Further, the administration treated Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an attack on the U.S., which in part reflected aggressive American policy through NATO expansion and support for regime change along Russia’s border. Aid to Ukraine discouraged resolution of that conflict while Washington’s relationship with Moscow grew more difficult. Russia even enhanced its cooperation with the PRC.
Yet President Trump, despite his sharp criticisms of his predecessor’s policy, kept and even reinforced most of the Obama administration’s priorities. The current administration increased troop levels in Afghanistan, maintained support for Riyadh in Yemen, retained U.S. forces in Iraq even in the face of Iraqi opposition, redeployed troops in Syria to seize its oil, and applied more sanctions and provided Ukraine with lethal military assistance against Russia.
Moreover, President Trump turned Saudi Arabia into a major defense dependent with significant military deployments to the Kingdom. Worse, his campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, highlighted by voiding the nuclear agreement, reimposing economic sanctions, and assassinating top official Qasem Soleimani, caused Tehran to push back, striking Saudi oil facilities and U.S. bases in the region. Although Washington and Iran appeared to deescalate, further Iranian retaliation is likely, which would create an increased possibility of another Middle Eastern war, one that likely would be far worse than the invasion of Iraq.
The administration’s military commitment to Africa is much more modest, with some 7000 troops deployed around the continent. Most of the deployments assist governments against terrorists/insurgents who pose little to no threat to America. Yet even there withdrawal seems impossible: the administration is finding significant opposition to its plans in Congress. To U.S. legislators, at least, there appears to be no spot on earth that can go without an American military presence.
All of which puts to rest American claims to focus on China. At a time when the U.S. is running trillion dollar deficits in peacetime, it cannot afford to treat every conceivable foreign foe as a priority. If everything is said to be “vital,” then nothing is vital, no matter what the president and his officials say.
In fact, if anti‐China hawks are correct in their diagnosis, they should insist that Washington devolve other responsibilities—why can’t populous and prosperous Europe defend itself, 75 years after the conclusion of World War II? They also should demand that the U.S. drop lower priority commitments, such as protecting Saudi Arabia when Middle Eastern oil is less important for America and fighting Africa’s nonessential battles. Otherwise American policymakers will find it difficult to address the challenges posed by the PRC.
Washington’s relations with Beijing have become more fractious, worryingly so. Yet U.S. policy plays into China’s hands. In fact, the latter will pose a significant challenge to American values and interests in the coming years. However, neither the real threat and nor the most effective response is military. The U.S. is secure. Rather than prepare for wars it should not fight, Washington needs to develop a better strategy to compete with a country that seems likely to outpace America’s economic strength, political clout, and perhaps even cultural influence.
The starting point should be to limit military commitments to those genuinely necessary to protect the U.S. Turning the Pentagon into a welfare agency for foreign governments weakens America. The money squandered instead should be invested in the U.S. economy. Washington’s negotiating position will be stronger if U.S. policymakers put their nation’s economic house in order.
The Trump administration and its successors also should adopt what President George W. Bush advocated and then abandoned, a “humble” foreign policy. Through secondary economic sanctions the U.S. has attempted to dictate policy to allies as well as adversaries. Resistance to Washington’s hubris is growing: Europe has begun to construct payment systems outside of U.S. control, an approach supported by China, Russia, and other states.
If American policymakers expect to win backing for a tougher policy toward Beijing, they must accept the world going its own way in controversies of lesser importance. China is no Cuba or Iran. Despite America’s extraordinary influence, even under the best circumstances other nations will break with Beijing only with the greatest reluctance. But the situation is hardly best. Instead, the Trump administration has squandered much U.S. credibility and influence.
Indeed, Washington’s complaints about the PRC sometimes sound like whining because the U.S. has –unwisely and unnecessarily done so much to hurt itself. The American economy would be stronger and American influence would be greater if the U.S. adopted better policies. Refusing to act is foolish, and ironically makes the Trump administration look like a de facto agent of Beijing.