America is pulling back from the world

March 29, 2016
U.S. President  Barack Obama announces plans to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington October 15, 2015. The plan would keep the current force of 9,800 through most of 2016 before beginning to trim levels. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTS4MD1

U.S. President Barack Obama announces plans to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

For many Americans, the attacks on Brussels must have felt like more of the same. Once again, militants struck, the systems designed to stop them failed and all the blood and treasure of 15 years of “war on terror” appears more wasted than ever.

From an outsider’s perspective, though, the way in which the United States reacts appears to be subtly shifting. Almost without noticing, America is beginning to dramatically rethink the way in which it interacts with the world.

As with so many things, Donald Trump is the clearest manifestation of the trend. For all his talk of “making America great again,” the foreign policy he has begun to outline — particularly in interviews with senior editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post — smacks of outright isolationism.

Trump himself, it should be said, specifically rejects that label.

Getting stuck on the semantics misses the point. On a much, much broader level — from the country at large to the corridors of the White House — feelings are also changing. Frustrations, regrets and a rethinking of how much America can or should do drips from almost every line of the must-read interview with President Barack Obama published earlier this month in the Atlantic.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several current and former U.S. officials have told me they no longer really feel they know what their country was trying to achieve in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. Such soul-searching is rarely done publicly, but it appears widespread.

That trend is easily missed in Washington, not least because so many of the think tanks that makeup the foreign policy community are robustly interventionist — and funded by individuals, defense contractors and foreign governments such as the Gulf states who want to keep the U.S. thinking that way. “The result is that you can end up taking public positions that are more interventionist than you really think,” said one think tank policy analyst on condition of anonymity. Even within such institutions, though, the mood seems to be quietly changing.

The gulf between different worldviews — particularly those exemplified by Obama and Trump — remains vast. As Obama’s Latin American tour made clear, his vision for America remains one in which the world’s preeminent superpower remains a multiethnic melting pot deeply committed to an ever more interlinked world — even if the Atlantic profile shows he now puts more caveats on that position.

Trump’s entire campaign, meanwhile, is based around — often literally — fencing off the rest of the planet. Immigration and globalization, he says, have cost Americans their jobs and risks costing them their safety. Too many of America’s allies, he says, have been relying on Washington to deter enemies and stabilize the neighborhood. If they’re not willing to pay for that protection, Trump says, America should pull its forces back.

That’s a massive shift from the positions America’s allies in particular have come to expect. In South Korea, newspapers said they were “dumbfounded” by Trump’s suggestion Tokyo and Seoul should build their own atomic weapons to protect themselves. European governments will be similarly concerned by his comments on NATO. In both cases, though, his comments point to much broader questioning at home.

Earlier this month, I chaired a discussion on U.S. foreign policy and the election. One of the participants, the Atlantic Council’s Alex Ward, mentioned that while he and many of his foreign policy-focused colleagues spent much of their time working on strategies to defend NATO members like the Baltic states from Russia, some of his relatives in the rest of the country didn’t even know what the acronym stood for.

Ipsos pollster Julia Clark, meanwhile — who believes Trump is much more likely to win than many in the political mainstream accept — argued his more isolationist views already resonate widely with a public tired of wars and job losses. U.S. Naval War College academic Nikolas Gvosdev argued that regardless of who wins, Trump has made such positions much more acceptable for other politicians to take in future.

When it comes to talking about the threat from militants like Islamic State, Trump and Obama also differ wildly — but only up to a point. Trump takes pride in talking about how he would tear up the rulebook, using harsh interrogation techniques, torture and indiscriminate bombing. The President might have failed to close Guantánamo but he clearly opposes such measures, feeling they simply make matters worse.

Trump’s populist anti-IS message, though, contains very specific limits. Attempts at broader stabilization and “nation-building,” he says, simply haven’t worked. He told the Washington Post he would find it “very difficult” to send tens of thousands of ground troops to fight Islamic State, even if senior U.S. commanders requested it.

Obama famously opposed the invasion of Iraq but favored increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan immediately after he took office in 2009. It’s hard to imagine him or many others backing such a strategy now.

On a wide variety of issues, Trump has probably taken too extreme and idiosyncratic a position to make himself electable. America’s most likely next president remains Hillary Clinton — a candidate whose legitimacy, ironically, rests heavily on her international affairs background and establishment status. Her advisers, backers and mentors consist of pretty much the entire Democratic and much of the Republican foreign policy community — although she has found that that expertise is not necessarily helping her at the polls.

In the last few years, Washington and European powers have already moved towards a much more affordable, perhaps also effective strategy for engaging volatile countries. In three nations in particular — Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia — that approach is now clearly to provide limited military and development assistance intended to build local government structures, ideally with wider regional support.

That’s a major shift from relying on an unsustainable surge of foreign forces. It does much less to radicalize regional opinion, a longer game with much greater potential for success. It could even work in Syria — at least providing the United States, Russia and other local powers could ever agree on what kind of future government they were trying to strengthen.

What is happening now, though, is a very real questioning of whether that kind of engagement is worth it.

Where Trump goes well beyond any other potential serious presidential contender since the 1930s is suggesting the much wider withdrawal, if not outright abandonment, of previous U.S. positions. On trade, he is aggressively protectionist — something he has in common with leftist challenger Bernie Sanders. Against China in particular, he says he would run up tariffs in a way that could well provoke a trade war.

At the same time, though, his reluctance to support longtime U.S. allies might well empower Moscow and Beijing. Trump says his time in business has told him the value of being unpredictable. When it comes to high-stakes nuclear confrontations, however, that may not be a virtue.

Obama would never go as far — indeed, stepping up military presence in both Asia and Europe has been central to his strategy. But he clearly saw no problem in expressing considerable frustrations with the Europeans, Britain and France in particular, blaming them for failing to come up with their own policies to stabilize Libya — in his view, clearly Europe’s backyard — after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, the overwhelming narrative seems to have been to “blame Belgium.” In some ways, that’s very reasonable — Belgium’s intelligence and security apparatus, as well as the rest of its government, is notoriously dysfunctional.

But Belgium, it is worth remembering, has long been known as the “crossroads of empire,” never truly able to secure its borders against its foes. And while some of America’s relative success in avoiding attacks on its mainland since 9/11 probably is the result of its intelligence and security reforms, the fact it is cut off from the rest of the world by two enormous oceans is also key.

That geographic isolation is why America has the luxury of sometimes thinking it could make the rest of the world go away. Indeed, much of its recent focus on gaining energy independence seems rooted in that hope.

That the United States is rethinking its role is neither surprising nor unhealthy. It spent a mere 25 years as the unipolar global superpower and in the Middle East in particular, it’s easy to conclude it may have been a negative — or at least de-stabilizing — influence.

At its best, however, America acts — albeit deeply imperfectly — as the closest we have to a global linchpin. If the country is going isolationist again during a period of global instability, that may not be a good thing for the rest of us.


Follow Peter Apps on Twitter.



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Bottom line, Europeans vis-a-vis NATO/OTAN leech off the security blanket the US pays for. I agree with an approach where we make the EU 100% accountable for European and African defense matters while we retain American and APAC matters.

Posted by Mike_Hunt | Report as abusive

Obama didn’t pull back, he checked out. Putin’s pwned him repeatedly.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

The thing, you people never understand, is all that (Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere) invasions are about construction projects. Can you imagine how much money to be spent to build a city? Billions.
People die everyday. Everyone got used to this. But who cares people? Who cares the woman soldier raped in Iraq or Afghanistan? It is all about money. Now and then.

Posted by randomhorse | Report as abusive

In the Middle East, the US was more of a bully than a superpower. Now, bankrupt and bloody after 25 years of stupidity, the US must stop listening to the incompetent pro-Israel neocons, and finally do what’s right for the people of America. All the US tax dollars shoveled into Israel have given the Israelis free health care and education — while Americans have neither. It’s time for our tax dollars to pay for our needs. And any politician who fails to take care of Americans first ought to be booted out of office. Wars are a drain on the economy — while only making the defense industry billionaires. Time to stop the wars and start the reconstruction of America.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Trump and Sanders agendas would be disastrous for peace and stability in Europe and Asia. Neither is willing to support a robust multilateral order led by the U.S. Americans take for granted that since WWII, Europe and most of Asia have experienced a long peace due to the order established by the U.S. In addition, global economic growth is the highest ever recorded in this period and the number of poor people has dropped dramatically. Yet neither Trump nor Sanders will support the alliance networks and free trade order that made this possible. And nukes for Japan and S. Korea, a nuclear arms race in Asia – is he serious? He doesnt have a clue as to the consequences, as he didnt have a clue what the nuclear triad was.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

America has been pulling back from our allies now for 7 years and embracing our enemies. The traitor in the Whitehouse has repeatedly and still undercut our traditional allies and whole heartedly embraced anyone who is anti American. We currently have no real leaders in the US government. That will change in November once the Traitors term is up.

Posted by seltens6 | Report as abusive

Pulling back? Hardly.

NATO’s Breedlove is pushing for brigade rotations in EU – what a waste. mmander-philip-breedlove.html

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

So are you willing to let your sons and daughters, be sent into harms way again? Are you willing to see the fiscal futures of all people in this country decline? When they start the draft and force citizens youth to be taken into the military, while illegals stay behind and draw government social programs, for food, education, and other items. While the citizens youth bleed for this privilege of citizenship. While illegals live secure in the US, and continue to flood into the US?
This United States needs to come home, secure its own border with its armed forces, rebuild a domestic economy, and restore a real future for our country thru involvement of its legal citizens, and true leadership. Not the phony politicians in both executive, house, senate, and judicial branches that have failed to date. With out a concerted effort by the citizens this nation will fall from within, just like Rome did.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Of 28 NATO countries only 4 pay the agreed to amount and supply troops.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

On other fronts, alliance leaders pressed NATO countries to follow through on commitments to spend 2 percent of their nations’ gross domestic product on defense. Only four NATO nations meet that threshold: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.
Komorowski said that Poland would raise its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP in 2016 and would encourage other members to increase defense spending as well.
So the other 24 Nations fail in this.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

The United States currently provides about 25 percent of these common-funded budgets, and will continue to do so after the addition of the new members. source NATO
So as countries join and costs increase, the US still pays 25%. So this will cost more $$$.
NATO has 28 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

America should be pulling back from the world. Defense does not mean meddling in other nations’ affairs all over the world, like a bunch of Bush/Cheney idiots. Wasting 3 trillion dollars on a failed nation-building effort in the middle-eastern desert. 4,000 young Americans died for nothing in that boondoggle and every republican who voted for Bush and Cheney has themselves to blame. We warned you. Defense means defense. As in…. here in America. Quit meddling in foreign civil wars. Quit nation-building for cave men.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive