If only the world worked that way. Unfortunately, there are conflicts borne of differing interests and values—and there are states and non-state actors who reject the rights of others. Does Russia accept Ukraine’s right to reform itself and associate with Europe? Does Hezbollah accept Israel’s right to exist? Do the Iranians believe that they have a right to dominate the Middle East?
The fundamental problem with the Trump worldview is that it leads to no rules, no norms, and no limits. It is every country for itself. It rationalizes US disengagement and withdrawal. Regrettably, when America disengages, it produces vacuums and those are typically filled by the worst forces. Consider the Middle East: the Bush Administration created a vacuum in Iraq when it removed Saddam Hussein without having a credible plan for who would fill the void—and the result was chaos, a Sunni insurgency, and a terrible sectarian war. The Obama Administration, fearing that any intervention in Syria would produce another Iraq, adopted a policy of avoidance and a vacuum resulted—and the forces that filled it produced half a million dead, millions of refugees flooding neighboring states and Europe, and the emergence of ISIS. Trump’s decision to exit northeast Syria has created a new vacuum that Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and Turkey are filling—and already we are seeing Syrian Arab refugees forced to leave Turkey and resettle in a part of Syria that is unknown to them and that has little absorptive capacity. New dangers are certain to emerge.
President Obama declared that he got elected to get us out of Middle East wars, not into them. President Trump wants to end the “endless” wars. Both reflect an understandable sentiment of the American people: they want out of conflicts that prove so costly and only seem to make things worse. The Obama and Trump instincts on engagement could not be more different. Obama was an internationalist, believing that the US should shape the agenda internationally and mobilize others to pursue it. But he was also highly skeptical of the use of force (except for limited counter-terror purposes), saying that those who argued for the use of force and intervention did not understand the meaning of power in the 21st century. For the Obama view to be right, others have to accept it internationally, and presently they don’t.
Unlike Trump, Obama accepted America had responsibilities internationally—whether on climate change, pandemics, or terror—and he was determined to work with others to respond to these challenges. Trump seems only willing to work with others if it costs us nothing. Like the historic strain of American isolationism that he reflects—belligerent isolationism—Trump does not like alliances because they require obligation. Like Senator William Borah in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he finds alliances limiting; it is not just that allies don’t pay their fair share, it is that alliances both limit our freedom of action and require us to come to their defense. Recall Trump’s asking why we would want to come to the defense of Montenegro, a member of NATO.
Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren extol the virtues of alliances, but also want to pull all US forces out of the Middle East. Will the British and French keep their forces there, exposed, if we have no presence in the region? If it is in our interests to have others help preserve stability and counter common threats, they need to be able to count on us. That does not mean keeping US forces in places mindlessly.
On the contrary, America’s leaders must weigh the implications of different choices. As a starting point, it is essential to know that there is a difference between putting small US forces on the ground to support local partners and leverage their presence to back diplomacy and intervening with tens of thousands of them to resolve distant conflicts or remake states. America’s leaders need a concept that guides our approach to the world and must be ready to explain it to the American people and the world. If they reject the Trump approach, they must be prepared to explain the US role in understandable, repeatable terms.
My suggestion would be the following and I believe that it would resonate both domestically here in the US and internationally:
America, given its economic and military power, has broader responsibilities in the world, not to fight every battle or resolve every conflict, but to help preserve a world that is safer, healthier, cleaner, less conflict-ridden and where all can progress. Such a world serves our interests, not just our values, because we cannot insulate ourselves from threats that do not respect borders: proliferation, terrorism, climate change, pandemics, economic melt-downs—and the factors that produce them. We cannot reduce these dangers by ourselves, we need to work with others. There is something else that we cannot do alone: prevent vacuums from forming. And yet we know if we don’t prevent them, sooner or later the forces that fill them will threaten us directly, only then we will have fewer options and the costs in confronting them will be greater. To prevent vacuums from emerging—to ensure we are not the world’s policeman—we need allies who will work with us and local partners who will fight for themselves. But if we berate our allies and betray those partners, we won’t have them. For example, ISIS forces were never going to be defeated only from the air. They had to be rooted out on the ground and it was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who did the tough fighting on the ground, losing over 11,000 dead. The US provided logistic and material support, intelligence, liaison, and air and artillery fire—and suffered very few casualties as a result. Here is a model for the future when dealing with threats that may appear distant but may soon come to our shores. To work, the US must also be reliable and trustworthy.
That is a common sense message. There is no substitute for America playing a leading role in the world—the consequences are clear when it does not. Sooner or later, the US will return to the role it needs to play and that fits the American ethos. Will it be in 2021 or 2025? Time will tell.