It isn’t often that I’m asked whether the United States will go to war — or back down from it, in the wake of President Trump’s election to the Oval Office — but the question seems to exist in the year 2020. During the run-up to the 2016 campaign, the notion of a “realist” foreign policy that would move the nation away from unending and costly interventions in the Middle East had arrived on the political radar screen. The creed is plainly the anti-Obama doctrine: Trump’s foreign policy has so far seemed far more consistent with it than with any other major doctrine of American foreign policy in memory.
This may strike you as peculiar. Trump himself is quite a realist; a foreign policy of limited ambition and unpredictability. Yet international politics goes beyond the contours of presidential politics. Thanks to their incredibly expensive involvement in war in Iraq, the United States has exhausted some of its last remaining nuclear, conventional and special operations military instruments. But its relationships with our allies, and its commitment to institutions like the United Nations, remain undiminished. As Donald Rumsfeld once observed, America has “skin in the game” of international politics. The quintessential account of world politics under the Obama administration — Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World — frames his analysis in the starkest of terms: Americans are not in.
In the last months of his term, Barack Obama sketched out the outlines of the future of American foreign policy: A more restrained American role abroad, more reliance on alliances, universal values. When I asked one senior Republican foreign policy analyst to read him the riot act following last year’s election, he actually offered a lengthy response. He made no bones about his frustration at Trump’s rise to power. Yet he resolutely insisted that “this is where we are, and where our allies live, and this is how it has to be.”
Though some realists see the Trump administration as more resolute than the Obama one, they add that Obama also made deep concessions to Islamist terror groups such as ISIS. They’re right. The Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East also seems more hawkish than Obama’s — though the foreign policy scholar Peter Feaver insists that “there is no [Trump] Trump doctrine. There’s a series of blunders.” Still, Democrats are keen to defend the Obama administration’s record on a host of foreign policy fronts. Amid the Democratic presidential field this year, for example, everyone seems to love Obama’s foreign policy except Trump.
In any case, the question is scarcely just rhetorical. It is whether, under this administration, American policy in the international arena can even reverse course. That is to say, whether it will continue its retreat from the world and eventually slide into a political culture in which the option of launching a preemptive war is not only wrong, but taboo.
In this context, the question is not so much whether the United States will make catastrophic mistakes; that’s already the record. Rather, it is whether it will any longer play as the world’s sole superpower. Whether it will dare to withdraw the troops it currently deploys abroad, move away from the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, refuse to seek a second global war against ISIS, etc.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the Peter Brookes Chair and Professor of History and International Affairs at Boston University and is the author of “Cobwebs: How Uncool is America’s Global Leadership?”