Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 28, 2016
Trump, the US defence posture and America military role in the world

Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s initial advantages and the conventional wisdom about her inevitable victory, Donald Trump triumphed against great odds in the recently concluded US Presidential election. This surprising electoral outcome nevertheless poses important questions about the US defence posture under Trump.

Trump campaigned on the theme that he would rebuild America’s military might. A peculiar or unique facet of his political outlook fits most prominently within the Jacksonian tradition in American politics and foreign policy favouring a robust military. It can also be simultaneously obdurate with a strong commitment to autonomous action and demonstrably ruthless in pragmatic conduct. Jacksonianism traces its origins to President Andrew Jackson, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Presidents the United States has produced.

Candidate Trump displayed considerable courage in breaking with an orthodox tradition of America’s foreign policy – Wilsonianism. Although it has a long and entrenched history, Wilsonianism has been the most regnant tradition within American foreign policy since President Woodrow Wilson himself and became very pronounced in the years following the end of the Cold War.

Wilsonians have been putative champions of human rights and democracy promotion abroad insisting that it is the sine qua non of American foreign policy. During the campaign Trump was vociferously critical of the most ill-conceived and unnecessary American military adventures in Iraq and Libya a by-product of Wilsonianism and promised to change course. Whether Trump can regulate the liberal military interventionist instincts that animates the Wilsonians is difficult to predict, yet conceivable. If recent history is anything go by he will face a range of stiff pressures particularly from domestic sources and allies to do “something” as President Barack Obama discovered in 2011 during the Libyan crisis that precipitated a joint American, British, and French intervention to topple the regime of Colonel Muamar Gaddafi.

His real test will be to arrest and resist distractions proffered by Wilsonians. Otherwise, US will be condemned to fretfully, as Henry Kissinger once eloquently put it, to justifying its exertions without bothering to limit its aims and extending unworthy attention to countries and regions of marginal strategic interest to Washington. This new look American defence posture will allow Trump to bring America’s foreign policy commitments in line with its capacities as far as external military interventions go. However, since he has pledged to re-build” the military, defence outlays will increase, yet bump up against his call for a one percent reduction in non-military spending, which is likely to evoke resistance in Congress, because it would eat into domestic entitlement programmes such as healthcare and medicare.

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During the Presidential campaign he quite emphatically stated that he would, if not out rightly or formally withdraw, reconsider the extent of American involvement in alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a bedrock of Transatlantic security relations for nearly seven decades and America’s Asian alliances with Japan and South Korea. As is well known 70 percent of all NATO military spending is provided by the United States. Within the NATO alliance, Germany remains the weak link. As Europe’s largest economy and country its military strength consists of 250 tanks, a single operational submarine and no long-range bombers.

Limiting support to Washington’s longstanding European and Asian allies will be Trump’s way of shifting the burden to what he accurately stated were wealthy, prosperous and technologically advanced countries requiring no significant American security assistance. Trump’s shift is also consistent with the Jacksonian tradition that is resistant to tethering America’s freedom of action and a barely concealed disdain and scepticism about allies who sponge of American resources and military strength. Yet Trump’s critical view of allied “free riding” also grates against his appointment of James “Maddog” Mattis as his Defense Secretary who is a NATO enthusiast and a onetime NATO Supreme Allied Commander. This appointment could trigger tensions between Mattis’ Department of Defense and the Trump White House on spending and commitment to allies.

Most recently and barely a month before his inauguration as the 45th American President, consistent with his campaign swansong for a rejuvenated American military, Trump declared that he would massively expand the American nuclear arsenal. In one sense this is irrelevant. It is tangential because Russia, one of America’s putative” nuclear competitors is in no position to compete for the simple reason that the Russian Federation lacks the resources to match an American nuclear build-up. In response to Trump’s declared intent, the Russian President Putin parried the issue declaring that his country was modernizing its arsenal even as he conceded the US’ capabilities outstripped Russia’s and saw the American President-elect’s statement as nothing more than a rhetorical extension of his election campaign.

Notwithstanding Trump’s mercurial outbursts and off-handed statements and announcements, Trump’s election commitment to restoring comity to the relationship following several years of strain and acrimony. A modus vivendi with Russia over Ukraine and Syria can bring relief to the United States and will help Washington, if executed deftly, shift the onus of tackling the Russians, particularly over Ukraine and the Baltic States to the Europeans. Very critically, it will wean Russia away from a Chinese bear hug and split the current Sino-Russian entente.

Assuming Moscow is not unduly alarmed, Trump’s prospective nuclear expansion faces a much trickier challenge against Beijing, even if its intended target is China. Unlike Russia, China’s relative power has grown and is growing, if not at the frenetic rate until as recently as 2015. As the world’s second largest economy China certainly has greater resources and Beijing has pulled no punches making clear its extreme displeasure. It has also expressed mortified outrage in regards to Trump’s recent rethink on America’s One-China” policy.

Beijing certainly has made considerable progress in developing a panoply of nuclear delivery systems, sits on substantial inventories of fissile material giving it leeway to accelerate an expansion of its nuclear arsenal and has a very active and high investment space military programme geared towards blinding American satellites in the event of a Sino-US war, whether over Taiwan or other contested areas in the Asia-Pacific.

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While campaigning, Trump did chastise China for unfair trade practices and its currency manipulation, however what remained recondite during the election campaign was his recent post-election bolt from the blue statement on America’s One China policy. A critical and probable factor influencing or explaining this shift, at least in part, is Beijing’s breath-taking and variable territorial claims over the last few years in the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS).

The Middle Kingdom’s declaration of an exclusive maritime zone and its build-up of artificial islands militarizing the SCS to choke movement of naval vessels and over flight of military air traffic of other countries in hitherto open waters or seas has evoked strategic consternation in the region and beyond. It also signals and reflects Trump’s priorities in aligning the American defence posture towards the Asia-Pacific, where American interests are significantly engaged and most consequentially threatened by Chinese military might and assertiveness.

Although Trump did say during the election campaign that he would have no real objections to Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea acquiring a nuclear weapons capability of their own, in the case of the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances encouraging a Japanese conventional military build-up while retaining American nuclear guarantees to Japan might just be what the doctor ordered. A nuclear Japan and South Korea could potentially relieve the US of bearing nuclear burden, however a totally nuclearised Northeast Asia could trigger greater instability than already exists and throws up uncertainties that Trump and America might find difficult to restrain and contain.

On the other hand, the current Obama Administration countered Chinese moves in the ECS by covering the defence of the Senkaku/Dioayu islands claimed and contested by China under the US-Japan alliance, but responses to Chinese actions in the SCS have at best been tepid in that American military counter-measures have not fully kept pace with Chinese actions. Southeast Asian states or the ASEAN region countries are the most susceptible to Chinese coercion and also among the most nervous of Washington’s partners. Herein lies another challenge for Trump – defining America’s red lines in order to deter Beijing’s Asian strategic goals.

A final test that confronts him is the Middle East or Greater Middle East that extends from North Africa to Pakistan. The Islamic challenge will remain a hard test. It assumes considerable importance, if only secondarily to China. Whether he can avoid the pitfalls of both his immediate predecessors is speculative, whose pursuit of regime change policies in the Middle East has only compounded America’s woes vis-à-vis the Muslim world. As of now American forces, albeit thin combat deployments, are scattered from Afghanistan to North Africa waging a war against extremists.

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The incoming Trump Administration’s defence posture brings benefits to India as well as potential costs. A US-Russia rapprochement under a Trump Administration will help wean Moscow away from Beijing. A less disputatious relationship between the US and Russia, which was potentially looking to spiral into a new Cold War-like confrontation will be salutary for New Delhi’s ties with Moscow and Washington.

The benefits of Russo-American comity can only reduce the conflicting pressures on New Delhi to either side with Russia or America over Ukraine and Syria. It also creates space for India to manage its defence ties with Moscow and Washington more effectively. The less Russia is dependent on China, the more it might cooperate with America in dealing with the vexed challenge posed by Pakistan. Under a Trump Administration, the only serious risk or setback that potentially New Delhi faces is a hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Secondly, an American defence posture that is Asia-centric will leave China in no doubt about Washington’s purpose in restraining Beijing’s aims. Encouraging Japan to spend more on defence will certainly give Washington added leverage against Beijing, thereby ameliorating strategic pressure on New Delhi. It will also help New Delhi cement a closer strategic and defence relationship with Tokyo.

On the debit side, Trump’s commitment to expand the American nuclear arsenal may potentially generate pressures on Beijing to expand its capabilities, which in turn could bring India under sharper stress to expand its nuclear arsenal or compel it to improve its strategic capabilities. While President-elect Trump may represent the quintessence of Jacksonian nationalism and faces demanding foreign policy challenges, he will also need to display temperance and patient diplomatic engagement with allies and foes.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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