The first year of the Trump administration saw much more than the continuity in U.S. foreign policy that many of us expected. Trump’s candidacy and then his election were greeted with alarm by almost everyone in the foreign policy establishment, with an overwhelming consensus that he stood for a so-called “isolationist” withdrawal from international affairs. This interpretation was a serious misreading of Trump’s rhetoric and led to the usual knee-jerk reflex to define anything that differed from post-Cold War foreign policy as an outright rejection of all international engagement. As Trump’s policies have shown, he is open to a kind of international engagement, but it is one that is heavily militarized and defined by zero-sum contests with adversaries and allies alike.
Trump is not interested in disentangling the United States from foreign conflicts. Instead, he continues and expands them, as well as stoking new crises that could erupt into conflict. Trump is easily persuaded to accept conventional foreign policy positions so long as they are the more aggressive alternatives available. When he does break from consensus views, he does so in a unilateral and nationalist fashion that repudiates diplomatic compromises, rejects the legacy of his predecessor, and panders to some of his core constituencies at home.
As 2018 begins, America is now even more deeply involved in the multiple wars that Trump inherited from Obama. There are a growing number of U.S. forces in Syria, more American soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan to continue our longest war, and U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war on Yemen has ratcheted up as well. In each case, Trump has signed off on increased U.S. involvement. There is evidence that the number of Americans fighting in Afghanistan will increase in the coming year, and U.S. forces operating in Syria are set to remain there indefinitely. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is even greater than it was under Obama, and there is no sign that it will be reduced anytime soon. Unfortunately, the one thing Trump refuses to abandon are the wars that Obama bequeathed to him.
Tensions with Iran and North Korea have both increased over the last year, and in both cases the Trump administration is to blame. Between the travel ban, the decertification of the nuclear deal, bombing Syrian government forces in the spring, belligerent speeches at the U.N. and elsewhere, and an overall regional policy defined by unremitting hostility towards Iran, Trump has mishandled relations with Tehran about as badly as a new president can. If he next reneges on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump will risk creating a new crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. If the nuclear deal does fall apart, the risk of war with Iran would significantly increase.
Considering how poorly Trump has managed issues related to Iran, it is remarkable that his handling of a much more sensitive and potentially explosive situation in the Korean Peninsula has been even worse. For most of the last year, Trump has answered North Korean provocations with bellicose rhetoric and reckless threats, and repeatedly dismissed the possibility of entering into talks with Pyongyang to reduce tensions. He and his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, have been talking down the possibility of deterring North Korea and instead insisting on an impossible goal of denuclearization. Senior members of the Trump administration bizarrely seem to believe they can take military action against North Korea without it escalating into a major war. On this issue, the one where Trump most needs to be reined in by his advisors, it appears he’s instead being egged on by them. There is a much greater chance of war with North Korea today than there has been in decades. The current administration has helped bring this about, and alarmingly it doesn’t seem to have sunk in with members of Congress or the public.
As we look ahead to 2018, the picture is not at all encouraging for those interested in peace and restraint. The danger that the U.S. may foolishly plunge into at least one new avoidable war is greater than it has been perhaps since the period leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2002. It will be up to members of Congress and the public to keep the administration from committing such a monumental blunder.
Daniel Larison is a senior writer at The American Conservative. Follow his blog and at Twitter @DanielLarison .