George Friedman is chairman of Geopolitical Futures. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
During the campaign for the American presidency, Donald Trump promised that in his administration only good things would happen. He was somewhat vague about what precisely was good and what was bad. In this, he was exactly like any other American presidential candidate. Unlike many, however, he provided some details of the specific issues that worried him, and a broader strategic vision. This vision was embedded in his unique rhetoric, but if we extract it, we have a clear roadmap. Trump’s rhetoric is a problem, but so is conventionally clear political rhetoric that clearly says nothing. I say this because I think that observers tend too readily to dismiss what he says. This is an attempt to decode it.
Trump’s core strategic argument is that the United States is overextended. The core reason for this overextension is that the United States has substituted a system of multilateral relationships for a careful analysis of the national interest. In this reading, Washington is entangled in complex relationships that place risks and burdens on the United States to come to the aid of some countries. However, its commitments are not matched by those countries in capability, nor in intent.
Overextension by Alliance
NATO is the obvious case. The United States has been involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. NATO has not provided decisive strategic support to these efforts. Many have provided what support they could or what support they wanted, but that level of support was far below the abilities of NATO members.
The members of the European Union have roughly the same collective gross domestic product as the United States, and a larger population. They also have a substantial industrial base. Europe is well beyond where it was when NATO was founded, when it was incapable of collective defense without the United States. NATO members have taken for granted that Washington will bear the primary burden for defense, measured not only in terms of dollars spent, but also in the development of military capabilities.
As important, the primary strategic activity of the United States for the past 15 years has been in the Islamic world. Many in NATO objected to the U.S. operation in Iraq, and except for the United Kingdom they provided little or no significant support. Alliance members have no obligation to join in conflicts initiated by the United States outside the area of NATO’s focus. Trump accepts that principle but points out that the organization has been irrelevant to U.S. strategic needs. Where the alliance engaged, it did so with far too little force to constitute a strategic force. Their reasonable argument that the 28-member alliance makes no commitment to out-of-area engagements not undertaken under Article 5 raises the question of what, then, NATO’s value is to the United States. In sum, NATO lacks significant strategic capabilities, and the alliance is defined in such a way that its members can and do elect to avoid those conflicts that matter most to America.
It is therefore not clear that NATO as currently constituted is of value to the United States. The United States is liable for the defense of Europe. Europe is not liable for defending American interests, which today lie outside of Europe. Trump believes this relationship must be mutually renegotiated. If the Europeans are unwilling to renegotiate, the United States should exit NATO and develop bilateral relations with countries that are capable and are prepared to work with the United States in areas of its national interest in return for guarantees from Washington. Similar re-examination of our relationships ought to be carried out globally in regard to allies such as Japan and South Korea to assure that such relationships remain of value to both parties, and that the level of effort and risk reflects that value.
The same view holds true for Trump’s policy on foreign trade. It is not clear that the current international trade regime has benefited the United States. International trade is not an end in itself; it must serve the interests of each party. At this point in history, the primary economic need in the United States is to create trade relations that build jobs in the United States. The previous goal of aggregate growth of an economy without regard to societal consequences is no longer acceptable. The terms under which most international trade agreements have been structured are now therefore unacceptable. Free trade may well increase the GDP, but it does not deal with critical societal issues.
Large multilateral free-trade agreements are therefore far too complex to fine-tune to the American interest. They need to be avoided in favor of bilateral treaties, or of smaller ones such as NAFTA, that can be reshaped to serve the current American interest. In these negotiations, the United States, producing about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, holds the strong hand. The United States’ primary concern must be the same as that of other countries: trade relations that are beneficial to it, and not an abstract commitment to free trade.
China is a special case. It is a massive economy that is highly dependent on exports to America. It has offered an environment where U.S. companies can transfer production and increase their revenue and profits while hollowing out the American industrial base. That situation won’t continue. At this point the Chinese dependence on the United States is substantially greater than the reverse. In addition, the United States has a strategic advantage over China, demonstrated by Trump’s willingness to disregard the One China concept. The United States currently has the economic and strategic advantage to negotiate a new relationship with China, and to compel that negotiation.
The End of Multilateralism
The United States’ central preoccupation in foreign policy -- one shared by other countries -- is Islamic radicalism, especially in its latest manifestation, the Islamic State. ISIS poses a terrorist threat that has been minimized by some but is regarded by Trump as an intolerable menace for two reasons. First, as 9/11 demonstrated, attacks can be escalated. Second, the psychological burden of terrorism is enormous. The terrorist threat cannot be defeated without overwhelming power being brought to bear on the Middle East. Living with terrorism indefinitely is not an option. Therefore, the United States and its allies must bring overwhelming force to bear.
The United States is ready to work with any ally prepared to dedicate resources to this goal and to share risks. This includes Russia, which has an internal problem with Islamic terrorists and has significant capabilities it could deploy. Trump sees U.S. and Russian interests as coinciding. Washington and Moscow could agree on the neutralization of Ukraine: Kyiv would have economic and political ties with the West, but Ukraine would not be part of any alliance system, nor would it be a base for Western forces. The United States wants a buffer to protect allies in Eastern Europe, but beyond that it has no overriding interest in Ukraine. Russia wants a degree of autonomy in Eastern Ukraine and retention of its interests in Crimea, where it has treaty rights in Sevastopol anyway. The Ukrainian issue can be managed in the context of joint anti-Islamist operations. Trump is of course aware of economic problems in Russia, and he sees therein a lever to achieve his goal.
For Trump, the key is to recognize that the Post-World War II period of multilateralism is over, and that continuing to act otherwise is harming the United States’ interests in multiple ways. For the United States 9/11 remains a defining moment, and 15 years of unsatisfactory operations in the Middle East do not mean that a solution is unattainable. Since NATO members are either unwilling to commit to this effort, or have very little to commit, the United States seeks other nations with a common interest, and chief among those is Russia.
Trump has actually said most of these things in a rather disjointed way. But if we ignore rhetorical flaws and look at the substance of what he has said, he has a coherent and radical foreign policy. Trump is proposing a redefinition of U.S. foreign policies based on current realities, not those of 40 years ago. It is a foreign policy in which American strength is maximized in order to achieve American ends.
Whether he will pursue this once in office, or whether it is a good policy, is not the key point; that there is a very real policy embedded in his statements is. It is also not a foolish one. U.S. policy has been reflexively committed to arrangements that are three-quarters of a century old. The world has changed, but the shape of U.S. policy has not. Translating this into reality will be, for Trump, another matter.