27 March 2019

“President Donald J. Trump’s America First Vision for Keeping Our Nation Safe” passed unnoticed

Niculae Iancu

Image source: Mediafax

The same day President Donald Trump delivered his long-anticipated State of the Union, in front of the assembled chambers of the US’s Congress and the American citizens, the White House has published a document that the international and American media almost passed by. Issued following the American pragmatism, marked by bullets, the document is presenting a short, however eloquent, debriefing on the “America First” Vision that the current Administration in Washington is following to “build a safe, strong and proud America”.

Although elaborated on integrative foreign and security policies, the document is focusing on the Extended Middle East security issue and it is offering a really clear perspective over the firmness of the Trump Administration to significantly or totally reduce the American military presence overseas and, implicitly, to cut the huge financial spending of certain military campaigns which have been working for a too long time and which have “burdened the American Nation” too much.

A preamble for history. The debriefing published in the “national security and defence” section of the White House’s internet page, on the 5ht of February, offers a clear perspective over the policies and actions of the current administration on international security field. The document is not only listing the achievements and anticipating the priorities for “keeping the America safe”, but it is also ensuring the key to understand president’s security decisions often considered as unpredictable, opaque or selfish among both allies and enemies.

The preamble of the document is quoting president Trump’s speech from the 21st of August 2017 regarding the US military strategy in Afghanistan. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests", the President was saying back then, feeding a plethora of analysis on the withdrawing of the US forces deployed across the world, and especially about the formation of security voids that will catalyse the energies of evil to bring more chaos than security in many regions where the presence of the US troops was the only guarantee of the stability status-quo.

Furthermore, the unilateral and unanticipated decisions of President Trump would not lead only to international chaos, but also to an internal political instability of a seemed conflictual and ineffective security and defence institutional architecture. It is difficult to say whether such concerns are fully justified, but it can be said that they have begun to be confirmed, even partially, by the turmoil created both internally and externally after the President’s statement of the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria made later last year. This led also to the resignation of the Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, the highest American official in defence, as an act of disregard

At the same time, the preamble of the Fact Sheet confirms the current Administration lack of will in the continuation of the government globalization policy, followed over the last three decades, which has blown fantail wind into the Western fleet, led by the liberal democracy, on the navigation routes towards the farest shores of the post-colonial world. It seemed that nothing could stay in this fleet’s way, with a disproportionately high force comparing to any possible enemy. But who would have anticipated that the one to haul the sails back in and, apparently, to actually leave the deck, would be even the admiral of the fleet? It remains to be seen if such a decision is imposed only by the unassailable need for huge reparations of the entire Western security gear or we are actually facing the definitive docking of the current international order, waiting for the big change of the global security paradigm

Starting from this new strategic reality, the content of the debriefing is built on three sections: “safety through strength”, “defending America’s interests” and “putting America first”.

“Safety through strength” is about the “historic efforts to rebuild our military and strengthen our Nation’s defences”. Across this section, are listed the “robust” investments the government made in security and defence, the numbers seen as “record” for the last two years of Pentagon’s budget, $700 million for 2018 and $716 for 2019. These last figures transform the current year in “the year of the biggest US military investments in the post-Cold War era”, as I have written in my analysis on the US military budget published last year. Further, the document is mentioning the effort president Donald Trump made for the militaries to receive the “best equipment, training and care”, including “the largest pay raise in nearly a decade”.

Given the context of the financial strand of the “America First” Vision, the “$100 billion increase in defence spending from NATO allies” is seen, interestingly, as an achievement of the US Administration, placed under the aegis of president Trump’s efforts, and not as the natural commitments the allies took across the common defence funding frame.

At long last, regardless of the political reasons, the figures speak for themselves. The US investments in defence are increasingly higher, although the expected trend would have been the opposite, given that there were already announced significant reductions in the American forces deployed abroad this year and decreases of “the financial burden” borne by the American taxpayer for the common defence, especially the transatlantic one, and not only, in the years to come.

Could this costs paradox mean that the defensive realism of the “America First” Vision is more expensive than the offensive realism shaped during the Cold War as the dominant paradigm of the American strategic thinking elites? The future evolutions will answer this dilemma, which is awaited so breathlessly not only by security studies scholars but also by the practitioners in the highest positions of the institutional security and defence architecture.

“Defending America’s interests” was guaranteed through the “decisive and swift action of President Trump”, as mentioned in the Fact Sheet. This section encapsulates Administration’s results achieved in the international security field, through the first half of its mandate. The fact that “the United States has worked with its allies to liberate virtually all territory held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria” is the first statement of this report, which seems to be already interrogated by the President himself in the last couple of weeks. The contradiction comes from the recent decision to upkeep a contingent of American troops in two zones, still presumed sensitive for the final defeat of ISIS and the prevention of Iran’s influence projection deeply on the Syrian territory, which went through more than eight years of war, despite the announcement regarding the complete withdrawal.

Security policy’s success measure of the current administration in the fight against ISIS is mentioned also by giving as an example the more than 50,000 square kilometres which were liberated from the ISIS control in Iraq and Syria since president Trump took the oval office.

Further, the White House`s Fact Sheet mentions the measures taken in the North Korea security issue. “President Trump is continuing his push for peace on the Korean Peninsula”, is the statement that expresses the political commitment of the current Administration in an issue that has been captured the top of the foreign policy agenda in Washington for the last couple of years, despite still awaited significant steps of progress. More, the text also refers to the second high-level meeting with the leader from Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, which has taken place in the meantime in Hanoi, Vietnam, without being anticipated the possibility to end it with a failure, as it has actually happened, and being marked by the lack of an agreement, even though it was previously announced, and by the unexpected interruption of the negotiations.

However, the records of the positive results of Korean Peninsula pacification efforts presented in the Fact Sheet are relevant, if it is considered the political reality of a zone which instability hangs by a thread of an armistice signed more than 65 years ago: “the comeback home of the American hostages” from the North-Korean dictatorship’s gaols, the “interruption of nuclear tests” and the inexistence of any ballistic missile in the last 15 years”.

The third subject on the list of “America`s interests that must be defended” refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document foresees the launch, in the coming months, of a “proposal to end the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and bring peace based on principled realism, not discredited theories”. The sense of the peace agreement, whose content is known only by few people in Washington as the press across the ocean is stating, comes from the “realism principles” that have leveraged “President Trump recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the transfer of US embassy there”.

On this topic, the last week of February has marked the tour of Jared Kushner, senior adviser for foreign policy to the President, in five states from the Middle East, to promote US peace plan for Israel and Palestine. Kushner was stating before his tour, in an interview for the American press, that the peace plan is “very detailed” and will “safeguard all parts dignity”. Still, the process was somehow circumspect for those in the region. The Palestinians have announced before, “prudently”, that they will not support the process which they consider as “anti-Palestinian”. On the other hand, mainly the right groups from the Israeli political frame are not supporting the peace plan, calling on the chaos created by the internal fights between the Palestinian factions and, implicitly, the lack of a dialogue partner on any major security topic.

The list of American interests which are in danger continues by mentioning the crisis from Venezuela, where it is specified that “President Trump condemned Maduro and his cronies in Venezuela and stood up for American principles by recognizing the legitimate Interim President of Venezuela, Juan Guaido”.

Guido is the chief of the Venezuelan legislative and the leader of the movement disputing last year’s result of the presidential elections, which he thought were swindled by the main part of the international community and which allowed Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime to remain to power. The United States is part of a 50 states group, among them being Romania also, which recognize Juan Guaido as interim president until the organization of new free elections to ensure country’ return to democracy. The situation in Venezuela remains complicated, despite the deep interference of the United States in supporting the opposition.

The internal tensions are increasing the possibility for a civil armed conflict to start, all the more so it is possible for a division of the armed forces to take place, as a consequence of some high-level military commanders getting on the “self-claimed president” side, as the big American press agencies are calling him. If such a scenario will be materialized, we will have to track Washington’s military reaction, given that, on one side, it has significantly influenced the international support of Guaido, and, on the other hand, it is assuming the “America First” principles, mentioned above, about not using the American military power to build democracies.

At the end of the “defending the American interest” section, we find Iran and its problems, for which “President Trump has acted to confront the radical regime in Iran by withdrawing from the disastrous, one-sided Iran nuclear deal and imposing devastating sanctions”. Washington’s extremely firm attitude against the Iranian hostile regime was extremely present across the American foreign and security policy of the current administration.

Apparently, all the measures the United States took in the last two years, in the entire area of the Middle East, are revolving around the enclosure policy of Teheran’s regional influence, starting from the conflict in Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict towards the meaning of the relations with the Sunni Arab states, especially with Saudi Arabia, US’s most important economic partner in the region. The US pull-out from the Iranian nuclear agreement and sanctions’ intensification are far from showing its benefits, hereof the situation in the region continues to be really tense, and the evolutions extremely unpredictable. The tendencies are showing mostly its aggravation during this year and, especially, the increase of Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen.

“Putting America First” starts from the premise that “President Trump is fulfilling his promise to stop the cycle of endless wars that have burdened our Nation”. This attitude proved, until now, to be the central benchmark, even the powerful one, of Trump’s Administration “America First” Vision. President’s persistence to keep his promises, especially the ones made during the electoral campaign, makes this premise offers the analytical view of all strategic decisions across the current and future global security field, even if the Fact Sheet refers, in four points, to measures targeting the extended region of Middle East.

  1. “President Trump is bringing our troops home from endless wars and ensuring that countries in the region increase their contribution to the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
  2. For nearly two decades, America has been involved in Middle Eastern conflicts that have cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars.
  3. It is time to begin bringing our troops in Syria home and for countries in the region to step up their commitments to destroy ISIS remnants and prevent their return.
  4. President Trump is determined to pursue a political settlement in Afghanistan and, should progress be made, we will be able to reduce our troop presence there.”

All of these are defining the behaviour of President Donald Trump against his allies and enemies and are offering the entire world the image of the negotiations margins of the international agreements to which the United States is part of, the limits of current US support for the international organizations, the intensity of doubts about the solidity of the architecture of the international system or the meaning of change global order.

The key to understanding the current dilemmas on the United States presence across the international scene is “putting America first”. This is wherefrom it must be started when defining, creating or maintaining the bridges with Washington D.C., given the profound changes of “game rules” of an international system which cannot and must not ignore the US presence.

Even in a minimalist presentation of the “America First” Vision, as the one presented in White House’s Fact Sheet in early February, pointing out the surprising absence of Russia and China, or the lack of references to "wall policy" in the matter of illegal migration, there are noticed strong nuances and tones that have substantiated President Trump's decisions during his mandate. However, drawing a line for closing the column with assembly and downsizing is still premature, and any conclusion about the arithmetic sign of the final result would be a hazard. It is to be expected that 2019 will be the year of the US Administration big security decisions under the auspices of the America First Vision, as history has proven that the Americans are very sensitive to such developments, and the next year will be the year of appraisals and reimbursements, including in the context of national and international security, given the coming presidential elections.