Three of our last four presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — came to office thinking they would concentrate on domestic policy. Donald Trump was different.
Clinton inherited a public relieved by an end to the Cold War and wanting a focus on domestic needs. He cut defense spending and focused on rebuilding a stagnant economy. But civil war in Bosnia intruded, and NATO allies urged him to help in stopping horrific ethnic cleansing before it consumed the entire Balkans. Clinton sent 20,000 troops as part of a NATO force. Three years later, Clinton used air power against Serbia to force it to grant independence to Kosovo. The war caused lasting damage to relations with Russia and soon brought Vladimir Putin to power.
Bush concentrated during his first months on getting a large tax cut through Congress. Then the 9/11 shock hit the country. He quickly invaded Afghanistan, ousted the al-Qaida leadership and installed a friendly government. About 12,000 forces U.S. forces remain in 2019. In 2003 Bush invaded Iraq, ousted the Saddam Hussein regime, built a friendly government, but split the NATO alliance with his invasion. Some 5,200 U.S. forces remain in Iraq today.
When Obama became president in 2009, the country was in economic crisis. He decided to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq but was persuaded to increase them in Afghanistan. By 2011, he was pressured by liberals in his own party to intervene in Syria to stop a brutal civil war. Still, he refused even to declare a safe zone for fleeing refugees from the government’s massive killing of civilians.
Russia’s Putin decided the way was clear to send Russian forces to help Assad crush remaining opposition. Obama was also widely criticized at home and abroad for not honoring his pledge to intervene if Assad used chemical weapons.
Donald Trump had no illusions about the world when he entered the Oval Office. He declared “America First” in trade relations with China, Japan, NAFTA and the European Union and imposed economic sanctions on Iran for using the Revolutionary Guards to undermine Arab governments. He also pressured Tehran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear arms deal that Obama had negotiated.
He pushed through Congress a massive tax overhaul to spur the economy and give him economic clout in pressuring trading countries, especially China, to bend to U.S. demands for “fair trade.” There’s no resolution to date on his confrontations with Iran or on trade relations with China. But unlike his three predecessors, Trump seemed consumed with foreign policy from the beginning.
Fifteen months before the 2020 election, it’s too early to assume that Trump will win reelection or whether he’ll be replaced by a Democrat. We can’t be certain even that he will seek reelection. What is a reality is that no president can ignore foreign policy when he or she enters the White House.
Today, much of the world depends on American leadership for its security and economic well-being. Donald Trump believes they need to do more to help themselves. But our adversaries — China, Russia, North Korea and even Iran — wait for the United States to falter in its willingness to lead and will surely take advantage of its decline.
That’s why the election of a president in 2020 is crucial. Today, the U.S. retains the economic and military power to assert its primacy in the world. Will that continue in the 2020s?
Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville.