This essay is part of a package imagining the policy consequences of a second Trump term. Read the rest of the essays here. And, if you enjoy what you’re reading, please consider making a donation—we’re a nonprofit media organization and rely on the support of our readers. In return for a contribution of $50 or more, you’ll receive a complimentary one-year subscription to our print edition.
Donald Trump’s critics have often charged him with ignorance and a lack of a strategic approach to foreign policy. This is a profound misunderstanding of the president. In fact, Trump has always had a certain strategy, based on his “gut” and his experience with international business and business personalities. It is a strategy built on old-style U.S. isolationism and an appreciation of the new realities of international business. His reelection will confirm a profound realignment in U.S. security policies and U.S. military priorities. This strategy will be based on transactional values and uninhibited by history and experience.
For more than 70 years the United States has maintained its powerful grip on western Europe, an outgrowth of World War II and the subsequent Cold War challenge of the Soviet Union. The principal instrument of U.S. influence has been NATO, in which the U.S. provided the dominant military component while the Europeans provided the geography, and a lesser degree of financial commitment and defense resources. It was a matter of mutual using—we used the Europeans’ diplomatic and financial clout to serve what we believed were vital U.S. interests, not only in Europe but also beyond, and they got a powerful security umbrella, under which they could devote proportionately greater resources to social welfare without fear of renewed intra-European conflict. With more than 500 million people, a GDP that rivals our own, and a culture that largely shares our own values, Europe was our natural partner—and the transatlantic partnership has been hugely successful in promoting peace and prosperity.
After his reelection, President Trump is likely to gut NATO of its significance. Expect policy changes by tweet. Russia will no longer be seen as a threat. NATO enlargement will cease, and support for Ukraine and Georgia will be curtailed. Countries will be expected to spend more than 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and they will pay more for U.S. troop presence and exercises. Article 5—collective defense—will be conditioned. Security arrangements will be created with the United Kingdom outside NATO, and NATO will be held hostage to more favorable U.S. trade terms. Should the European Union resist U.S. economic pressures, the president will bring leverage through diminished American support for NATO.
The consequence will be an opening for Russia to exploit the particular weaknesses of each of these countries, politically, economically, or informationally, further weakening not only NATO but also the EU. Europe, including western Europe, will be open for deeper penetration by Russia and China.
In the Mideast, the U.S. will anchor a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi alliance directed against Iran. American forces will leave Iraq and Syria. Russia will be viewed increasingly as a sometime partner, sometime collaborator, and sometime adversary as it consolidates its control over Syrian and Libyan oil and stabilizes Turkey’s expansionist tendencies. ISIS will become a weapon used primarily against Iran and the Kurds, reducing parts of Iran to a failed state. But U.S. military efforts, largely directed against ISIS, will be curtailed.
In Africa, U.S. investment efforts to increase its influence under an enhanced U.S. International Development Finance Corporation will be too little, too late. An expanding Russian military and contract military footprint will further grow Russian influence over not just Europe and the country’s own oil and gas needs, but also its investment flows into Africa. Continuing large Chinese investments in resource-rich southern African countries will enable China to find the resource security it seeks.
In both the Mideast and Africa the consequence will be continuing low-level conflict and a loss of broader American influence.
The U.S. military needed to pursue the America First strategy will be subtly transformed with higher technology and smaller forces, even as the defense budget grows. The emphasis will be on defense, not intervention, and where there is intervention, it will be a quick strike and then withdrawal. Forward forces will be largely withdrawn, including, at last, from Afghanistan. Active, multiple lines of defense along our southern border will be established, with the U.S. Border Patrol increasingly supplemented by deep intelligence and backstopped by mobilized National Guard forces.
The Army will likely face the greatest cutbacks, with withdrawals of forward forces from Korea and Europe enabling major units to be cut. Special Operations Forces will be protected, even as some forces are withdrawn from Africa. The National Guard can expect to be well funded and to receive expanded missions in fields such as cyber-defense and border reinforcements. High-tech projects like directed energy weapons, hypersonic missiles, glide aircraft, and space-directed efforts will continue.
The Navy will be sustained with a focus on its missions in the Mideast and the Indo-Pacific, but it will be seen as particularly valuable as leverage in securing the right trade arrangements with China. In the end, it will sustain deep cutbacks in ships, and especially aircraft carrier battle groups, as the U.S. pulls away from its extended overseas commitments.
In Asia, the U.S. will look increasingly to the financial consequences of its alignments and alliances. Temporarily, Japan and South Korea will be able to maintain a U.S. presence and commitment by substantially raising their “host nation support” payments. But in order to move forward with a resolution of U.S. trade issues with China, the president is likely to trade off U.S. forward presence in the western Pacific; the key issue will be the price. These military commitments will be viewed in transactional terms—how and how much will China pay for the U.S. to depart the region?
The consequence in Asia will be to avoid an armed conflict with China over Taiwan and the South China Sea—the so-called Thucydides trap—but it will also trade U.S. alliances for an economic purchase of American withdrawal, greatly increased Chinese power in the area, and reduced U.S. influence.
In Latin America, the president’s principal aim will be to drive back immigration, including illegal immigration. Foreign assistance will be directed to those countries and activities that can best preclude immigration. A secondary aim will be to ensure that U.S. companies can exploit any particular resource opportunities, for example the massive oil find off the coast of Guyana, and to maintain the current trade balances under the newly agreed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
History and experience would teach us that these policies are unwise. In two world wars in the twentieth century, the United States determined that it could not allow a hostile power to dominate Europe. Three generations of American leaders faithfully sustained that lesson, maintained peace, and ensured that the United States—and American values—maintained their dominance through the Cold War and post–Cold War period across the globe. But that lesson, and the alliances and forces that enabled it, and the world that was built with American values and American blood, will be left behind with the 2020 reelection of President Donald Trump. Long-term security will be negotiated away for short-term gains, both economic and political. In the world left to our children, America will be more isolated and less secure. Hardly America First.