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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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

When President Donald Trump entered office under an “America First” banner, it seemed to herald a new era of U.S. isolationism. After more than three years into his term, though, the shifts in America’s military engagements have been less dramatic. Though their numbers are down, U.S. troops are still stationed in Afghanistan—for now. And until recently, the Trump administration had left relatively 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 and other high-ranking officials 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. The entire process was repeated in October 2019, only this time the decision triggered not resignations, but outrage among even Trump’s closest Republican supporters in Congress.

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 subsequently made his opposition to war clear. Trump’s broader reluctance to commit U.S. forces to another major conflict in the Middle East played a part in the deescalation of tensions with Tehran in January, following the U.S. killing of a top Iranian military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strike against U.S. forces stationed in Iraq.

For now, however, Trump’s America First agenda has actually taken its heaviest toll on long-standing alliances. While he has taken credit for moderate increases in European defense spending, his vocal criticisms of NATO have weakened the alliance’s cohesion. And his demands for increased burden-sharing by South Korea and Japan for U.S. forces based in those countries has strained relations with both Seoul and Tokyo.

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. And Washington has pulled back from counterinsurgency efforts, even as the Islamic State regroups as a terrorist movement.

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

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Our Most Recent Coverage

Rethinking America’s Alliances for the 21st Century

President Donald Trump has never been a fan of America’s alliances. His incessant criticism of what he sees as allies’ insufficient defense spending and unfair burden-sharing have undermined security ties with NATO, Japan and South Korea. But while some of his criticisms are valid, the benefits of the U.S. alliance system have far outweighed its costs. In an interview, Mira Rapp-Hooper explains why America’s alliances have proven their value—but also why they need to be updated for 21st century threats.

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 have made 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

Trump has repeatedly attempted to shake up traditional U.S. military alliances. He has criticized NATO allies and threatened to pull out 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. Trump did claim credit for the killing of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019. 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.