The Mainstream Radical
© 2018 FrontLine Defence (Vol 15, No 1)

While many alarmists in academia and mainstream media outlets would posit that we are on the verge of World War III, a second American Civil War, or some other end of overblown proportion, so far it seems that, for most people, life goes on as normal in ‘Donald Trump’s America.’

Though often intensely scrutinized for inflammatory language in relation to foreign affairs, the newly elected President’s focus has undoubtedly been on the reinvigoration of the American economy through tax breaks and business de-regulation. Indeed, while Donald Trump’s rhetoric will not score any points for tactfulness, his administration’s actual actions in defence policy have, thus far, not been remarkably different from those of former executives. Through a brief evaluation of President Trump’s defence policy in terms of coercive actions, negotiations with allies, and his stance towards enemies, it will be argued that as controversial a figure he may be, he is by no means exceptional in the direction with which he takes the nation in terms of security policy.

Year One. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

When the newly-elected President took office in January 2017, he attempted to quickly follow through on campaign promises of economic de-regulation, building a border wall, and legislation to ban government officials from lobbying agencies.

February and March were similarly focused on domestic politics, and saw a complete rollback of Obama-era regulations, coupled with an executive order to remove climate change-based restraints on American energy and industrial firms.

Military Action
It was not until April 2017, his fourth month in office, that the President made any significant decisions in terms of military action. These decisions included the cruise missile strike on Shayrat Air Base, and the debut use of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), a large-yield bomb, on an ISIS cave complex in Afghanistan.

To put that into perspective, within the first three days of his Presidency, Barack Obama authorized two drone strikes which incurred over 20 casualties, and ultimately ordered more than 500 strikes throughout his Presidency. Obama greatly normalized the use of such attacks, and ultimately devolved authority in their use to the Pentagon. Thus, in terms of military strikes, Donald Trump does not yet present a considerable break with the traditions of his predecessor. Moreover, many of Trump’s foreign policy statements, regardless of domestic hysteria, have fallen largely in-line with established U.S. foreign policy.

The most significant difference, in terms of coercive capacity between Trump and his predecessor so far, has been the former’s doubling down on troop commitments in problem states such as Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This contrasts with the Obama administration’s commitments to roll-back U.S. forces from the Middle-East (a major campaign promise being to end the longstanding Iraq War).

18 January 2018 – President Donald Trump at the Pentagon (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

While this may seem like a fundamental shift in American foreign policy, it is important to consider that some of the troop increases under Trump were actually initiated during Obama’s twilight months in office. Furthermore, Trump has deployed merely a few thousand personnel to such states, and while the contexts in which recent Presidents have made deployments to the Middle-East have been quite different, it is worth noting that Trump’s recent deployments amount to a drop in the bucket of the United States’ potential military capabilities. Thus, these deployments do not constitute a significant change in coercive measures over those carried out by other recent Presidents towards what has been a region of extensive U.S. military commitment for the last 25 years.

The Fate of NATO
One of the most salient debates in contemporary international security discourse regarding the Trump administration has been the fate of NATO. Donald Trump has certainly made his position clear on his intolerance of an alliance whose members do not pay their fair share of defence spending – threatening to abandon those nations which do not ‘pay up.’

While some see a retraction in U.S. military commitments from Europe as a dangerous proposition, many prominent scholars such as Mearsheimer, Posen, and Walt have “long recommended the United States withdraw most of its forces from Asia and Europe because the costs of the existing onshore presence dwarf the benefits”. Such a presence creates a rich environment for military freeriding (which Canada has often been accused of) within NATO, and increases the risk of entanglements that do not serve the interests of the United States.

Importantly, the Trump administration is not the first to push for allies to increase their military spending, as several U.S. Presidents have attempted to do so, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. What is interesting, is that Trump’s heavy handed approach to alliance diplomacy, so far, has been met with ostensible success.

The majority of NATO allies currently scramble to discuss: not whether or not they will, but how much they will increase defence spending.

Indeed, Germany’s minister of defence, Ursula von der Leyen, contended at the Munich Security Conference that the nation can no longer depend on its traditional reflex of relying on American power to fill the gaps in German security policy. She further argued that Germany must, from now on, “carry its share of the burden”.

President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participate in a joint press conference. (Official White House Photo)

Whether or not Trump’s threats of a U.S. Military exodus from Europe are to be believed, his administration has, thus far, proven remarkable when considering the speed in which it has provoked a change in NATO members towards increased military spending. That being said, in terms of the overall objectives proscribed by historical U.S. grand strategy, when it comes to alliance politics, this has always been the goal. In a similar manner, Trump has developed good relations with his Pacific ally Japan as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe continues to push for greater Japanese military expansion and capability in the Region.

Dealing with Enemies
Donald Trump certainly stands in contrast to his predecessor’s administration when comparing his approach to dealing with the enduring national enemies of the United States, namely, North Korea and Iran. In regards to North Korea, the Obama administration advocated a policy of what it deemed ‘strategic patience,’ in which the administration essentially ignored the rising threat of a North Korean nuclear program. Similarly, Obama was relatively soft on Iran, and agreed to lift sanctions on the state in return for assurances that it would not pursue a nuclear weapons program, as well as allow foreign investigators into the country to confirm it. Matthew Kroenig, well known for his nuclear weapons research at the Pentagon, suggests that this is antithetical to the long term strategic goals of the United States, as Iran may be free to quietly test its missile capabilities while enjoying a greater capacity to project its power throughout the Middle-East. However, others completely disagree, and support Obama’s solution.

One of Trump’s major election promises in regards to foreign policy is the renegotiation of this controversial deal in order to achieve tougher sanctions.

Similarly, when examining the current administration’s relationship with North Korea, a departure from Obama’s foreign policy in favour of a tightened multilateral stranglehold on Pyongyang can be seen. While this may be a more hard-line approach than his predecessor, it is by no means a radical departure from what has been the United States’ general attitudes towards Iran and North Korea since 1979 and 1953 respectively. Though Donald Trump may make consistent verbal threats, his administration’s actions speak louder.

Internal Constraints
In analyzing the Trump administration, it is important to consider the tight internal and external constraints that Presidents face during their time in office. Robert Jervis, a Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, contends that these restraints force even the most impetuous of executives to behave as most realists would expect the vast majority of the time. On one hand, Presidents will moderate their policy based on the tides of popularity among domestic constituents and, on the other, they will seek to take advantage of the rapidly shifting opportunities presented by the international environment in what way they can.

Based on that premise, an inexperienced President is less able to question the assumptions and plans of his advisors, and must rely heavily on their judgements and expertise, at least in the short-term.

This should be comforting news to the reactionaries of the Trump administration, as he has assembled a core team of capable and responsible individuals. Together with this strong counsel, and the constraints natural to the executive of the United States, the Trump administration has, thus far, followed the general security policy contours set by administrations past.  

James M. Murray is a Master’s student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.