Some of President Trump’s most high-profile foreign policy decisions—withdrawing from the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement, killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—draw a sharp distinction from Barack Obama.
But when you look at other issues, and drill down on the details, the Trump doctrine is much more a continuation of the Obama doctrine. This reflects not only how both men were (and are) constrained by the world in ways that frustrated them, but how their passiveness to counter-aggression reflects current public sentiment.
Both men share an unhealthy skepticism of how much good the United States is capable of doing militarily, particularly in the Middle East.
President Obama’s signature foreign policy “achievement” during his first term in office was ending the Iraq war. He implemented a half-hearted surge strategy in Afghanistan, but only after the military “boxed him” into it.
Similarly, President Trump has been impatient to bring back the troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Yet, he too, was boxed into a surge by his advisers.
Both have favored peace talks with the Taliban because of the perceived incapability of the military to win the war in Afghanistan, and both have been very cautious against countering military aggressions by countries such as Iran and Russia, a carryover from the Bush years.
Rather, both men favor “nation building at home” and lower military spendings. President Trump’s first military budget was only 3 percent higher than what President Obama had suggested. He recently called the defense budget “crazy,” mirroring President Obama’s view. His permanently “acting” chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, is a notorious budget hawk, including military budget.
Then comes the issue of alliances. Clashing with allies is nothing new. What is new is how the two presidents and their administrations have gone out of their way to anger some allies, be it Obama calling Bibi Netanyahu a “chicken sh*t” or Trump needling the Europeans. They might harbor animosity toward different allies, but they are visibly similar in their resentment for the “free rider” allies. President Obama talks about the issue in Jeffrey Goldberg’s definitive 2016 profile, and there is nobody unfamiliar with President Trump’s thoughts on NATO members’ military expenditures and his calls for the Republic of Korea to pay for our military presence there. (It already does, by the way.)
And boy do the two men love dictators. President Trump fell in love with Kim Jong-un, cannot utter a bad word about Putin, admires Xi, cozies with the Saudi Prince Muhammed bin-Salman (MBS), and is a fan of Erdogan, the Turkish strongman. President Obama, on his part, had his moments: his handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro, followed by his visit there, his phone call with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and attempt to open relations with Iran, or his own relations with Erdogan—during a joint press conference, he called on the Turkish leader to teach him how to raise his daughters!—show a similar pattern, except that President Obama was more diplomatic about it.
A less talked about similarity is that the federal agency that most actively acts against adversaries is the Treasury. The Treasury has stepped in with sanctions against nations whom presidents choose not to engage with militarily. Both administrations have responded to the threats posed by Russia, Iran—under Obama, until the enactment of the nuclear deal—and North Korea almost exclusively via sanctions.
This lack of reliance on the military in foreign affairs began during the late years of the Bush administration after the United States did not take action against Russia’s occupation of Georgia and the Syrian nuclear reactor. For President Bush, he had spent all of his political capital left to save the war in Iraq. Otherwise, evidence suggests that he had no doubt about what the military could achieve. Presidents Obama and Trump, however, naïvely believe that foreign policy is separable from military posture, that defense policy is not foreign policy.
The deeper problem, though. is both men’s lack of interest in foreign affairs.
Presidents Obama and Trump, however, reflect where the public is. Lack of a resolution in Afghanistan—America’s longest war—and the bloodiness of the Iraq war have made the public skeptical of military action. The United States’ blunder in Libya did not help, either. Additionally, Americans are incredibly frightened by the prospects of a war with China or Russia.
No sane person “likes” war, and Americans are sane. But so are the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian leaders. The United States has every single advantage over its adversaries. The Russians and the Iranians know very well that a military conflict with the United States is a death sentence. China knows that other than a defensive land war in mainland China, it stands no chance against the United States in air, in sea, or on land in a country allied with the United States.
Economically, the United States enjoys an even greater advantage against its adversaries. Iranian and Russian economies are imploding, many thanks to their overextensions in Syria and Ukraine. China’s growth has slowed down, and experts estimate it to be between 1% and 3.5%. Recent centralizations, demographic and aging realities, and low productivity rate all indicate a coming crisis, not to mention its public debt problem (cumulative debts of national and local governments and private entities), which is significantly higher than the United States’.
America’s nuclear arsenal is as big as and more technologically advanced than Russia’s and bigger and better than everybody else’s.
Diplomatically, the United States enjoys much better allies—at least for now that they remain our allies—than its adversaries. Our European, Asian, and Middle Eastern allies are richer, more prosperous, more democratic, and more reliable than the allies of our adversaries, who are more burdens than blessings.
Yet, our adversaries are “winning” more than we do—Iran and Russia have achieved their objective of sustaining the Assad regime in Syria, China continues its artificial islands project, Russia continues its involvement in the Ukrainian civil war, North Korea is still developing nuclear weapons, Iran continues to keep Yemen destabilized by supporting the Houthis—because Trump is continuing the Obama administration’s pattern of not making any serious attempt to stop them. At best, America’s leaders are uninterested in preserving the liberal order the United States spent so much to create and benefits from more than anybody else, and at worst because they are defeatists.
Here, there is a parallel with the late 1960s and 1970s. What suddenly changed was the statesmanship of Ronald Reagan, who changed the balance of resolve in America’s favor overnight and restored confidence among Americans. Trump and Obama are many things, but they are not Ronald Reagans.