The image speaks volumes. It seeks to oppose the results of “American presidents and their wars”, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Shared in numbers on social media on the sidelines of the US presidential election won by Joe Biden, and which Trump still refuses to admit, the visual suggests that the defeated president is the only one who has not started a war or an operation military for almost forty years.
Donald Trump, man of peace? Romain Huret, historian of the United States, and director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Ehess) in Paris, and Bruno Cabanes, holder of the Chair of War History at Ohio State University (Columbus), qualify this portrait and review the diplomatic record of the 45e President of the United States.
Can we say, as this publication does, that Donald Trump never started a war?
Romain Huret : Donald Trump did not start a war in the true sense of the word. He inherited so many conflicts that he didn’t have to start them. However, he sharpened strong diplomatic tensions in certain regions, and did not hesitate to use the hard way when it was necessary to conduct bombings in Syria. With the president-elect being the head of the United States military, Trump is the custodian of past wars, and therefore of current conflicts.
If the image is somewhat dishonest, it is nonetheless interesting. It clearly shows the national security strategy that America put in place after the Second World War, namely that the country must be able to intervene in all areas of the world. But what we do not see here is that since Barack Obama the country has understood that it could no longer carry out this military diplomacy: the price to be paid is too high, both humanly and economically. America no longer has the means to fulfill its imperial ambitions, and must find the means to do diplomacy differently.
Bruno Cabanes: Whether or not to start a war constitutes a relatively vague and questionable criterion: a president can inherit a conflict started by one of his predecessors and continue it. It can also severely weaken relations with allied countries or endanger world stability without engaging in a new conflict. His posture of “president of peace”, which he himself put forward, is based on the illusion that the talents of deal-maker of Trump would replace the warmongering of his predecessors. In reality, the defense budget has continued to increase, going from 611 billion dollars in 2016 to 738 billion in 2020. And if the United States is no longer considered as the “policemen of the world”, it is more and more seen as a source of instability.
What results after four years of Trumpist diplomacy?
B. C. : There are some successes (the agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in September 2020), but above all a deterioration in relations with the allied countries, chin-ups against China, a complacency for Russia, a diplomatic deadlock in relations with Iran, an unbalanced and potentially dangerous policy in the Middle East. With Trump’s willingly transgressive speeches, his taste for personal initiatives preferred over traditional diplomatic channels, and his open hostility to any form of multilateralism, it is not certain that the world will be safer in 2020 than in 2016, there understood for the interests of the American people.
Did Trump pursue an isolationist policy, as his “America First” campaign slogan predicted?
B. C. : « America First » went through several major developments in American foreign policy, such as the abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran, the reassessment of the relations of the United States with NATO [Organisation du traité dee l’Atlantique Nord], and the return of American troops embroiled in endless wars. Four years later, the results are nuanced, as in Iran, where Washington has failed to obtain a change in attitude from Tehran. Rather than coherent diplomacy, we have witnessed a muddled policy, often ignorant of the diplomatic history of the United States with its main allies.
In addition, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria is far from over. At the start of his mandate, Trump significantly increased the number of personnel in these areas of war. Subsequently, it withdrew thousands of men from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but deployed thousands more to the Persian Gulf to deal with threats of war against Iran and increased the importance of the American military bases in Qatar and Bahrain.
R. H. : Trump implemented an isolationist policy by saying he was going to abruptly withdraw from a number of violent terrains around the world. He asked Europeans to finance wars, including ordering NATO to pay for their defense. The Americans took most of the operations in Iraq or Afghanistan without asking their European allies for money. For Trump, this has always been a very bad deal negotiated by its predecessors.
But his isolationist policy, as he spoke of during his campaign, has not really been implemented. First, because a rapid return of troops is too dangerous for national security. Military experts agree that the situation could be chaotic if Iraq and Afghanistan leave. And then, because, ultimately, Donald Trump was an interventionist president. He did foreign policy other than through the army. But he intervened with strikes in Syria, publicly threatened North Korea, waged a trade war with China. It is not a president who has neglected world affairs, quite the contrary.
What relationship did the outgoing president have with the military world?
R. H. : The military state apparatus is very hostile to Trump, and vice versa. The very senior officers find that it is erratic, that it wants to go too fast, and that this endangers the American security apparatus. When, in the summer of 2020, he was nabbed in the American press for his contemptuous remarks towards veterans, Trump denied and accused the American generals of wanting his skin.
Generally speaking, Trump never liked war and the military. He has always emphasized that he is not a military man. This is not his world. He remains a businessman who believes that problems can be solved other than through war. During his tenure, he thus played a lot on his capacity as a negotiator. He was elected in 2016 for this, assuring that he would be able to achieve peace in the world thanks to his experience as a negotiator acquired in the business world. That is why he staged his peace plan with Israel so much.
How did American diplomacy really change during the Trump era?
B. C. : The disengagement of multilateral agreements, such as the Paris climate agreement, and the deterioration of relations with its European allies, are emblematic. They mark a break, because they have weakened the position of the United States in the world rather than strengthened it. The allies of the United States have learned to do without them; their enemies do not fear them either: when he poses as the sole decision-maker of the broad orientations of his country’s foreign policy, Donald Trump often appears as a kind of weak, incoherent and hesitant autocrat, incapable of understanding the responsibilities of the function he occupies.
R. H. : Diplomacy has changed enormously. It has become completely one-sided. All the international partners say that Trump is unmanageable, and incapable of knowing what to do overnight: he can promise isolationism in December and bomb Syria in January. Things are difficult to follow. Despite everything, he always kept in mind the idea of doing diplomacy in a different way, and assumed to be a less “hot-tempered” president than some of his predecessors.
Trump also understood that the United States could no longer afford to be “the world’s policeman.” War is expensive, the world is so unstable that the country will no longer be able to intervene regularly, as in the past. There are other ways to wage war, such as waging remote technology wars. Finally, he joins Obama on this. And the next president, Joe Biden, will most likely be in a pretty similar line.
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