Staying the Couse on National Security Policy

Since last Tuesday, U.S. allies and adversaries along with the American people have been wondering what the election means for their future. Vladimir Putin was gleeful over Trump's victory, perhaps expecting the president-elect to lift sanctions on Russia. Several authoritarian leaders rushed to congratulate Trump, probably anticipating that he will be less likely than his predecessor to criticize their human rights records. Heads of NATO member states worry that Washington might not support them in a crisis, especially a confrontation with Russia. Americans fear that the new president could get the country into yet another futile Middle East ground war

Everyone expecting a dramatic shift in U.S. defense policy may be sorely disappointed (or pleasantly surprised). While it is too early to tell precisely what course Trump will steer, preliminary indications suggest that he may adjust but will probably not significantly alter the approach taken by his predecessors. The national security interests of a country do not change simply because someone new occupies the Oval Office. President Obama did not radically alter the approach taken by President Bush. Trump is also learning the lesson of those who have gone before him: it is far easier to campaign than to govern. Political slogans do not equate to policy decisions, even if the candidate believed them in the first place.

The strategy to defeat ISIS is working. The Islamic State has steadily lost territory over the past two years. Supported by U.S. air power and Special Forces the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga are slowly recapturing Mosul. The Kurds have repelled an ISIS diversionary attack on Kirkuk. Raqqa will probably fall within the next year. A ground invasion might hasten the destruction of the Islamic State but would saddle the United States with yet another nation-building mission, which Trump has vowed to avoid. The American people are sick of long innervating wars and unlikely to support another one any time soon.

Rail though he did against our NATO allies during the campaign, Trump will have little choice but to support them. For more than 60 years NATO has been the anchor of national security policy in the Euro-Atlantic region. Member states have supported the U.S. in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and in the struggle against ISIS. The alliance as whole went to war in Afghanistan after 9/11. Whether or not he can get our European allies to pony up more money for collective defense, Trump will have to stand by NATO.

In Asia, it is even more likely to be business as usual. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines remain the anchors of U.S. defense strategy in the region. The new administration will have to contend with rogue state North Korea and may decide engaging China is the best way to do so. Other than re-balancing military assets to Asia, as Obama has begun to do, it does not seem likely that Trump will be confrontational in the South China Sea.

Domestic politics will also militate against dramatic shifts in foreign policy. Donald Trump's supporters elected him to implement change at home, not abroad. He probably will not wish to comprise his domestic agenda by diverting energy and resources to bold foreign policy initiatives. Even if he does, his own party will probably restrain him.

None of this is to say that everything will remain the same. We can expect a return to the realpolitik of the Reagan years. Trump seems unlikely to advocate for democracy and human rights as did Obama. He may well move to lift sanctions on Russia, deeming better relations with the Kremlin more important than Ukrainian freedom. He probably will not care who governs Syria as long as the ISIS threat is reduced. Nor does he seem likely to worry about how foreign leaders treat their own people as long as they support American interests. Such an approach would be unfortunate as American values can be a force for good in the world.

The one cause for real concern is the Iranian nuclear deal. Since it has not been approved by the Senate, the agreement lacks the force of a treaty. Trump could simply withdraw from it. Because it is a multi-lateral agreement supported by U.S. allies and Russia, however, he may not wish to deal with the fallout that would come from completely abrogating it. He may settle for trying to modify the deal if he changes it at all.

While Trump's critics have god reason to fear what he will do at home, they should be less worried by how he will act abroad. The biggest uncertainty, though, is the president-elect's mercurial temperament. Trump has shown himself to be both a pragmatic deal maker and an overly-sensitive individual prone to lashing out against those who challenge him, a dangerous tendency for a commander-in-chief. We can only hope that, guided by good advisors, the first personality trait will control the second.