The State of U.S. Foreign Policy After Barack Obama: Part TwoThursday, February 9, 2017
President Donald Trump has wasted no time unwinding many of his predecessor’s signature policies, including Obamacare, immigration and international trade. But the new administration’s foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Middle East and Russia, has many critics concerned and on alert.
Part one of this two-part series examined President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and how its themes of multilateralism, soft power versus hard power, retrenchment, and “leading from behind” ushered in an era of American disengagement abroad, particularly in the Middle East. This installment examines what is left behind after eight years of the Obama Doctrine, and inspects the challenges ahead for the Trump Administration, which many describe as isolationist.
What is Left Behind
If there is panic that the new Trump Administration will strip the U.S. of its standing in international relations and diminish its influence in world affairs, that panic may be prescient (only time will tell), but its origin has been misplaced. Retrenchment began under the Obama Doctrine.
Tenet IV of the Obama Doctrine – Obama’s guiding principle of using force sparingly, proportionally, for limited goals, with limited means, and only as a last resort – set the stage for the crises that will burden the next administration. These crises began on the streets of Aleppo, at the negotiating tables in Vienna, across the Nineveh Plain, and atop Mount Sinjar.
Both enemies and allies already have questions about U.S. motives and priorities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not the only one who took note when Obama blinked at his own red line: Russian President Vladimir Putin was watching, as were the mullahs in Iran, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and Israel and other U.S. allies.
In remarks before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council last month, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, theorized that the global world order was in decline long before Trump’s election.
“There is a gap between global challenges and global responses,” he said. “President Obama wanted to dial back, and I think he was dead wrong … and Donald Trump is in the same category.”
He added that while the world has long been grateful for American leadership, America has grown increasingly weary and more comfortable with the idea of retreat.
“The problem is that the world will not self-organize,” he warned. “It is going to be a world that unravels.”
The world order will unravel without robust American leadership. An America that pulls back from its global commitments denies the real potential for catastrophe. That is not American arrogance: it is historical fact. Eliot Cohen, a former senior U.S. State Department official, notes:
When we think about history, we think – we know – that leaders matter; we know that a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a John F. Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan all left indelible imprints on this country and the world. We also know that things can go badly awry. In a world in which a rising and aggressive China seeks to extend its domination of Asia, jihadi movements promise generations of bloodshed in the Middle East and North Africa, dangerous states like Russia, North Korea and Iran seek to overturn regional order in their favor, and the ungoverned space and great commons of humanity like space and cyberspace are at risk, the United States needs – more than ever – to lead.
What is to Come
What has been left behind of the Obama era will inform the movements of the new administration. An “America first” foreign policy is alluring, but a wholesale abandonment of our global leadership would be a mistake. Trump’s words and early actions suggest that the retrenchment that began with Obama – the pulling back and the letting go – will continue, but under the guise of a nationalistic protectionism.
However, there are indications that the Trump administration may provide a more engaged approach to world affairs than the prior one.
First, Trump has appointed foreign policy and national security leaders such as Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador, Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, Gen. John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, and Mike Pompeo as CIA director. Republicans Senators such as Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and John McCain will also provide a counterbalance.
These are the people who might save Trump from himself, and in the process preserve the core values and moral integrity that have defined America’s leadership on the world stage.
Second, Trump will likely dedicate more funding to the military than his predecessor. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, commented in an interview with Fox News in January:
Two things have happened during the Obama years: The world has grown more dangerous and our own military has grown smaller. I’m very encouraged that the Trump Administration says they’re going to come to us with a supplemental spending request for defense in the first 100 days.
Trump has indicated his willingness to invest in topflight military brainpower by tapping Mattis as secretary of defense. Mattis has no illusions about the challenges ahead, warning in a Center for Strategic and International Studies address about the “ghastly” future for the Middle East unless we “return to a strategic view, such as we had years ago, because we know that vacuums left in the Middle East seem to be filled by terrorists, or by Iran or their surrogates, or by Russia.”
It is important to note that Trump’s gambles in reshuffling the National Security Council, downgrading the military chiefs of staff, and giving his chief strategist Steve Bannon a regular seat on the NSC could undermine his own national security and national defense objectives.
Finally, Trump is already strengthening ties with America’s historic allies. During his meeting last month with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump reaffirmed the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States which Obama denied. In one of his first foreign policy actions, Trump reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reiterate the relationship between the U.S. and its democratic ally in the Middle East. The pair will meet next week at the White House.
While Trump’s rumored friendship with Vladimir Putin is troubling to many, there are plenty in his own administration and in Congress who have made it clear that a cozy relationship will not be tolerated.
In the end, the skeptics may prove correct: Trump’s “America First” policy may continue the retrenchment trajectory begun by Obama. But perhaps he will be the change agent his brand is famous for.
Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, in the midst of one of history’s bleakest moments, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill challenged America to embrace its destiny and its essential role in protecting a world order in peril of collapse:
The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes.
Churchill’s words ring true today. America is a great nation and by that fact, its responsibilities are also great. Now is not the time to double down on the retrenchment policies of the past eight years lest the world continue its unraveling. It is the time to recapture the true sense of global leadership that has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for the past century.