Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have set U.S. foreign policy on a dangerous course. Trump’s actions and rhetoric have raised the profile of America’s military power while weakening other sources of U.S. influence. Such an approach is in line with the “peace through strength” formula Trump espouses. However, the deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy carries a host of risks and costs that may cause more headaches than victories.
The growing role of the military in U.S. foreign policy is not a new phenomenon. Barack Obama’s presidency was hardly peaceful. This was especially true in the Middle East, where the “light footprint” approach reduced the on-the-ground U.S. military presence but made extensive use of air power to conduct foreign policy by precision strike. However, Obama also spearheaded multilateral initiatives that relied on other sources of American power and influence, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Not all of these initiatives were successful, but they demonstrate a foreign policy approach that places value on non-military tools.
Thus far into his presidency, Trump does not seem to share Obama’s appreciation for the value of non-military tools for dealing with foreign policy problems. One of Trump’s first executive orders withdrew the United States from the TPP, a key component of American economic engagement in East Asia. The TPP and a growing American military presence were the two key pillars of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” with the TPP emblematic of the softer side of U.S. policy. Granted, the TPP was not yet in force when Trump withdrew from it, which mitigates the diplomatic downside of withdrawal. But the loss of economic and diplomatic influence associated with withdrawing from the TPP leaves military power as the primary means for the administration to implement U.S. policy in East Asia.
Greater reliance on U.S. military power in East Asia is already evident in the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea. The administration wants to apply “maximum pressure” to Pyongyang in order force them to negotiate on Washington’s terms. As former defense official Van Jackson points out, this theory of victory depends heavily on U.S. military signaling and is more aggressive than previous administrations. Jackson argues, “the Trump administration appears to be a much more permissive—even enabling—environment for such coercive beliefs” due to “the prominence of the Pentagon in President Trump’s national security policy to date.”
Staring down North Korea through displays of military might and rhetoric hinting at military action fits with “peace through strength,” but probably won’t stop North Korea from testing new missiles or accepting the maximal conditions the United States has placed on negotiations.
Relying heavily on U.S. military power in matters of foreign policy is by no means exclusive to East Asia. Trump’s cruise missile strike against Assad, special forces raid in Yemen, and loosening of the rules of engagement for counterterrorism missions point to a growing role for the U.S. military in Middle East policy. Recently, Trump said that Iran was “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear deal, despite the fact that the State Department confirmed that Iran is complying with the deal. What the administration will do with the Iran deal remains uncertain, but the deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East combined with a general hatred of the deal by President Trump point to growing tensions.
Fortunately there are things that Trump can do to rein in the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, if he is so inclined. Filling vacancies at State and Defense with civilian experts would provide additional, non-military voices in the policymaking process. These appointees may not be able to match the influence of the retired and active generals in Trump’s administration, but the current absence of civilian appointees ensures that the generals will heavily influence Trump’s foreign policy.
Congress could also fight back against the militarization of U.S. foreign policy through its control of the budget. Trump’s planned cuts to agencies like USAID and the State Department would devastate two non-military tools of U.S. influence. After the proposed cuts were announced, several prominent Republican senators spoke out in opposition. Congress could also demand that Trump obtain new authorizations for the use of military force if he wants to get the United States more directly involved in Yemen or Somalia.
The deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy is Trump’s most worrisome “achievement” of his first 100 days. Valuing military power so highly over diplomatic and economic tools limits policy options and can make military conflict more likely, as peaceful avenues for resolution are shut down. Hopefully Trump will recognize that there are other tools at his disposal for conducting U.S. foreign policy, and the warlike first 100 days prove to be a fluke—and not the trend.