When we install a new American president, it is customary to introduce the inductee as “leader of the free world” as well as commander in chief and top executive of the greatest nation on earth. This title, it is said, stems from America’s self-proclaimed status as both the hub and principal defender of a global community of democratic, free-market countries. Of course, this claim was more often used to justify intervention on behalf of friendly tyrants than to expand the web of democracy—though it did suggest that the United States was embedded in a larger universe of like-minded nations. That notion, however, is now being consigned to history as Donald Trump constructs a foreign policy aimed exclusively at benefiting the United States.
Trump has made no secret of his commitment to “America first” in international affairs. This has been evident in every one of his campaign speeches, as well as his victory statement on the early morning of November 9. “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone…all people and all other nations.” In contrast to his predecessors, there is no promise to defend the free world or to extend priority status to countries on the basis of their Western, liberal values; the sole determinant of a nation’s ties with Washington will be: “What can you do for us?”
This represents a sea change in American foreign and military policy, with far-reaching consequences. Instead of viewing the United States as the ultimate champion of a vast network of like-minded nations—broadly termed “the West”—Trump envisions a world in which this country is just one of many major actors in a fiercely competitive, winner-take-all environment. The United States has no allies in this world, nor, for that matter, any irredeemable enemies—only competitors in the dog-eat-dog struggle over economic and political advantage.
In this sort of a world, the ultimate goal of US foreign policy is to advance American interests at every turn, no matter who suffers in the process. Nations once regarded as allies—members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, and so on—may remain good friends, but will be expected to look after their own security needs, not rely on Uncle Sam (unless, of course, they’re prepared to pay for the service). Former adversaries, such as Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, can be absolved of their pariah status if they help promote US objectives, such as the eradication of ISIS. And major economic competitors, such as China, will be told to curb their hostile trading behavior or face harsh retaliation by the United States.
What are some of the likely consequences of this stance? While it is still too early to make ironclad predictions, some outcomes appear inevitable.
To begin with, any notion of viewing the promotion of human rights and democracy as a goal of American foreign policy is now out the window. Nations will be judged solely by their potential contribution to America’s own immediate interests, not the nature of their regime or their treatment of minorities. No longer will US diplomats criticize the Erdogan regime in Turkey for its crackdown on journalists and the Kurds, so long as we can use the Incirlik air base for strikes against ISIS; no longer will the Baghdad regime be warned against mistreatment of the Sunnis in Mosul, so long as ISIS is driven out of the city; no longer will Uganda and Nigeria be criticized for jailing members of the LGBT community, so long as they assist us in other matters.
This approach is, of course, exactly the one long favored by Beijing in its own relations with other countries, and one of the ways previous administrations have sought to distinguish us from China. When the Chinese shielded the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan from UN sanctions over the genocide in Darfur, US diplomats were fierce in their condemnation of Beijing. But now, under Trump, Washington can be expected to copy the Chinese playbook. Say goodbye to “Western values,” for good or ill.
For repressive and authoritarian regimes abroad, this will be welcome news. No longer need they fear American action that might threaten their ability to silence dissent or eliminate opponents. In one of the most revealing statements of his campaign, Trump spoke approvingly of such regimes. “Let’s look back at the Middle East at the very beginning of 2009, before Hillary Clinton was sworn in,” he said in September. “Libya [under Moammar El-Gadhafi] was stable. Syria [under Assad] was under control. Egypt [under Hosni Mubarak] was ruled by a secular president and an ally of the United States.” Today, looking forward, we can only imagine which regimes he will embrace as president.
Turning now to the question of military action, how does Trump view the use of force in such a world? At first glance, there is some comfort to be taken from his professed abandonment of global leadership. On several occasions, he suggested that it is not our job to be “the policeman of the world,” and he criticized the Bush and Obama administrations for undertaking reckless interventions in the Middle East. “In a Trump administration, our actions in the Middle East will be tempered by realism,” he declared on September 7. “The current strategy of toppling regimes, with no plan for what to do the day after, only produces power vacuums that are filled with terrorists.”
For many of his supporters, including veterans and currently serving personnel, this suggested a disinclination to become involved in more wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as Trump himself made clear on many occasions, a strategy aimed at protecting America’s stature in a fiercely competitive world inevitably entails the use of force when US interests are seen as being imperiled. Indeed, in this view, even the hint of threat is sufficient cause to fire back, lest America’s enemies and competitors be emboldened to push even harder.
A particularly illustrative example of this impulse arose in late August, when Iranian gunboats engaged in what was described as “harassing maneuvering” alongside US warships patrolling off Iran in the Persian Gulf. Addressing this incident a few days later at a rally in Florida, Trump asserted, “With Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures that our people—that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”
This is cause for deep concern, as possibly the greatest risk we could face in the years ahead is a clash of this sort arising in the Baltic, Black, East China, or South China seas, where Russian and Chinese ships and planes routinely come within shooting range of US and allied warcraft. Indeed, close encounters of this sort have become increasingly common, as Moscow and Beijing have sought to demonstrate their growing military might and rising displeasure at the conspicuous US military presence in their respective backyards. Will they choose to pull back now that Trump is president, believing he is less likely to “turn the other cheek” than Obama? Maybe. But it is hard to imagine they will do so forever, especially in the case of China, if Trump turns the screws on trade. What will he do then? His commitment to demonstrating American toughness leaves him with few options. If threats do not work, he may feel obliged to “shoot them out of the water” rather than exhibit the same sort of timidity he accused Obama of. And from there, it’s anyone’s guess where such action might lead, up to and including full-scale armed conflict.
Finally, we turn to the issues of military spending and nuclear weapons. On this, Trump has been adamant: The United States has suffered in recent years (i.e., been pushed around by more aggressive rivals) as a result of our deteriorating military capabilities, and the only appropriate response is to build up our strength as quickly as possible. “President Obama and Hillary Clinton have…overseen deep cuts in our military, which only invite more aggression from our adversaries,” he declared in September. “History shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid, and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.”
Forget that the US spends more on its military then the next seven powers combined, that it is Congress (through the budget sequestration program) and not the White House that has prevented military spending from rising (it has not declined), and that no combination of our rivals can match this country in advanced firepower. This is about perceptions, not reality. In Trump’s view, to restore America’s stature in a highly competitive world, we must add to the number of planes, warships, and missiles on display.
In a speech at the Union League of Philadelphia, Trump laid out his plans for an expanded military capacity: Add 50,000 troops to the Army, 13 additional combat battalions to the Marine Corps, 100 or so more combat aircraft to the Air Force, and 74 new surface ships and submarines to the Navy. In addition, he will seek to acquire a “state-of-the-art missile defense system.” All of this will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the short term and many more over the long term; where this money will come from is largely left unsaid, but the easiest guess is from vital social programs like health and education.
What Trump has not discussed openly is his position on the proposed $1 trillion upgrade of the US strategic nuclear triad—the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and intercontinental submarines intended to strike a nuclear-armed adversary, presumably Russia or China. The existing triad is showing its age, and the Defense Department seeks to replace all three legs with new, more capable systems. Although Trump has not expressed his views on these systems, it is inconceivable that he would buck the Pentagon on such a critical matter, especially insofar as these weapons—more than any others—communicate the “peace through strength” message Trump has espoused. Assume, then, that he will initiate a new, extremely costly and potentially destabilizing round in the nuclear arms race.
These plans have been in the works for a while, and so the Russians and Chinese have already been developing elaborate countermeasures. Trump did not set this process in motion—that occurred in prior administrations—but he will be the one to give the go-ahead signal. If, as is likely, he approves the replacement of all three legs of the nuclear triad and also proceeds with the deployment of an advanced anti-ballistic missile-defense system (as he has already promised), Russia and China will naturally fear for the survival of their nuclear deterrents, and so will be forced to embark on a dangerous expansion of their own nuclear capabilities. This could bring us back to a Cold War–like environment of perpetual arms-racing and nuclear brinksmanship.
Making this all the worse is Trump’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear-weapons acquisition by US allies, especially Japan and South Korea, and his professed determination to scrap the existing nuclear deal with Iran. As part of his go-it-alone approach to national security, Japan and South Korea have been informed that they can no longer rely on automatic US protection in future conflicts in Asia. Asked by Maggie Haberman of The New York Times if he was willing to remove US troops from Korea and Japan, Trump said “yes.” “We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all this [i.e., the defense of those countries],” he explained. When, in a follow-up question, he was asked if, under those circumstances and in light of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, he would be willing to countenance the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan, he again answered in the affirmative. “Well I think maybe it’s not so bad to have Japan—if Japan had that nuclear [deterrent] threat, I’m not sure it would be a bad thing for us.”
In considering the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan, Trump apparently has no understanding of the possible repercussions this would have in Asia. China, which suffered egregiously from Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II, is certain to view any such move as an existential threat and is bound to respond with a massive expansion of its own nuclear arsenal and additional measures aimed at Japan. For this reason, the Japanese may wisely choose to eschew the nuclear option. A similar debate will arise in South Korea, where some conservative forces favor a nuclear counterweight to the North but large segments of the population oppose such a step. Trump’s ignorance of these debates does not bode well for his oversight of the proliferation debate.
A similar worry arises in the case of Trump’s position on Iran. As is well known, he has pledged to tear up the existing nuclear accord with that country, which requires the Iranians to shut down their nuclear-enrichment program in return for relief from Western-imposed sanctions. Should Trump proceed with this promise and reinstate harsh sanctions (pending a fresh round of negotiations that are unlikely to materialize), the Iranians might well restart their enrichment program, moving that country to the threshold of nuclear-weapons status. Such a move could well trigger US/Israeli air strikes on its enrichment facilities (with a region-wide conflagration to follow?), and invite the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Saudi Arabia and other states in the region. Here, too, there are strong barriers to rash action on Trump’s part, not the least being the strong desire of Europe, Russia, and China to do business with Iran. But coming from his “America first” position, Trump may not feel constrained by any such considerations.
How all of this will play out under the Trump presidency cannot be foreseen, but much of it follows from the underlying ethos of his foreign policy outlook: Only the United States matters in our dealings with the rest of the world, and all our once-ironclad commitments to loyal allies, and once-extolled principles like free trade and human rights, are now past history. Of course, governing is much harder than campaigning, and Trump will encounter many impediments to his more provocative intentions. Congress, for example, even under Republican control, may balk at an extravagantly expensive military buildup, especially in light of the other priorities Trump has championed, such as infrastructure repair and expansion. Likewise, the military establishment may resist actions that would result in another major military engagement abroad, such as air strikes on Iran.
All this being the case, the outlines of a progressive foreign policy can begin to take shape. On the one hand, progressives should seek those allies in Congress—including Republicans—who oppose a massive increase in military spending along with the acquisition of new, destabilizing nuclear weapons. On the other, we must join forces with peace and anti-nuclear forces in the rest of the world to resist the escalation of local conflicts. In the same spirit, struggles for human rights here should be linked to those in other countries where minorities are also at risk of persecution in a Trumpian world. Building such alliances is our best defense against increased suffering and conflict.