Will Trump Really Pursue Foreign Policy Restraint?


Image result for restraint trump

Not if that picture is correct. But he did talk a lot about burden-sharing and allied free-riding during the campaign, so maybe.

This essay is a local reprint of something I wrote for The National Interest shortly after Trump’s election.

Certainly, we can all agree – but for the endlessly belligerent neocons – that America should fight less often. It’s not healthy for the domestic culture nor our democratic liberties. Does Trump care about any of that? Of course. But his white working class support bases can’t like all this conflict, given that they fight out wars.

So here is a case for restraint under the Orange One, after the jump.


Donald Trump is now the President-Elect. While much of the forthcoming debate will turn on how someone with his glaring deficiencies nonetheless won, his foreign policy potential is unsettling much of the world. Global markets shook dramatically on election night; global public opinion preferred Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. And certainly Trump’s foreign policy ideas were often poorly articulated or off-the-cuff. But this does not mean we should dismiss all he transmitted.

Reading between the lines, Trump has hinted at greater restraint in US foreign policy (when not wildly reversing himself by suggesting that we steal Iraq’s oil, which would require a massive forward US presence). Trump is the first major political candidate in the US to do so in the post-Cold War era (Barack Obama partially excepted). This is both important and a shame, as he is a highly contentious vehicle for such an important discussion. He has somewhat boosted the profile of an alternative discourse on US foreign policy, slowly emerging from the many failures of the war on terrorism. Thinkers such as Barry Posen, Stephen Walt, and Daniel Larison have all sketched possibilities of a less interventionist, less belligerent, less domineering, less expensive US foreign policy. The National Interest has also been a locus for such examinations.

It would be an loss, then, if this debate were jettisoned by Trump in an effort to conciliate establishment Washington, or otherwise condemned by its association with Trump’s toxic campaign behavior. The costs, and meager benefits, of post-9/11 US intervention in the Middle East helped power Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary season, and Trump in the 2016 one. A Clinton election would have been something of a restoration of the current liberal/neoconservative interventionist consensus. But the larger agenda of restraint need not mean isolationism, retrenchment, treating the US military as mercenaries, anti-semitism, ignoring treaty obligations, and other explosive campaign allegations. Don’t let Trump taint restraint.

The United States has struggled to define a coherent foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Global-spanning intervention fit the bipolar world of a global challenger with an aggressive ideology, large population and economy, and powerful military. Communism was indeed a global threat, but those days are long over. None of today’s challenges are so intense:

Islamic fundamentalism is indeed terrifying, but despite high-profile attacks, Westerners are far more likely to be killed or wounded in automobile accidents or weather incidents. Nor is it at all obvious that heavy US and Western intervention in the region has made us safer. We hear this mantra relentlessly, but it is not hard to imagine that we generate backlash terrorism by invading, bombing, torturing in, and otherwise disrupting Muslim-majority states. The US has spent gargantuan sums intervening in the Persian Gulf Islamic heartland since the 1980s, to no obvious, widely-accepted benefit. Sectarian violence and intrastate instability are arguably worse now than they have ever been. When Trump says we should not defend Saudi Arabia, a country so at odds with our values that it does not even permit women to drive, who can really argue with that?

Russia too is a shadow of what we once faced. Yes, Putin is awful, with outrageous pretentions and a taste for opportunistic shenanigans. But corruption, cronyism, and resource dependence have reduced Russia’s GDP to the size of Italy’s. Surely the European Union, with a GDP nine times greater, can handle such a mild challenge. And if they will not, why it such lackadaisical insouciance the Americans’ fault? Trump is wrong to flirt with Putin, and the US should not recognize the carving up of Ukraine. But where are the Europeans? During the Cold War, the US and other NATO allies shared costs at roughly 50% apiece. Today, the US accounts for 75% of all NATO defense spending, and there are twenty-seven other states in the Organization. Only four, besides the US, now meet the designated 2% of GDP target for defense spending. How can that be understood as anything other than free-riding?

Finally, China is indeed much a greater player than these other two, and the argument for American forward involvement in the region is stronger here than in Europe or the Gulf. It is especially lamentable that Trump trains his fire on democratic allies like South Korea and especially Japan. But here too, the Trump/restraint critique is obvious. Japan, the world’s third largest economy, spends less than 1% of GDP on defense, despite rising antagonism with a near-superpower just across the water. Unless Japan makes a major effort regarding China, the US, far across the Pacific Ocean, can hardly be expected to do the same. South Korea spends 2.5% of GDP on defense, where it would likely spend two to four times as much without US assistance, deterring North Korea. In both cases the US is fully responsible to defend their sovereignty and national security, which infantilizes their strategic debates. Finally, China is not as obvious a threat as Putin and Islamic fundamentalism are. A Sino-US modus vivendi may still be possible instead of a hegemonic clash.

Critics will note that Trump may not even believe in restraint. His attachment to specific policy beliefs is so tenuous and temperament so volatile, that administration hawks may win the day. But let’s not condemn greater caution in US foreign policy by association. There is a debate occurring about US foreign policy – sparked by our trouble in the Middle East, and reinforced by the spiraling human, financial, and civil liberties costs. Don’t let it end by connotation with the controversial new president.


2 thoughts on “Will Trump Really Pursue Foreign Policy Restraint?

  1. Unless you have a more generous view of Trump than I think you do, I think you have a typo in the nut graf — it should be, “Of course *not*.” 🙂

    As regards NATO, aggregate expenditures are misleading; the US funds about 20% or so of common-funded expenditures, which are the shared NATO burden. While NATO partners are generally not hitting the desired 2% target, I see no reason to believe that increased European military expenditures would prompt the US to reduce its own global military footprint.

    While most NATO nations have reduced their military expenditures following the end of the Cold War, it’s hard to argue that they’re understrength given that no one expects Putin to roll through the Fulda or sail through the GIUK gaps. However, they do indisputably have orders of magnitude more limited abilities for power projection, even amongst the nations that have tried to maintain global strike capabilities. If NATO partners increased their logistics capabilities, this would probably provide some reduction in US costs for operations outside the European theater, assuming we don’t break even on ACSA reimbursements (which I can’t speak to, and which would likely be modified by the just-signed US-EU ACSA in any case).

    In general, while the US has taken on the lion’s share of costs in attempting to guarantee global stability (excepting those times when we’ve taken on the lion’s share of costs to *disrupt* global stability), we have done so in order to maintain hegemony over matters of strategy and process. Were we to withdraw, as Trump is at least suggesting he intends to, then the result would not be a US-led global order with majority non-US funding; it would be a lack of global order, with a return to a regional great-power system and probably some kind of de facto spheres-of-influence (as China and Russia are attempting to assert). And, for better or for worse, it would be the end of the American exceptionalism in foreign policy that has characterized the world since the 1940s. (Korea isn’t my bag by a long shot — what happens after the left comes into power over Park’s political bones, and they’re looking at a US President who likes to antagonize China but also wants to make other countries write the check to cover his mouth?)

    I believe (albeit without a hard model to back me up) that America gains more, economically and socially, from a reasonably stable global order obtained at significant US cost, than an world of regional authoritarians and a lower effective US tax rate. This may or may not be true, but Trump isn’t even attempting to have this discussion — I doubt that he would understand it, or that his ethnonationalist courtiers even care. But if Trump intends to upend the consensus foreign policy of the last seven decades — as he says he will — then it’s a discussion we don’t have the luxury of having after the fact.

  2. Pingback: Restraint and Burden-Sharing to Revive US Alliances, not Tear Them Down | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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