and the transatlantic elite would not really wish their dreams to come true — given that their gripe was not so much over what America did, but rather America itself.


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NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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