It is a conceit of the Trump administration that its foreign policy is entirely different from that of Barack Obama. Even in an otherwise conciliatory State of the Union address, Trump strove to set himself apart from Obama, touting his own policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea as an example of how he would not “repeat the mistakes of past administrations.” Similarly, Trump has made a point of contrasting his support for the anti-regime demonstrators in Iran with Obama’s silence amid the Green Movement protests there in 2009.
For their part, Obama-era officials agree. The stakes, according to former national security adviser Susan Rice, could not be greater: “What’s been happening is not that the administration is undoing President Obama’s legacy; it’s undoing American leadership on the international stage.” During the 2016 campaign, Obama warned that if Trump were elected, “all the progress we’ve made over the past eight years goes out the window.” Thus most of the advice on Iran from former Obama aides has been to stay quiet as Obama did and, above all, to preserve his nuclear deal.
But the contrast between the foreign policies of Obama and Trump may be more a matter of style than substance. Don’t they stand together in sharing a weariness with the burdens of global leadership that is bipartisan, even generational? If one steps back and looks at American foreign policy from the midpoint of Obama’s first term until now, there is more continuity than change. Trump speaks in the voice of the deplorables, Obama in the voice of the deploring, but the messages are similar: America must learn to step back from its previous global responsibilities.
It also seems likely that this view could prevail past Trump’s presidency. For now at least it’s hard to imagine an insurgent Republican unseating Trump and, at any rate, the party as a whole shows little of its old peace-through-strength Reaganite spirit. As for the Democrats . . . well, Bernie Sanders is no Harry Truman. Nor is Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris—or probably (alas!) even Oprah.
What underlies the strategic thinking of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump—if it is strategic thinking—is the primacy of domestic over foreign affairs. In 2011, Obama rationalized his decision to wind down the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan not only by asserting that “the tide of war is receding” but by arguing that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” And when Donald Trump rolled out his formal national security strategy in December, he argued similarly that past presidents “engaged in nation-building abroad while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.” Like Obama, he emphasized domestic prosperity before international security. In their very different ways, both men are “America First” presidents.
Connected to the praise of attending to matters at home are second thoughts about the American habit of promoting liberalization abroad. Indeed the Obama-Trump consensus doubts the very legitimacy of that project, asking not about the use of American power for a common political good but “What’s in it for us?” Trump is characteristically blunt: “We can no longer . . . enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.” He said that “his instinct” told him to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan; in acceding to the recommendations of his national security advisers to keep some troops there, Trump insisted that the mission was restricted to “killing terrorists” and excluded any “nation building.”
Obama phrased his doubts in a more nuanced way. In his extended interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, he allowed that he was willing to “do good,” but only at a “bearable cost.” But for Obama, very few costs were bearable. He emphasized the cost of remaining in Iraq, of sustaining the surge in Afghanistan, of toppling the Assad regime, of sticking with Libya after removing Muammar Qaddafi, of defending Ukraine against Russian invasion, of asserting “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. The costs were always too great.
The world has noticed. In the 1990s, other nations fretted about alleged post-Cold-War excesses of American power—hyperpuissance, as the French dubbed it. Since 2010, the growing worry of allies and the cheering realization for adversaries is that the United States has turned inward and no longer possesses the political will and military might to maintain a global order.
Obama’s recalibration of American commitment and Trump’s confirmation of it are most evident in two Defense Department statements of strategy, the 2012 Defense Planning Guidance and the recently released National Defense Strategy. It is easy to overlook and even to lampoon these documents as rote bureaucratic exercises, but they provide the template that reckons the basic size and structure of the U.S. military. And despite the current mania for emphasizing “all elements of national power,” it remains true that military means are the principal determinant in geopolitics and the global balance of power.
In his 2012 “guidance,” Barack Obama stepped back from the benchmark of U.S. military sufficiency that had been operative since the end of the Cold War. That standard, enunciated in the Clinton administration’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review, declared that American forces must be able to fight and win two “major regional contingencies”—adversaries on the scale of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea—at the same time. This was essential, wrote Defense Secretary Les Aspin, lest a “potential adversary in one region [is] tempted to take advantage if we are already engaged . . . in another.” The two-war standard also provided a “hedge against the possibility that a future aggressor might one day confront us with a larger-than-expected threat.”
For a nation with vital regional security interests in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia—and, even more important, for the guarantor of a systemic global liberal order—the logic of this was inescapable. Indeed, the requirement to operate in multiple theaters had been acknowledged since the Vinson-Walsh Two-Ocean Navy Act passed in 1940, on the eve of World War II.
Obama’s “planning guidance”—the White House trumpeted the president’s role in the writing of the document, and he took the lead at the Pentagon rollout—junked all that, intentionally. “Our planning,” he wrote, “envisages forces that are able to fully deny a capable state’s aggressive objectives in one region.” When it came to “an opportunistic aggressor in a second region,” it was deemed sufficient to “impose unacceptable costs.” Defeat the first, merely punish the second.
In addition, Obama announced a narrowing of strategic focus by “rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.” He concluded that European countries—Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 notwithstanding—had become “producers of security rather than consumers of it. Combined with the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, this has created a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military posture.” In other words, the Asia-Pacific region was the only big prize worth fighting for, and punitive measures would have to suffice elsewhere.
Remarkably, and especially so given the central role played by Defense secretary James Mattis, who while in uniform lived with the consequences of Obama-era force cuts, the just-released defense strategy essentially retains this one-war construct. Here is the money quotation: Even when “fully mobilized,” U.S. forces “will be capable of: defeating aggression by a major power [while] deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere and disrupting imminent terrorist and [weapons of mass destruction] threats.” To its credit, the Trump administration recognizes that China and Russia represent “great-power competitors,” more threatening than regional warlords of the Saddam variety. But that simply underscores the risks exposed under “second-war” conditions: While the United States is defeating great power number one, it will be hard-pressed to restrain great power number two—a more capable “revisionist power” desiring, in the strategy’s assessment, not just regional hegemony but “to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian [political] model.”
Thus the Trump corollary to the doctrine he shares with his predecessor is simultaneously more realistic (replacing Obama’s visions of international harmony with a recognition of the competitive nature of power politics) and more risky (hoping that it can keep a second very powerful and ideologically motivated adversary at bay while dealing with the aggression of another). Yet the underlying view remains in place: that restoring the “post-World War II international order” might be beyond America’s grasp.
The Obama-Trump consensus is leading to a more dangerous world. It is also redefining what it means to be the United States. We are a nation built on expansion—not just territorial and geopolitical expansion but the expansion of liberty and prosperity. The United States exists not merely to defend what is but to realize what can be. Our intent, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison described it, was to create an “empire for liberty.”
Donald Trump speaks of greatness, but it was the commitment to an empire for liberty that made America great. The pursuit of power was not an end in itself—though the Founders were entirely “realistic” in their understanding of the importance of power in international politics—it was for the sake of spreading “liberty and justice for all.”
Our “consensus” politicians cringe lest they repeat the seeming mistakes of the recent past. (“No boots on the ground! This is for the Iranians/Iraqis/Ukrainians/Yugoslavs/Chinese to decide themselves!”) In their timidity, both Obama and Trump not only renounce our past but fail to secure the present and to shape the future. In their shortsightedness, they walk away from the promise of an “empire for liberty” that is at the heart of the American experiment.