While the U.S. military has long represented one of the most formidable tools in American diplomacy, its direction under President Trump has recently earned his administration a great deal of controversy and has called into question America’s continued military presence throughout the world. This controversy is not limited to Syria alone, but rather involves the Middle East as a whole, as well as the long-awaited withdrawal from Afghanistan pending a deal with the Taliban. The possibility of America downsizing its military presence in South Korea is also on the table. All this begs the question: Is Washington throwing away its diplomatic Trump card, or do these changes simply indicate a restructuring in its military?
It might be said that this debate isn’t entirely new. American foreign policy has drawn criticism numerous times before for its universal reliance on the military as its chief geopolitical tool. On many occasions, most recently in the “War on Terror,” the U.S. has entered wars under idealistic slogans that are soon betrayed in practice. The most important of these doctrines, i.e., that military can be used only to achieve what political and economic pressure cannot, made up much of the narrative surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, and Korea before that, and other similar cases of American intervention abroad. Dubbed the “militarization of diplomacy” by a large contingent of analysts, American diplomacy’s preoccupation with armed solutions has been a consistent trend in the nation’s foreign policy.
While such a strategy has seen America continue its streak of global dominance, it has also come at a high cost, both on its economy and on the lives of its soldiers torn apart by war. These losses served as a starting point for Trump’s perspective on foreign policy, making clear promises throughout his first campaign to withdraw American forces from much of the world.
Yet it’s quite possible that Trump hasn’t abandoned the idea of maintaining American military deployment. It remains a core American doctrine that for Washington to keep its international standing as a world leader, it must have the ability to project its vision by military force when necessary.
From Trump’s point of view, the crux of the matter might be that the U.S. military presence around the world needs restructuring. We can see this in how American policy priorities appear to have shifted under Trump. As Trump has attempted to ease his country’s commitments to protecting its European allies, we also find that America’s security interests have shifted east toward Poland. In Asia, the U.S. seems likely to ease its military presence in South Korea going forward, especially given the major developments on the issue of North Korea. But similarly, American attention and deployment will probably shift elsewhere in the Asian continent, likely to Vietnam.
At this point, we might say that America’s new military strategy will be based on a more limited selection of key areas of particularly strong strategic interest. Such an approach seems both more secure and less expensive. America can compel more countries to increase their own military spending and infrastructure, providing it the same force projection capabilities in such areas without spending a dollar of its own money. This strategy also seems more effective, as it could allow America to focus on countering its key rivals in Russia and China via a sustained presence in Eastern Europe and in countries like Vietnam. In such a paradigm, the primary roles of American deployment would be to protect its key interests in these regions and to act as a point of political leverage to influence the policies of other powerful nations. Accordingly, the military’s function becomes far removed from actual confrontation. In today’s complex and interconnected world, such an option seems increasingly unlikely.