Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump’s Anti-Restraint Foreign Policy

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.

Curt Mills reports 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.