Searching For A Trump Grand Strategy – Analysis


By Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Derek S. Reveron*

(FPRI) — During his Presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump continuously emphasized several themes: the United States was on the “losing” end of a number of security and trade deals with other countries, while “free-riders” were both draining U.S. military capacity and threatening to involve America in conflicts that were not of U.S. concern. Trump, under the rubric of “America First,” was critical of military interventions driven by a particular internationalist narrative such as the global war on terrorism or the responsibility to protect rather than interventions to advance traditional notions of national interests.

His critique is historically correct. Since 1945, the United States has employed military force about every four years. In only one instance did the U.S. respond directly to an attack against the homeland.

The cost of this strategy of intervention has increasingly fallen disproportionally on the United States, while the benefits have accrued to “U.S. partners,” or competitors. To quote former Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas “the Cold War is over and Japan won.” Today, we can say the U.S. has made the world safer for Chinese investment. This dynamic seemed to resonate among groups who coalesced to become the Trump coalition and enabled him to break Clinton’s “blue wall” to win the Electoral College tally.

As he prepares to take office, Trump, like his immediate predecessors, will remain focused on international terrorism with an eye to preventing another major attack on the U.S. homeland. The President-elect must decide to what extent he wishes to support regimes throughout the world in confronting their internal security challenges so that direct U.S. intervention will not be required. He will have to assess how to respond to other regional powers expanding their borders or spheres of influences. As Trump surveys the world situation, it appears that his initial preference will be to identify and encourage capable partners to take up more of the burden of stabilizing their regions and preserving the current international order. The U.S. will assist by sharing expertise, selling weapons, and conducting security cooperation.[1] But, the non-exclusive nature of U.S. security partners may be coming to an end as Washington will now expect partners to become contributors.

In addition, Trump’s instincts to withdraw and retrench will be shaped by other factors already in play prior to his election. There is frustration with grand nation-building projects in the Middle East and Afghanistan that have failed to deliver on their promises. Fiscal pressures on sustaining the current levels of U.S. expeditionary activities and the panoply of the current American global footprint are mounting. These pressures would have placed restraints even on the ability of a Hillary Clinton administration to sustain an activist foreign policy. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric about focusing more attention on the “forgotten” parts of the United States can be more easily achieved given new technologies that could reduce American dependency on global markets and thus weaken one of the main arguments in favor of extensive American engagement with the rest of the world.

Trump has already called for restarting domestic and regional energy projects that the Obama administration had put on hold. A greater willingness on the part of a Republican administration to consider protectionist measures—near heresy given the decades-old commitment of the party to promoting free trade—could see domestic energy producers and manufacturers given greater preference. A potential corporate tax holiday could repatriate trillions of dollars from foreign banks stimulating corporate spending in the U.S.

If shale oil enables the United States to achieve energy self-sufficiency, a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy could occur. This shift would overturn the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary, which committed the United States to defend the countries of the Persian Gulf. While oil is a global commodity, a disproportionate share of U.S. military power is in the Middle East to ensure Gulf countries can export oil to China, India, and Japan.

Likewise, there would be little strategic logic for the United States to repeat its past efforts of bringing Eurasian energy to international markets. For the past 20 years, U.S. policy has promoted new transport routes that would get Caspian and Central Asian energy to Western markets by bypassing both Russia and Iran. The United States also has encouraged European consumers to decrease their dependence on Russian energy supplies, with limited success, as the Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated. But, if the United States could export energy to Europe, as well as support the emergence of new sources of Central European shale gas, then the economic rationale for U.S. efforts to intervene in the post-Soviet space diminishes. Such a change would reorient simultaneously the energy supply of key European allies away from Russia, which increasingly is becoming a strategic competitor in favor of strengthening trans-Atlantic ties. Moreover, the United States could rethink its security commitments from those defined by dependency to those defined by prioritized national interests.

Other technological breakthroughs, especially new manufacturing techniques, could decrease U.S. dependence on a globalized “just in time” system of trade—where it is of vital importance that resources and components produced in different parts of the world make their way quickly and efficiently to final assembly points and then to market. There is already a small but noticeable trend by which jobs formerly outsourced to lower-cost venues overseas over the past two decades are being repatriated. At the same time, the United States continues to garner the most foreign direct investment in the world with companies such as Daimler, Volvo, and Toyota building factories around the country. The United States will not withdraw from the international economy, but it may become more cost-effective in the coming years to truly “buy American”—diminishing the country’s interest in patrolling and securing the global commons. The United States is both the world’s largest economy, but also the world’s largest internal market. And if America shifts its orientation away from Europe and Asia toward consolidating a hemisphere-wide market for goods and services, then the United States might redirect its security posture away from Europe and Asia in favor of a Western Hemispheric-centered approach.

A combination of reorienting defense with a more economically self-reliant country will lead to shifts in the existing U.S. global security posture and a redefinition of national interests. Given the unlimited demand for U.S. military presence around the world, putting America first requires discipline to follow national interests. One relatively simple approach to this complex concept is to stratify national interests and connect them to the types of intervention available:

Vital Interests: What are we willing to die for? (e.g., invade Afghanistan with ground forces to destroy al-Qaeda training camps)

Important Interests: What are we willing to kill for? (e.g., participate in air campaign to conduct regime change in Libya)

Peripheral Interests: What are we willing to fund? (e.g., train and equip African Union peacekeepers for stability operations in Somalia)

While burden-sharing through coalition operations is a norm, the United States increasingly identifies more challenges than it—and its partners—can manage. The public is also growing suspicious about expansive views of what constitutes national security and the interventionist strategies that dilute resources and generate distractions from vital interests. The Trump national security team can start to turn off U.S. support of these unending military operations by surging diplomatic efforts or empowering regional surrogates to assume responsibility. Such actions will provide a rationale to increase other countries’ defense spending and enable the U.S. to detach itself from decades-long missions in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Considering the way military forces are used may lead the Trump administration to consider reviving a form of the Nixon Doctrine. Certainly, the original doctrine, promulgated some 46 years ago, was meant to address a worldwide Soviet threat; yet, while conditions have changed, Nixon’s attempts to reformulate a grand strategy during a time of economic uncertainty makes it relevant today. At the time, Nixon declared

the United States will participate in the defense and development of allies and friends, but America cannot—and will not—conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest.[2]

Under this approach, the United States would focus on meeting its treaty commitments, but would also require its partners, if the threat emanated from their region of the world, to assume primary responsibility for action, including shouldering the costs. The era when U.S. policymakers were willing to see vital interests at stake in every corner of the globe is coming to an end.

It is very true that the emerging powers of the global south and east would seek advantage of a changed U.S. foreign policy. Yet, no other power or group of powers is positioned to produce an alternate global system that can produce the same benefits that they derive from an Americanized international order. Thus, as the first two decades of the twenty-first century fade, the impetus to challenge the U.S.-led order will recede with emphasis instead placed on gaining more influence within it. As this occurs, the new world order will end up looking a lot like the old one where the United States incidentally leads.[3]

*About the authors:
Along with Mackubin Owens, Derek Reveron and Nikolas Gvosdev are co-authors of US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article was published by FPRI

[1] See Derek S. Reveron, Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2016).

[2] Richard M. Nixon, “First Annual Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970’s,” Feb. 18, 1970.

[3] Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Mackubin T. Owens, U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2015).

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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