Searching for Strategy: America’s Military Under Trump

After eight months in office, President Donald Trump has bombed Syria, called for increased deployment levels to Afghanistan, and threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Before running for president, though, he tweeted against military intervention in Syria, called the war in Afghanistan a “complete waste,” and said he would “negotiate like crazy” with North Korea. While campaigning, Trump opined in much the same way. While many have criticized the president for his mixed stance towards military intervention, his propensity for self-contradiction is disturbing: it remains unclear whether America’s Commander-in-Chief has any military strategy whatsoever. Past administrations have varied in approach to foreign policy, but all followed self-enforced doctrines­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ that were drafted, tested, and advertised during their campaigns. After six months in office, Trump’s military maneuvering has been at complete odds with his campaign promises. Worse still, he has yet to even present a coherent military doctrine.

In an interview with the HPR, Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a member of the U.S. Navy’s Executive Panel, described Trump’s military maneuvering as a “transactional foreign policy—in other words, a policy of trade-offs with no overriding, idealistic vision.” What results a “transactional” U.S. military strategy might bring are unclear, but early indications suggest that over time Trump could significantly reshape America’s military and its mission to fit his worldview.

Unlike presidents over the past 75 years, Trump appears willing to give the military wide latitude to use unchecked force without larger policy goals to guide its actions, Kaplan says. In such uncertain times as these, Kaplan argues that the White House, and by extension the armed forces, must have a defined military “doctrine.”  Without overarching policy to guide and limit actions, he warns, the Trump administration risks alienating allies, emboldening enemies, and undermining national and global security.

The Liberal Order

To understand the current direction of U.S. foreign policy, it is helpful to evaluate the history of American military doctrine. Across more than a century of shifting administrations, economic and ideological trends, and wars, the political leadership of the United States has generally worked towards what Brookings Institute senior fellow Thomas Wright calls a “liberal international order based on alliance systems, an open global economy, the primacy of rules and institutions, and the promotion of democracy and human rights.” With the end of World War II, this U.S.-centric liberal order has held increasing sway. Each used a coherent military strategy to benefit: in times of crisis, they were able to quickly develop plans of action based on their overarching doctrine. In times of peace and order, these doctrines set clear guidelines for routine international interactions, thus greatly reducing the risk of unintentional provocation. In war, peace, and confusion, past presidents found comfort in the predictability of established military strategy.

The Obama Doctrine

Former president Barack Obama delivering remarks to soldiers.

Former president Barack Obama delivers remarks to soldiers.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he sought to uphold a liberal world order. Under his administration, the armed forces operated under a doctrine that military analyst Kevin Baron described to the HPR as the “pledge to keep American troops out of unnecessary fighting while helping local populations defend themselves.” Obama’s aides famously embraced the doctrine “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

From the emergence of China as a dominant world power in the Pacific to Russia’s growing military assertiveness; from the nuclear threat posed by Iran to rekindled weapons development in North Korea and the establishment of ISIL in the Middle East; the Obama administration faced uniquely global threats. The Obama Doctrine was a response to an overwhelming number of global security risks.

New President, New Direction

Trump has inherited many of the same global threats faced by Obama. Since taking office, however, he has challenged accepted norms by radically breaking from the Obama doctrine. In articulating his “America First” philosophy, Trump has complained that the liberal world order has harmed the United States in many ways. In response, he appears poised to be the first president in over 70 years to move away from the liberal world order. This shift could have a profound impact on the U.S. Armed Forces and its mission. Kevin Baron warns that it could bring “looser and more frequent military intervention.”

Candidate Trump laid out what many saw as a traditionally neo-conservative approach to foreign policy in his “Contract with the American Voter,” emphasizing elimination of the defense sequester, the military’s spending cap in any given year, for increased investment. But in an interview with the HPR, former Army officer and Congressman Chris Gibson (R – N.Y.), who served on the Committee on Armed Services, said that “over time, it has become even more unclear whether [Trump] intends on following promises he made as a candidate.”

Since assuming office, Trump has moved to reshape the U.S. military at multiple levels. Michael Klare, Five Colleges professor of peace and world security studies, told the HPR that “under Obama, the rules of engagement were very strict, [but] Trump sees the use of force as perfectly fine.”

America’s Military First?

So far, the closest approximation to Trump’s military strategy is his apparent adherence to “might makes right.” In the president’s own words, the military today, compared to that under the Obama Doctrine, will be receive “a great rebuilding effort.” Although Trump has yet to announce how this strengthened military might be used, he has promised that it will be more powerful than ever.

Trump appears more willing to defer to his military advisers than Obama or his recent predecessors. In a nationally televised speech in August, he acceded to a Pentagon request for blanket authority to deploy troops to Afghanistan without presidential limit. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said. “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on … Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles.”

The Trump administration seems to believe that conflict in the Middle East is best remedied by the presence of American ground troops and military might, such as the April use of a M.O.A.B. on Afghani soil. The delegation of power in military decisions traditionally reserved for the president and his closest advisors, including troop deployment levels, points to Trump’s reluctance to ensnare himself in difficult military decisions or develop a coherent military doctrine. The president also seems to prefer giving more responsibility to lower-level field officers on the ground, a decision that Kevin Baron interprets as “wanting the military to govern, manage, and lead themselves.”

Trump’s security priorities and overall stance on the use of military power come to light in his proposed budget, which calls for raising military spending by $54 billion dollars—an almost 10 percent increase. As Trump said, this would be “one of the largest increases in defense spending in American history.” Such an increase would dwarf the U.S. State Department’s entire current budget of $29 billion dollars, which will likely be cut by 29 percent in 2018. Trump’s proposed budget also significantly reduces funding for American humanitarian and diplomatic programs, traditional levers of American soft-power designed to help maintain the liberal world order.

By depriving funding to departments whose main tasks revolve around facilitating communication and understanding to maintain peace, the president appears willing to accept the potential risks of military conflict.

Force Masquerading as Doctrine

Trump’s reconstruction of the military stands apart from other administrations’ attempts to “rebuild” the armed forces. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has yet present a clear military doctrine defining what sort of military force is appropriate.

On April 7, less than four months after taking office, Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria. A week later, the U.S. military dropped America’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb on targets in Afghanistan.

His interactions with other countries have also raised some eyebrows. As Philip Gordon wrote in Foreign Affairs, talks between Trump and foreign governments have been conducted with a high-stakes negotiating style and a refusal to compromise. This characterization squares with the common belief that Trump is a brash, no-holds-barred negotiator who seeks the best deal for himself. While Trump’s negotiating style might reap rewards in business, it seems unlikely to be very effective in international diplomacy. Trump is betting that with a strengthened military poised to deliver action, foreign leaders will be more likely to buckle to American demands.

Trump has tapped an unprecedented number of generals, former generals and other ex-military personnel to serve in his cabinet or as top advisers. By comparison, the Obama administration’s cadre of advisers came from academia, think tanks, and diplomatic circles, and advocated nation-building and communication-reliant strategies to ease hostilities. In following military strategy developed by diplomats, the U.S. armed forces during Obama’s tenure were expected to facilitate communication and rapport, not conflict. Given the makeup of Trump’s advising network, however, some wonder whether the Trump administration will show similar restraint in the face of conflicts overseas. As Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis told the HPR, “When it comes time to make a decision, Trump will have to turn to the people he’s surrounded himself with: his generals. Trump has privileged his military over seasoned political operatives across the board.”


Trump and his national security team receive a military briefing in April.

The Necessity of a Defined Military Doctrine

Under the “America First” philosophy, the Trump administration is pursuing a security policy designed to enable America to “start winning again.” However, a military strategy or foreign policy doctrine meant to safeguard national security cannot be built around the ambiguous concept of “winning.” By operating without a fully developed defense doctrine, the Trump administration may be risking lives at home and abroad. Perhaps most worrisome, if things go wrong, Kevin Baron concludes, “nobody is coming to help Trump out.”

Formulating a clear national security doctrine is especially important at a time when the United States is building up its military in a global context that presents so many novel challenges. The immediate risks of an absent defense doctrine may be difficult to discern, but the long-term consequences could be troubling and hard to undo. Trump’s incoherent approach to dealing with adversaries and allies alike could lead the military to blunder into long and costly conflict.

Trump’s lack of a clear military strategy increases the likelihood of a misstep bringing tragic consequences. In our fast-paced modern era, in which daily challenges to peace and stability affect the globe, it’s imperative that the Trump administration develop a clear and coherent military doctrine designed for a strengthened Armed Forces. If such a doctrine already exists, it should be plainly communicated to promote confidence at home and abroad. The risk of operating with the current “transactional” foreign policy is just too high.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons / Shealah Craighead, U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 1st Class David B. Mosley, Wikimedia Commons / Master Sergeant Michel Sauret 

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