Capstones | 1.4.17
By Alan W. Dowd

As we move toward Inauguration Day and the beginning of the Trump administration, there are many questions surrounding U.S foreign policy and national defense. That’s a bit worrisome, because uncertainty in Washington and the West has often been the enemy of stability and peace in the last hundred years.

To be sure, President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to “promote regional stability and produce an easing of tensions in the world.” He promises a foreign policy “tempered by realism,” an end to the “defense sequester” and a national security strategy premised on “peace through strength.” And he says he will “make America strong again” and “make America safe again.”

Toward that end, Trump wants to build up the active-duty Army to 540,000 soldiers, the Navy to 350 ships, the Marine Corps to 36 battalions and the Air Force to 1,200 fighter aircraft, while pouring new resources into “a state of the art missile defense system.”

With the Middle East on fire, Europe on edge, Russia on the march, China on the rise and the Korean Peninsula, as always, on the verge, these are sound and much-needed policy initiatives that would serve the national interest—indeed, Trump vows to “view the world through the clear lens of American interests”—and promote international security (which itself is in the national interest).

Yet Trump also has declared, in a surprising echo of President Barack Obama’s “nation building here at home” mantra, “We have to build our own nation.” He has embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label. (Whether he did so aware of its historical connotations or unwittingly is unclear, but neither alternative is particularly comforting.) He has threatened to “terminate” NAFTA, declared that South Korea and Japan “do not pay us what they should be paying us” for the U.S. security umbrella, and concluded that “NATO is obsolete.”

Put these two halves of Trump’s foreign-policy vision together—building up and pulling back— and it looks like the blueprint for a 21st-century “Fortress America.” As history reminds us, the security payoffs of such an approach are ephemeral and fleeting. Both the national interest and international security suffer when America turns inward.


We have heard much from Obama and Trump about the costs of engagement—and understandably so. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. Post-9/11 wars have claimed more than 6,800 military personnel and consumed nearly $2 trillion. (The human and material costs of war serve as the best argument for deterrence.)

But we hear little about the costs of disengagement: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which spawned the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al Qaeda; Iraq and Syria today, which spawned ISIS.

And we often ignore the benefits of engagement. During World War II, U.S. engagement prevented a return to the Dark Ages. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement preserved free government, elevated human rights, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. For 71 years, U.S. engagement has prevented war between great powers, which was the norm from 1745 to 1945. Not coincidentally, U.S. forces have been deployed in Europe since 1944, Japan since 1945, Bahrain since 1948, South Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991. Today, it is only America’s forward presence (though spread thin due to shortsighted withdrawals as well as the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration) that is keeping Eastern Europe free from Russian intervention and keeping the Pacific relatively pacific.

This isn’t charity work. We aren’t getting a “bad deal,” to borrow a phrase. An international order that tilts in favor of free governments and free markets, a peaceful Europe, a stable Asia-Pacific, the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, an open trading system connected by open sea lanes—all of this is in the national interest. In fact, America benefits from the liberal international order (that America helped build) more than any other nation. As Paul Miller of the National Defense University observes, “Liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security.”

Contrary to the nation-building-at-home caucus, upholding the liberal postwar order through alliances and engagement isn’t a waste of resources or a diversion from our interests. It’s the very opposite: A RAND study concluded that “a 50-percent retrenchment in U.S. overseas security commitments could reduce U.S. bilateral trade in goods and services annually by as much as $577 billion…Based on conservative assumptions, the resulting annual decline in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would be $490 billion.”


To be sure, U.S. engagement often falls into the category of enlightened self-interest. But what’s wrong with serving the interests of the United States, while, along the way, serving the interests of humanity? As President Dwight Eisenhower observed, “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation, and still lose the battle of the world, if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress. It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”

Eisenhower knew that freedom and progress need a helping hand. So he didn’t pull back from the world; he didn’t accept the twin myths that America is either too good for the world or can do no good in the world; he didn’t withdraw from Korea; he didn’t cut short nation-building missions in Japan and Germany that would take a generation to succeed.

Instead, Eisenhower (and President Harry Truman before him) forged a national consensus about America’s place and purpose in the world: to build a liberal order in which America could flourish, to engage the world and lead the West, to guard the frontiers of freedom and contain the Soviet Empire.

But a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union—after 15 years of waging war on terrorism—that consensus has frayed. According to Pew polling, 57 percent of Americans want the U.S. to deal with its own problems and “let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. That explains why Obama and Trump embrace a decidedly-standoffish approach to the world.

This is not easy for (or on) the rest of the world. After decades of Cold War continuity, U.S. foreign and defense policy has lurched from President George W. Bush’s “ending tyranny in our world” military campaigns, to Obama’s “nation building at home” retrenchment, to what sounds like a hybrid of “don’t tread on me” nationalism and pre-Great War noninterventionism under Trump.

These post-Cold War gyrations explain why Tony Blair worried and warned in 2007, “The danger with the United States today is not that it is too involved in the world. The danger is that it might pull up the drawbridge and disengage.”

They explain why, during the failed Twitter Revolution of 2009, Iranians shouted, “Obama, are you with them or with us?”

They explain why, with Qaddafi bearing down on them in 2011, Libyans jarringly chanted, “Bring Bush! Bomb the planes!”

They explain why, with Washington “leading from behind,” France had to fill in as captain during NATO’s operation in Libya.

They explain why Gen. James Mattis reports that friends and enemies “don’t believe we’re reliable.”

They explain why Secretary of State John Kerry warned long before Trump even announced his candidacy, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism.”

They explain why Gen. David Petraeus concluded, again long before Trump was on the political scene, that “inaction” in Syria led to “profound risks and costs for our national security.”

They explain why, after Obama erased his “red line” in Syria and failed to punish Assad for reopening the Pandora’s Box of chemical weapons, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls sighed, “We have created a monster…If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.”

They explain why Assad himself said of the Americans, “You cannot take them at their word…We don’t listen to their statements.” 

They explain why, after Washington sent him MREs and nonlethal aid, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told Congress that his beleaguered nation “cannot win the war with blankets.”

They explain why Gen. Michael Flynn reported after the Iran nuclear deal, “Our allies feel abandoned.”

They explain why Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO leader, recently argued, “Putting ‘America first’ should not mean putting friends and allies last.”

Roles and Rules

“When America is willing to step forward and defend the rules-based order that it did so much to create,” Rasmussen observes, “the result is peace and stability.”

 Peace and stability are very much in America’s interests. But when America does not actively promote international order, as history and the headlines remind us, the world grows less stable, less peaceful and more dangerous—and that’s decidedly not in America’s interests.

The liberal international order forged after World War II did not emerge by accident and does not endure by magic. Now, as in 1945, it depends on America projecting power into the global commons, supporting free government, promoting free trade, defending freedom of the seas and skies, deterring aggressive states, enforcing international norms of behavior, and serving as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense.

The United States cannot play that role—at least not effectively—while “leading from behind” or focusing on “nation building here at home” or waving the “America First” banner.