by Annelle R. Sheline
In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, Donald Trump declared, “The future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots.” The statement reinforces Trump’s “America First” stance on foreign policy. However, Trump’s assertion disregards how the pursuit of national self-interest can, and increasingly must, require international teamwork. In the context of global concerns like international security, migration, and most crucially the climate crisis, the absence of cooperation with other nations will result in greater expense, less protection, and lower quality of life for the American people.
By pulling out of international agreements, Trump is weakening the U.S.-led global order. Yet his unwillingness to risk military action, as demonstrated by his muted response to attacks on Saudi oil facilities on September 14, suggests that he has paradoxically set in motion much-needed reassessments of U.S. foreign policy in other areas.
Trump’s path to the presidency was propelled in part by dissatisfaction with heavy U.S. military commitments abroad, free trade, and globalization. Despite starting trade wars and making other decisions that economically harm his base, Trump appeals to voters who fear that Washington has little concern for their welfare or preferences. In this, he joins a pattern of nationalist strongmen all over the world who have exploited economic and social anxieties in service of their own power. In the long eventual aftermath of a Trump presidency, future U.S. administrations will have to divert resources to grappling with the long-term effects of Trumpian rule, both at home and abroad.
In the meantime, the breadth of the divide between Trump supporters and other Americans has raised alarms about the polarization of the electorate. Yet by exploiting these divisions, Trump has obscured the issues on which Americans tend to agree more with each other than with the often-hawkish DC establishment. In his pursuit of poll numbers, Trump has inadvertently pointed towards a new approach to U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s popularity derives in part from his willingness to break with protocol, and to reject the received wisdom of the establishment. For example, Trump did not respond with a counter-strike following the explosions at the oil processing plant in Eastern Saudi Arabia, which many commentators blamed on Iran (Trump did send a few hundred more troops to the region). His restraint challenged the decades-long Beltway assumption that the U.S. must protect the flow of oil from the Middle East. Trump’s position appears aligned with the majority of Americans: a recent poll by Business Insider found that only 13% of Americans want the U.S. military to join or support Saudi Arabia following the attack. A June 2019 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that just 27% of Americans think that U.S. military interventions make the country safer.
Given that the U.S. is currently the world’s largest petroleum producer, the attacks on Saudi Aramco raise the question of why the U.S. needs to protect Middle Eastern oil at all. The foreign policy establishment, as well as large oil companies, would likely respond that a steady supply of Saudi oil is necessary to prevent price fluctuation, a requisite for the stability of the interdependent world economy. True American energy independence, therefore, would transition the U.S. away from oil and towards renewables, to avoid such international entanglements. Currently the Pentagon is the largest single institutional producer of greenhouse gasses in the world. Yet significant energy consumption is required in order to protect access to fossil fuels, such as stationing the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and maintaining Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Shrinking the U.S. military footprint in the Persian Gulf would reduce its consumption of petroleum, which would lessen the need to protect U.S. access to oil, which would further diminish the necessity of a large military presence in the region.
Trump’s close personal relationship with Saudi royals could yet prompt more aggressive military engagement at their request. Such decisions by Trump to protect his personal interests over those of the United States, as demonstrated by his July phone call with the president of Ukraine, increasingly belie his alleged commitment to “America First.” But Trump’s instinct to avoid military action has allowed a different approach to foreign policy to begin to emerge. Absent Trump, how might a newly imagined U.S. foreign policy best serve American interests going forward?
America-centered statecraft would agree with the American public that wars are long and expensive, and as a result, military action should be the last resort rather than the first response. In the case of the Middle East, a region already de-stabilized by previous American interventions, enhancing military involvement would only further inflame existing conflicts and likely create volatile new ones. Instead, the U.S. should rely on diplomacy, development aid, and other more cost-effective forms of engagement with regional partners.
Like any bureaucracy, the Department of Defense faces incentives to justify funding increases. The wealth of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment supports a vast ecosystem of contractors, advisors, and other entities that benefit from the budget expansion that accompanies conflict. Redirecting resources towards agencies that are designed to prevent the escalation of hostilities, like the Department of State and USAID, would weaken the institutional pathologies that can contribute to perpetual war.
Hawks have argued that refusing to engage militarily suggests that the U.S. will not uphold security commitments, thereby weakening deterrence. Yet Trump has already wavered on U.S. support for NATO and demanded that U.S. allies contribute more to financing security arrangements. Under Trump, American deterrence is already compromised.
America-centric statecraft needs to be driven by the biggest challenge the world faces: climate change. Interlinked with climate change are issues of massive international migration, economic disruption, and competition over resources. Trump and others doggedly stress national sovereignty in response to problems that defy borders and whose impact will not be confined within individual states. Climate change, and all the political and economic havoc it is beginning to wreak, cannot be solved by military hegemony, nativism, or isolationism. Although he may wish to, Trump cannot nuke hurricanes or wish climate change away as a Chinese hoax. A U.S. foreign policy capable of addressing the globalized nature of future challenges is one that starts from the assumption that patriotic intent is not incompatible with global cooperation.
Trump’s presidency has presented an opportunity to reassess the set of assumptions that have underpinned the Beltway establishment view, especially DC’s proclivity for militarism. Trump has unintentionally provided an opportunity to reframe the terms of a foreign policy debate that is no longer fit to meet the challenges of our age.
Annelle R. Sheline is a Zwan Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.