By Mahmood Monshipouri

Trump’s Security Strategy: Upending Virtues of Multilateralism

December 23, 2017

President Trump articulated a new national security strategy on December 18, 2017, largely premised on a populist speech filled with the echoes of his campaign mantra of patriotism, prosperity and pride.   

This so-called “new strategy” is built around four pillars: protecting the homeland, promoting prosperity, peace through strength, and advancing American influence.  It also identifies three challenges: dealing with revisionist powers such as Russia and China (while also underscoring the importance of trade ties with China and security cooperation—especially on cyber security issues—with Russia when/where necessary), containing rogue regimes like North Korea, and confronting transnational actors such as ISIS (Daesh). 

Central to this strategy is a substantial buildup in US military forces.  The hidden cost of this surge in military buildup/budget will be borne by cutting domestic programs such as education, Medicare and Medicaid healthcare, and social security—policies that are certain to hurt the already disenfranchised classes.  Moreover, it is not clear how these policies will enhance the US influence throughout the world. The US withdrawal from previously agreed-upon international agreements, including the climate accord, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the Asia-Pacific trade pact, has been questioned by many countries—including US allies in the West.  The Trump administration has failed to generate any tangible foreign policy achievements. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs resumes unabatedly.  The Iran nuclear deal is broadly supported among Western countries.  The US-Russia relations have yet to recover from lingering investigation concerning the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. 

The recent Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which is clearly a violation of UN resolutions, serves as yet another reminder of how unpopular and objectionable US foreign policy has become in this regard.  On December 21, 2017, the UN General Assembly delivered a firm rebuke to President Trump’s decision on Jerusalem by a large majority (in favor 128, against 9, and abstention 35) to reject his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This anticipated backlash could very well explain why Vice President Mike Pence recently bailed out of his trip to the Middle East, which was scheduled long ago to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  The diminishment of the US leverage on the global political landscape is becoming increasingly evident as German officials have noted this move will most likely jeopardize their solidarity with the United States on matters relating to the Middle East.  Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned against such a unilateral US recognition, describing it as “counterproductive” while noting that Germany would have to "spell out where the limits" of its solidarity stood.  This specter of unpredictability over the Trump administration has left Western allies of the United States wondering if Washington can be trusted as a partner in the peace process—if this process seemed ever likely—in the Middle East.

It remains unclear whether this substantial buildup in the US military efforts will facilitate off-shore balancing or pave the way for further military intervention in the Middle East and other regions of the globe.  In fact, some experts (including Shireen Hunter) have raised serious concerns about the US foreign policy toward the Middle East: “… barring some new and unexpected developments in the Korean Peninsula, the likelihood of a full-scale war between the United States and North Korea is less than the chance of a US military intervention against Iran.”   

Given that no coherent diplomatic or long-term national security strategy was laid out in President Trump’s address—not to mention that very few references were made to multiple, overlapping mechanisms of cooperation among nations—the uncertainty surrounding future US foreign policy has raised persistent concerns about the degree to which the pressures of interest and partisanship, undergirded by narrow nationalism, are likely to prevail over a measured, long-range foreign policy.

Trump’s reversion from orthodox American exceptionalism rhetoric, once known as uniquely US foreign policy trait based on democratic ideals and a strong commitment to internationally recognized human rights, though seemingly aimed at strengthening US hegemonic power in the international system, cultivates egotism and blindness to the virtues of multilateralism.  The new national security strategy holds out no new prospects for the US foreign policy in a highly complex and evolving world, where multilateralism continues to be the key to effective and long-term diplomatic and foreign policy initiatives.

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