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U.S. soldiers seen from behind saluting, with a cargo plane in the background. U.S. Army soldiers salute as vehicles carry what are believed to be remains from American servicemen killed during the Korean War, Osan Air Base, Pyeongtaek, South Korea, July 27, 2018 (AP photo by Ahn Young-joon).

U.S. Security Policy in the Trump Era Has Been Marked by Change—and Continuity

Monday, Aug. 19, 2019

When President Donald Trump entered office under an “America First” banner, it seemed to herald a new era of U.S. isolationism. More than two years into his term, though, and the shifts in military strategy are minimal. Though their numbers are down, U.S. troops are still stationed in Afghanistan, and the Trump administration left unchanged the strategy against the Islamic State that it inherited from its predecessor.

Nevertheless, Trump’s isolationist instincts have come into regular tension with his closest advisers, many of whom espouse a more traditional view of American power projection. This was never clearer than in December 2018, when Trump ignored his aides and announced his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, prompting then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign in protest. Trump subsequently softened his rhetoric, without definitively articulating a final policy, contributing to the sense of uncertainty over America’s security policymaking.

Meanwhile, Trump’s vision has not stopped his advisers from hinting at military intervention as a path to regime change in places like Venezuela and Iran. In the latter case, Trump has recently made his opposition to war clear. Trump’s America First agenda has actually taken its heaviest toll on long-standing alliances. While he has prompted moderate increases in European defense spending, his vocal criticisms of NATO have weakened the alliance’s cohesion.

There have also been some shifts. The administration has positioned economic security as central to national security and justified its increasing use of tariffs on those grounds. Immigration—particularly along the border with Mexico—has also become a key focus of the security agenda. But Washington has pulled back from counterinsurgency efforts, even as the Islamic State regroups as a terrorist movement and, more broadly, America’s technological advantage over potential insurgent groups shrinks.

WPR has covered the U.S. military and its security strategy in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Trump’s move away from war with Iran sideline the hawks in his administration? Will the shift away from counterinsurgency allow ISIS to reemerge as an insurgency? And will Trump’s failure to enact his isolationist agenda affect his 2020 reelection bid? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Recent Coverage

Egged on by Trump, America’s Friends Are Fighting and Undermining the U.S.

Before being elected president, Donald Trump had already disparaged many American allies during the 2016 campaign, questioning the point of NATO and suggesting he might abandon defense treaties with countries like Japan and South Korea, among other criticisms of longstanding U.S. foreign policy. So there were immediate questions, and lots of angst, about what effect his presidency would have on U.S. relations around the world. Three years later, Trump’s often boorish behavior has had an undeniable impact on America’s relationships with its allies, but many far-flung friends still have good relations with Washington. The most surprising development, instead, may be that many of these countries are not getting along with each other like they did before the Trump presidency, with major implications for the United States.

U.S. Strategy Under Trump

Because of the inherent disconnect between Trump’s iconoclastic view of American power and the traditional views of the Washington national security community, the Trump administration’s security strategy has often been hampered by a dysfunctional policymaking process and incoherent messaging. Trump often speaks of reducing America’s global security commitments, but a range of military and geopolitical challenges could make that easier said than done.

Trump’s Security Policy

The Trump administration’s security policy is deeply conflicted—torn between the president’s impulse for isolationism and protectionism, and the interventionist beliefs of members of his administration and the defense community. The result has been a halting and at times contradictory policymaking process. Trump has also tried to shift the national security debate from foreign threats to perceived risks at the U.S. border—with some success.
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Military Alliances and Partnerships

In his words, if not his actions, Trump has repeatedly attempted to shake up traditional U.S. military alliances. He has criticized NATO allies and threatened to pull troops stationed in South Korea. Meanwhile, Trump has doubled down on America’s traditional partnerships in the Middle East.

The Fight Against Violent Extremism

The Trump administration’s early strategy documents officially downgraded the fight against transnational terrorist networks like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, giving precedence to strategic competition with great powers like China and Russia. But given terrorist groups’ demonstrated ability to adapt and transform themselves after tactical setbacks, the threat of violent extremism is far from eliminated.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.