Aaron David Miller, a Vice President at the Woodrow Wilson Center, served as a Middle East negotiator, analyst and adviser in Republican and Democratic Administrations. 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.
For those among our readers who long for the glories of yesteryear, when the United States was admired, feared, and respected for a bold and even heroic foreign policy, I have a piece of unsolicited advice: Lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passes.
You may be waiting for some time to come.
Clearly the insular view of America’s role in the world that President Donald Trump laid out in his inaugural address bespeaks a more calculated, self-interested risk aversion -- a greater withdrawal from the world stage than anything we’ve seen from administrations past.
The key question is whether this inward-looking philosophy -- donned with the moniker “America First” -- will be a function of the Trump years. If it represents something more enduring, that would be a significant readjustment, one undertaken in the face of a much more complex world that is not particularly well suited to traditional U.S. primacy.
Will Trump Continue to Be Trump?
Having been wrong about every aspect of the Trump phenomenon from the get-go, I am hesitant to provide a conclusive answer to this question.
But if his statements over the past 18 months turn out to be more than just an expression of proclivities and evolve into actual policies, we will be dealing with a president who really isn’t all that interested in maintaining even an illusion that the United States is an indispensable power.
Such risk-aversion of course would not be new. Part of the predicate was laid in the Obama administration’s approach to any number of issues. But Obama’s view of the world was also shaped by a large dose of internationalism and a multilateral approach to a number of global issues.
What Trump’s America First approach seems to picture is a muscular nationalism that projects toughness on selective issues -- and especially on ISIS -- but is highly risk-averse when it comes to many others.
In dealing with allies and adversaries, Trump seems to envision a fee-for-service metric to guide his approach toward some of them and a kind of laissez-faire approach to others. Indeed, unlike his predecessor, he appears at least for now to be uninterested in human rights in Egypt or Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. We can probably expect a tougher posture in response to Iran’s activities in the region, but it is by no means certain that Trump’s campaign statements about abrogating the Iranian nuclear accord will follow him to the White House. Nor should we expect a tough line on what the Syrian and Iranian regimes do to repress their own people at home.
The centerpiece of Trump’s view on the arrangement of America’s friends and adversaries appears to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he envisions as a putative partner on key issues. In exchange for closer cooperation in fighting ISIS and jihadi terror, Trump looks willing to let Putin set the political agenda in Syria, and perhaps in Ukraine as well. Indeed, carrots seem to be the order of the day to nurture this would-be partnership. That is making America’s European allies nervous. Still, it is very consistent with Trump’s notion that many of America’s NATO allies are freeloading and must be pressed to do more on defense. The sticks, on the other hand, go to China -- see Trump’s questioning of the value of the One China policy. Trump wants leverage to make Beijing more compliant on trade, currency issues, and the South China Sea.
A Messy World One Way or Another
Even if the realities of governing redirect his foreign-policy inclinations, Trump will confront a complex and largely uncooperative world with few reliable allies and many determined adversaries.
Trump wants to Make America Great Again at home and abroad. But when, in Trump’s worldview, was America last great?
If that is in the postwar period, then Trump may be out of luck. The Second World War was the last to leave America stronger at home and abroad. The postwar alliances and institutions Trump now derides were a source of strength and influence for America, and they allowed the United States to mold global economic policy and to rebuild war-torn Europe and Japan. Having played the central role in fashioning a new international order, presidents of both political parties had a stake in protecting and nurturing it. Six decades of Cold War provided an organizing principle and a sense of mission that sustained the bipartisan consensus.
That is now gone -- and the world is no longer bipolar, nor unipolar. The United States will probably remain the strongest nation in the international system, with a better balance of military, political, economic, and soft power than any other.
Yet others, including Russia, are unsurprisingly acting to expand and consolidate their own influence in ways that neither America nor its allies seem prepared to challenge. The Middle East is a mess and will remain open to manipulation from external powers. That region will be a source of instability, fragmentation, and terror for years to come. Europe today is divided and vulnerable to Moscow’s efforts to keep it that way.
And here at home, quite understandably, the U.S. public and Congress seem content to accept a more insular approach. In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq -- the two longest wars in U.S. history, and still ongoing -- there is certainly little stomach and political will for military adventures in Europe or the Middle East. Indeed, one can only imagine had there been a draft and not a volunteer military that the American role in these conflicts might have ended long ago. The second Bush administration’s risk-ready overreach and bid to use the Iraq War to transform the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 laid the basis for the retrenchment and risk-aversion of the coming administration, but also for that already seen under Obama. Iraq will likely cast a long shadow over U.S. foreign policy for a long time to come, steering future administrations away from large-scale military deployments aimed at the internal affairs of other nations.
The End of a Heroic U.S. Foreign Policy?
The new caution in U.S. foreign policy isn’t likely to be transitory; it may be driven in part by changes to the international stage. Looking back over the past three decades, it is difficult to identify a single act of war or peacemaking in which the United States was centrally involved that might be considered truly effective, enduring, or transformative.
It may be that U.S. power simply isn't well suited for the cruel world we now inhabit; and that rather than finding solutions to problems, we may have to settle for managing and producing outcomes, not end states, that hopefully are more favorable to the United States.
Indeed, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran’s search to become a nuclear weapons threshold state, the future of Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen, or the defeat of ISIS, there are simply no conclusive fixes that the United States can broker anytime soon. It took the Allied powers six years to defeat the Axis, and we are now 15-plus years beyond 9/11 and defeating jihadist terror doesn’t seem any easier. To destroy ISIS in the way the Allies destroyed the Nazis would require a new Middle East that addresses the grievances on which Islamic State feeds. That is just not happening.
And it’s not just the Middle East. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un is chasing nuclear weapons, and there are few good options to stop him. And despite Trump’s desire for a breakthrough with Moscow, the clash of Russian-U.S. interests and Putin’s need to use Washington as a bogeyman at home will ensure that the relationship with the Russians will remain intensely competitive, even if there are instances of cooperation. There will also be competition with China, likely over Taiwan, trade, and the South China sea.
The key is to manage these relationships, cooperate where possible, and in cases of aggression, contain and counter. There will be no final or conclusive victories over big powers who oppose what we want in the world. The same is true of smaller actors, who will increasingly strike out on their own, or defer to larger powers if the United States is playing a less assertive role.
Trump loves to win. He assured us all during the presidential campaign that there would be so much winning we’d get tired of it. That notion is rooted in the deeply held American can-do sensibility. We want to win the war on drugs, mental illness, poverty, cancer, and of course terrorism. But we will not likely win these wars in the foreseeable future.
These are mostly domestic challenges without solutions. Outside our own borders, it’s hard to see a whole lot of winning in the period ahead.
Perhaps President Trump will surprise us, and in turn the world. But no matter what happens, it is unlikely that the president will go searching for new foreign-policy adventures. This could result in a foreign policy that resembles that of his predecessor, and one that will likely endure in a world filled with insoluble problems.
Proximate solutions to insoluble problems, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued, may well be the best America can hope for at home or abroad. And if we can manage even that in foreign policy, we’d be well ahead of the game. In short, when it comes to changing the world, keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds. If you’re looking for U.S.-manufactured Hollywood endings in foreign policy, I suggest you go to the movies.