Donald Trump’s track record indicates that his personal interest has always prevailed over anything else, including public interest. Therefore, it is questionable whether he really meant to pursue policy of isolationism or it was nothing but presidential campaign rhetoric because he knew that certain representatives of the American public would like to hear it.
For decades, United States President Donald Trump has been an avowed isolationist, seeking to improve his country’s well-being by withdrawing the US from political and economic ties that he views to be detrimental to the US. Furthermore, before becoming president of the United States, he was highly critical of a wide range of US activities on the international stage, as well as most of its international ties.
These sentiments have largely carried over into the first months of his presidency, as President Trump has moved swiftly to pull back on US commitments in many areas of the world. However, the world is clearly testing the US president, with two situations in particular challenging his isolationist tendencies.
First, despite all apparent aspirations to remain aloof to the civil war in Syria, President Trump has suddenly thrust the US into a higher level of involvement in that conflict. Meanwhile, North Korea has wasted little time in testing the new US president’s commitment to the security of East Asia. Add to this dangerous mix tense relations with Russia and China, and it is clear that President Trump’s ambitions for a more withdrawn United States are proving difficult to achieve.
With this in mind, it is uncertain if the US president will attempt to re-assert his isolationist streak, or if he will find himself embroiled in conflicts and disputes around the world.
Trump’s Syrian Intervention
In the first months of his presidency (and well as during last year’s election campaign), President Trump showed little interest in Syria or finding a way to bring an end to that country’s five-year civil war, apart from his desire to lead the destruction of the Islamic State militant group that controls much of eastern and central Syria.
However, an inexplicable attack using chemical weapons against a rebel-held town in central Syria by Syrian government forces appears to have quickly changed President Trump’s mind. Without hesitation, the US president ordered a large-scale missile attack on the air base that was used by Syrian government warplanes to launch the chemical weapons attack, destroying much of the base.
Moreover, Trump Administration officials suggested that more such attacks could be forthcoming should Syrian government forces (and their Russian and Iranian backers) continue to use such weapons. However, it is hard to imagine that President Trump would like to see a major US military commitment to Syria, although with support levels at home flagging, a foreign war might serve to bolster the president’s sagging approval ratings, at least for a short time. Still, involvement in Middle East wars is something that President Trump has vowed to avoid.
The Challenge from North Korea
While the most immediate threat of a conflict involving the United States is found in Syria, it is North Korea that might be the most dangerous threat to the security of the United States. Interestingly, President Trump and his administration have played a more active role in dealing with this threat than with any other international issue confronting the United States.
Since President Trump took office in January, North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests, assassinated the half-brother of its leader, and is potentially preparing for another nuclear weapons test. This has not gone unnoticed by the Trump Administration, which has moved quickly to reassure Japan and South Korea of the US’ support in the event of a conflict with North Korea, while warning Pyongyang that any further escalation of its provocations could lead to a devastating attack by US armed forces on that country.
Moreover, President Trump has pressured China to do more to control its erstwhile ally and has threatened to handle the North Korean threat on his own if Beijing is unwilling to support the US. However, the recent meeting between the presidents of the US and China appears to have been very positive and this could lead to more Chinese pressure on North Korea, although given the current state of the North Korean leadership, it is uncertain as to whether or not even Chinese pressure can reduce the threat of a more aggressive North Korea.
The US Can’t Hide
It is highly likely that the issues of Syria’s civil war and North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs will continue to force the Trump Administration’s hand for the foreseeable future. However, given the unprecedented scope of the United States’ commitments and ties around the world, it is extremely likely that even more issues will arise that will further weaken the isolationist tendencies of President Trump and his government.
For example, relations with Russia appear to be deteriorating rapidly due to the two countries finding themselves on opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as the Trump Administration’s plans to significantly boost defense spending in the United States. Meanwhile, the US will have to maintain close ties with China in order to prevent an escalation of the political and economic disputes that challenge relations between the world’s two most powerful countries.
Moreover, the threat of international terrorism will remain a major threat to US security, and without US involvement, militant groups will find it easier to establish bases in any number of failed states around the world. Add to this the certainty that unforeseen events will take place around the world that threaten US interests and it is clear that it is impossible for the United States to aspire to a level of isolationism that it had between the two world wars.
Still, with many of his supporters demanding a greater focus on domestic issues, President Trump is sure to find himself being dragged between his isolationist tendencies on one side and the United States’ international commitments on the other.