U.S. defence & security

Escalating the status quo

Amidst pledges to “Make America Great Again” and a promise to pursue the doctrine of “America First,” a former business mogul was elected to the White House. When Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States on 20 January 2017, questions abounded about what policy such a mercurial president would pursue when he gained control of the world’s largest military force. As the first months of his term unfolded, Trump’s defence and security rhetoric paled. By his own admission, these matters were more “complicated” than he indicated in his campaign-trail bombast. 

This essay will examine Trump’s defence budget for 2018, the strike on a Syrian airfield, and the increase of American troops in Afghanistan, to argue that Donald Trump’s approach to military policy does not represent a fundamental shift in American defence and security affairs. 

Sept 2017 – LtCol Nick “Miles” Edwards (left) 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, and Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein brief President Donald Trump on the F-35A Lightning II during the Chief’s Airpower Demonstration designed to highlight current and future national defense requirements. 
(U.S. Air Force photo: Scott M. Ash)

In each of these examples, Trump has merely escalated the policies of past administrations. While his defence strategy to date has indicated more bark than bite, it is the president’s erratic temperament that could alter the global security landscape. His personal attacks against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could break this trend of continuing former defence strategy, and instead embroil the United States in conflict with a volatile, nuclear-armed state. 

While campaigning for the presidency, Trump told The Economist “I am the most militaristic person.” His campaign-trail vision for the American military was of an armed forces “so strong that nobody challenges them.” Within his first month of taking office, Trump pledged to add $54 billion to the Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2018 – a $19 billion increase over the Obama administration’s budget for the same year. Although Trump lauded the 2018 budget as a historic increase in defence spending, the 10% boost, when adjusted for inflation, would fund the Pentagon at the same level as in 2016. 

Trump’s 2018 budget is allegorical to much of his defen​ce policy: it was made to seem historic and grandiose, but did not hold up under scrutiny. Compared to increases of over 20% to Pentagon budgets in the early 1980s, Trump’s boost was far from historic. In order to fund the increase, the president proposed to slash spending on the State Department and foreign aid, drawing condemnation from politicians and former military officers alike. 

Oct. 2017 – President Trump shakes hands with Captain David Guluzian, commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during a visit to discuss ongoing operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Kearsarge is assisting FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. 
(U.S. Navy photo: MCS 3rd Class Dana D. Legg)

Despite Trump’s own claims to militarism, he faced criticism from within his own party for not taking a sufficiently hawkish approach to the 2018 budget. Republican Representative Mac Thornberry, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, called Trump’s budget “basically the Obama approach with a little bit more.” 

In his first grand gesture to strengthen American military prowess, Donald Trump drew more comparisons to his predecessor than to the militarism he espoused on the campaign trail.

Alongside the rallying cries of “America First” that defined Trump’s campaign came a renewed call for American isolationism. Between his proposed border wall and pledges for military strength, a vote for Trump was made out to be a vote for “Fortress America” – a far cry from the interventionist tendencies of previous administrations. 

Within months of taking office, the notion of “Fortress America” came crumbling down. In early April, Trump issued an order for two U.S. Navy ships to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Sharyat air base in western Syria. In the days leading up the April 7th air strikes, Trump condemned the murder of “beautiful babies” by Syrian government forces in a “very barbaric attack” against civilians in the province of Idlib. The White House suggested the Syrian regime had dropped sarin gas on civilians in Idlib, and used Sharyat air field to launch the attack. Trump followed his condemnation with military strikes, which garnered praise from both sides of the aisle. By launching the first direct American military action against Syrian regime forces, the former isolationist created a new brand for himself: Trump, the interventionist. Not only did the airstrikes on Syria indicate a radical departure from Trump’s “Fortress America” rhetoric, but the action carried distinct overtures of the globalists Trump loves to condemn. 

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom described Trump “channelling his internal Hillary Clinton. Had she won last year’s presidential election, she would have wasted no time in ratcheting up military action against Assad. Trump is doing her work for her.” The one-off attack against the Sharyat airbase appeared to mark a new step in the conflict. Yet to date Trump has – like the Obama administration before him – backed away from military intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

Nov 2017 – Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, and Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein 
deliver the “State of the Air Force” address at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. 
(U.S. Air Force photo: Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)

As Donald Trump passed the six-month mark in his presidency, his defence policy continued to veer far from his previous rhetoric. In 2013, Trump tweeted “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick.” Over the course of his campaign, Trump called the war in Afghanistan a “terrible mistake,” a “total disaster,” and a “complete waste.” 

In August 2017, the president once again demonstrated his fondness for the policy pivot. Speaking to a crowd at Fort Myer Army Base, Trump re-committed the United States to fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition,” he told the gathered US troops. 

Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy added more than 3,000 troops to the 11,000 soldiers already taking part in the longest war in American history, and solidified the president’s interventionist tendencies. Not only had he countered his own stance on leaving Afghanistan, but had produced no “hard and quick” strategy for extricating the United States from the quagmire that is Afghanistan. By renewing the American commitment to Afghanistan, Trump both pivoted to nation-building and continued the tradition of sending American troops to Afghanistan without a clear mission objective. With this Afghanistan policy, Trump once again fell in line with his two predecessors – and the past 16 years of United States defence strategy. 

While Donald Trump has not strayed far from the defence policies of presidents before him, one major difference has marked his approach to American defence and security. Trump has carried the bellicose defence rhetoric he employed as a candidate directly into the White House. This language may not be sufficient to sway the majority of U.S. defence policy, but Trump’s temperament has proven incendiary regarding the conflict with North Korea.

Nov. 2017 – Jeju Island, South Korea – Virginia-class attack submarine, USS Mississippi (SSN 782),
arrives at Jeju Naval Base for a routine port visit. 
(U.S. Navy photo: MCS Seaman William Carlisle)

As North Korea launched intercontinental ballistic missions into the atmosphere, Trump hurled increasingly threatening tweets at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This rhetoric went far beyond the realm of the internet: the administration’s official stance is that “all options are on the table” concerning North Korea. As tensions between North Korea and the United States escalated this summer, China could have been well positioned to help negotiations between the two countries. Yet, at the end of July, Trump tweeted that the Chinese “do NOTHING for us in North Korea. China could easily solve this problem!” 

Trump’s impulsive, aggressive posturing directly contrasts the restraint his cabinet has strived to achieve, and forces them to conduct damage control. 

Backlash against Trump’s China tweet was quickly moderated in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who wrote that, concerning North Korea, “our diplomatic approach is shared by many nations supporting our goals, including China.” Yet only a few weeks later, Trump contradicted Tillerson in the midst of the Secretary of State’s visit to Beijing. While Tillerson pursued diplomatic channels for negotiations with North Korea, Trump tweeted that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” 

Trump’s direct rebuttal of diplomacy, coupled with taunts about the North Korean leader’s physical appearance could be viewed as nothing more than immature bombast. However, both leaders have proven to be easily inflamed by such comments. In response to a Trump tweet referring to Kim Jong-un’s height and weight, North Korean state media described Trump as a “hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people,” intensifying the barbs into threats against the life of the American president. Between these two volatile leaders, schoolyard-style bullying has the potential to cause wide repercussions on the international stage. 

In the months following his inauguration, Donald Trump has repeatedly failed to implement the dramatic policy he proposed on the campaign trail. From isolated incidents like the strike in Syria to recommitting the United States to the war in Afghanistan, Trump’s control of the American military has not led to unprecedented changes as expected. 

Although Trump has not yet altered the landscape of global security and defence, it is not an unthinkable option. The rhetoric that has so far been mitigated by staff, policy, and bureaucracy could be quickly derailed by a simple factor: the president’s mercurial personality. 

Regarding North Korea, Trump does not appear willing to be constrained – even by those in his inner circle. Many of the defence and security challenges that have faced the Trump administration so far have been common themes in recent years of global policy. But for Trump, the threat and personal affront posed by a rogue dictator with a nuclear arsenal could well prove too difficult to resist.  

Eleanor Davidson is a Master’s student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in security and defence policy.