With his troop visit to Iraq, Donald Trump is trying to appease angry members of the U.S. military. At the same time, with his idle talk of the United States as the policeman of the world, he is breaking with the fundamental conviction of U.S. foreign policy.
So far, President Donald Trump has not distinguished himself as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. At most, he has presented himself as their subcommander. The world of the military is alien to him. In his efforts to be the voice of and role model for ordinary people in America, military strategy and logic have never played a role. That is remarkable because it is precisely these ordinary people, his voters, who identify particularly intensively with the military, serve in the military, and even give their lives for their country.
For every president before Trump, patriotism and the demonstration of military strength were two sides of the same coin. Not for Trump. He indeed meets the demand for patriotism and adorns himself with people in uniforms. However, he rejects the basic task: projecting U.S. military power around the world. Trump is breaking with the central premise of American foreign policy in the post-World War II period, according to which a world power needs to be visible as a world power: among allies and toward opponents, politically, but also militarily.
Now Trump has visited troops abroad for the first time during his term. However, this does not signal any change in his fundamental convictions. On the contrary, he has sufficiently documented these fundamental beliefs in the last few days. The decision to withdraw troops from Syria and partly from Afghanistan as well is an expression of his isolationist instincts. He deploys the military, if at all, symbolically — for instance, to the southern border of the U.S. in order to protect the country from refugees. The troop visit to Baghdad was at best a poorly disguised attempt at appeasement in face of the dangerously heated outrage among military leadership that followed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis's resignation.* So Trump flatters the troops while his beliefs do not change.
He summarizes his position with the simple sentence that "the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world." Even if the president now uses the phrase "policeman of the world," a favorite phrase used by critics of U. S. military policy, this won't make it right. The United States was never a policeman of the world because, using this analogy, there is no universal code of international criminal law. The U.S. has stood for a world order to which other states are also committed. Together they have formed alliances and together they have stood by this world view, acting against what they recognize as hostile or dangerous notions of order.
Trump has now decided to distance the U.S. from this thinking. This frees up space for a new order. Elections in Afghanistan are postponed, and in Syria, the struggle is beginning over who will fill the vacuum left behind by the United States. This is how the ABCs of international politics work. But Trump refuses to deal with the basics.
*Editor’s note: Trump visited U.S. troops at Al Asad Air Base, located approximately 112 miles west of Baghdad.