Donald Trump’s comments about U.S. foreign policy during the 2016 election campaign offered some promise of a policy bright spot in what was otherwise likely to be a dismal, if not alarming administration. Trump condemned the Iraq War for the folly it was and he displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the entire concept of nation building. He also subjected Washington’s long-standing alliances in Europe and East Asia to withering criticism. Trump quite accurately termed NATO “obsolete,” and he took allies in both regions (as well as countries such as Saudi Arabia) to task for shamelessly free riding on America’s security exertions. Such comments continued even when he became president-elect.
Unfortunately, hopes for a more focused and enlightened U.S. foreign policy are fading fast. Trump administration officials had barely arranged the personal photos in their new offices before adopting a belligerent policy toward Iran. The imposition of new sanctions on Tehran threatens to derail a bilateral relationship that had shown cautious signs of improvement under Barack Obama. Trump seems even to be backing away from his call for improved relations with Russia. Expectations for an easing of sanctions against Moscow are at least on hold, and the president’s initial telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin apparently included comments sharply criticizing the New Start Treaty on nuclear weapons as unfairly limiting Washington’s ability to modernize and possibly expand its nuclear arsenal. That’s not a very astute way to begin a process of rapprochement.
Worse yet, as I discuss in a new article in the National Interest Online, Trump and his advisers are beating a rapid retreat from his critical comments about Washington’s alliances. One of his first actions as president was to reassure German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders that he regarded NATO as having “the utmost importance.” Why an alliance that he had repeatedly termed obsolete now possessed such importance Trump did not explain.
The president also dispatched Secretary of Defense James Mattis on a trip to East Asia to reassure both Japan and South Korea of America’s undying devotion to their security. Trump himself did the same during his just-completed summit meeting at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Such a retreat from the positions Trump advocated during the campaign is unfortunate. The Mattis “reassurance tour” provided a green light to Seoul and Tokyo to continue underinvesting in their defense and perpetuate their policy of free riding on the United States. It also encouraged Japan to take uncompromising positions toward China that Tokyo cannot back up with its own military resources. That point is most evident regarding the territorial dispute between the two countries over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain in the East China Sea. Mattis reiterated the foolish commitment that Obama administration officials had made that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty covered not only indisputable Japanese territory but those highly disputed islets. In the event of an armed conflict, America would be putting its security at risk to defend a pile of uninhabited rocks whose rightful ownership is uncertain.
That is not the hallmark of a new, more focused and realistic foreign policy. Instead of putting America first, Trump’s policy appears increasingly to be a continuation of the status quo of incurring risks to validate the sometimes parochial interests of allies. Washington needs to reassess all of its security commitments, even to longtime allies. The world has changed a great deal since those alliances were created. Trump’s retreat from his campaign positions also threatens to continue America’s foolhardy entanglement in the murky conflicts of the Middle East. The administration’s immediate obsession with and hostility toward Iran is especially worrisome.
Trump’s retreat and the adoption of his revised approach to foreign policy is extremely unwise. It is a blueprint for perpetuating America’s strategic overextension and wasting even more of this country’s blood and treasure.