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Trump’s Anti-Restraint Foreign Policy

Curt Mills reports [1] on TAC‘s realism and restraint conference that was held last week at George Washington University:

TAC editor Robert Merry, a staunch realist and prolific author, went further than many: “There is no realism and restraint in American foreign policy in the Trump era.”

Obviously, I agree with Merry on this, but it is worth spelling out in a little more detail what this means and why this is the case. Trump’s speechwriters like to insert the phrase “principled realism” into some of the president’s statements, but as I’ve said more than a few times the administration’s so-called “principled realism” is neither principled nor realist. The administration’s foreign policy does not seem to follow any guiding principles (unless maximizing arms sales counts as a principle). In practice, the administration neglects managing relations with other great powers, it encourages “cheap-” and “free-riding” by allies and clients, and it treats threats that can be managed with deterrence as intolerable menaces that must be eliminated. If Trump has not yet launched a preventive war, it is not because he thinks there is anything wrong in doing so.

Since taking office, Trump has escalated multiple wars and ended none. He has deepened U.S. involvement in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and that has just been in the first nine months of his presidency. He has simultaneously sought to blow up a non-proliferation agreement with Iran while stoking tensions with a nuclear-armed North Korea. He wants a larger military budget than the already bloated one that we have, and he has been even more inclined than his predecessors to give U.S. clients a blank check. A strategy of restraint would reject all of this.

One of the more worrisome aspects of Trump’s foreign policy to date has been his tendency to encourage what Barry Posen calls “reckless driving” by U.S. clients. Trump is hardly the first president to do this, but he has made a point of doing it fairly often since taking office. Increasing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen is one obvious example of this. Then there was Trump’s Riyadh speech in which he effectively told U.S. Gulf clients that they had Washington’s blessing to do whatever they wanted. In a matter of weeks, the Saudi-led bloc launched their campaign against Qatar. Since then, the White House has backed every Saudi move without hesitation, which has just encouraged the Saudis to engage in more destabilizing behavior.

A foreign policy of restraint would be one that keeps the U.S. out of local and regional conflicts that pose no threat to our security. The U.S. would not be stuck policing foreign battlefields in the Near East or Central Asia in perpetuity, and it wouldn’t be entangled in foreign civil wars where we have nothing at stake. The U.S. wouldn’t be taking sides in regional rivalries for the sake of “reassuring” our clients, and our government wouldn’t be rewarding clients that destabilize their regions through ill-conceived and unnecessary wars. There would be no place for preventive war in such a foreign policy, and in general the U.S. would seek to avoid land wars whenever possible.

Foreign policy restraint was never likely under a Trump administration for a few reasons. First, the president’s preferences for a bigger military and his preoccupation with shows of “strength” and “greatness” mean that his instincts are to reject some of restraint’s core features. Second, there are very few people in the Republican Party, whether “establishment” or populist, who think that the U.S. needs to be significantly less activist abroad. They may disagree among themselves about where and why to interfere around the world, but the obsession with “leadership” (a.k.a., hegemony) is widely shared. Finally, Trump’s fascination with current and former generals has meant that he has filled his administration with Cabinet members and advisers that have been very involved in the expeditionary wars of the last decade and a half, and as a result his views of these wars and of U.S. foreign policy more broadly have been heavily influenced by men that have no problem with continuing these wars more or less indefinitely. This is connected to a point Mark Perry made on one of the panels last Friday, which Mills quotes in his article:

“Being White House chief of staff is not something John Kelly has been trained for. Being Secretary of Defense is not something that James Mattis has been trained for. Providing international and foreign policy assessments is not something H. R. McMaster has been trained for. They’re out of their lane. And it shows.” He continued: “We have civilian government for a reason. We have politicians doing political jobs for a reason. I’m not sure where this leads . . . But I think we’ve seen . . . that the ‘adults in the room’ . . . are more like the president than we might imagine. . . . They might, in fact, reflect the military that they’re from, which is, expeditionary”—prone to interest in conflict abroad.


Their intense hostility to Iran has also reinforced Trump’s own. Because Trump has no relevant experience or knowledge to draw that would cause him to overrule their judgment, these Cabinet members and advisers will keep talking him into deeper entanglements in many different countries. The result is a foreign policy that is consistently the opposite of restraint.

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7 Comments To "Trump’s Anti-Restraint Foreign Policy"

#1 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 8, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

“Trump’s Anti-Restraint Foreign Policy” or do you mean “Trump’s Anti-Restraint Mouth Policy”??

Everything Trump dose is about Trump. “Trump’s fascination with current and former generals…” is about the military school boy surrounding himself with promotion-seekers whom he can lord over and proclaim ‘See? I’m the boss of you!’

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 8, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

“Their intense hostility to Iran has also reinforced Trump’s own. Because Trump has no relevant experience or knowledge to draw that would cause him to overrule their judgment, these Cabinet members and advisers will keep talking him into deeper entanglements in many different countries.”

I’ll be honest here. I think it is the other way around. I don’t think these are the executives instincts. I think it reflects those of the men around him.

I was hoping he would govern them, but he doesn’t seem to have much a back to tell them no.

They are not going to be able to make up the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or elsewhere by instigating more of the same. If they didn’t question the need to invade Ira strategically and press for an incisive , and limited incursion into Afghanistan to deal with the culprits of 9/11, I think its fair to challenge their decision making on other strategic goals as well.

There have been some moral ground – responsibility for making a mess of their house (Iraq) — but I suspect that the window is closed for correcting that mistake. Iran is going to be a force in the region, by our hand and sadly, for the time being — that’s the way it is.

At the moment I think one has to conclude that Mr. Bannon was correct, whatever the campaign agenda it is losing to the opposing advocacy. Pres. Trump has it appears chosen not to be a trans-formative Pres. I don’t have a beef with the generals, they are doing what generals (dogs of war do). It is the civilian leadership in and out of congress that have failed.

But as always, I am not inclined to abandon this President yet —

the commentaries, including my own are speculative.

#3 Comment By rayray On November 8, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

Agreed that one knows that military professionals will always counsel one thing. And agreed that Trump is surrounded by them. But I think we mistake Trump to ascribe that he has some other agenda that is now getting buried.

Trump likes military folks. They are there because he wants them there.

And further, Trump seems, by every possible metric or available evidence, to prefer military folks because they make him look “tough”. And looking “tough” is his primary guiding principle. I have seen no other considered line of reasoning or principle coming from him. And I think to project any other considered or thoughtful principles or policies on him is a waste.

#4 Comment By vern Monpetit On November 9, 2017 @ 9:07 am

During the campaign, I thought that Trump was going to extract the US from overseas conflicts. He seems to be going in the opposite direction, My fear is that the US will be dragged into a war to support the Saudis or the Israelis. Both parties seem to feel assured that the US has their back no matter what they do.

I also agree that a lot of this is a way of making jobs back home by inflaming tensions and selling more weapons.

#5 Comment By Mike On November 9, 2017 @ 10:02 am

You have summed up well what I wasn’t able to articulate during the election cycle about Trump. He’s unprincipled, reactionary, and haughty, and this translates to a very imprudent foreign policy.

#6 Comment By Patrick D On November 9, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

EliteCommInc. wrote:

“I don’t have a beef with the generals, they are doing what generals (dogs of war do). It is the civilian leadership in and out of congress that have failed.”

This is the core of it.

In theory and in principle, these policy decisions should be left to the civilian leadership in command over the military.

In practice, the civilian cabinets and their staff in the GWB and BHO administrations were just as recklessly hawkish and interventionist. Relatively speaking, BHO was a bit more restrained but the GWB administration was such a low bar, that is nothing to brag about.

With such a broad swathe of bipartisan disdain toward DJT I was hoping for more interest in restoring the separation of powers and reducing the power of the presidency back to where it belongs. Unfortunately, his reckless foreign policy moves are the (only?) ones that are met with cheers from never-Trump Republicans and Democrats.

#7 Comment By One Guy On November 9, 2017 @ 6:24 pm

“… a larger military budget than the already bloated one that we have…”

It is heartening to see other Conservatives acknowledge this. If we want to reduce government spending (we do, right?) then the military is a great place to do so. But Congress won’t, because it’s a Jobs Program. We can’t have Uncle Joe losing his job at the Defense Factory.