Is Trump following in Nixon’s footsteps: Nixon Doctrine 2.0?

Is Donald Trump summoning his inner Richard Nixon? One could draw that conclusion from the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it is withdrawing 2,000 U.S. troops from Iraq – more than one-third of the total deployed – which follows a similar statement on the exit of one-third of some 36,000 troops from Germany. That, in turn, followed announced troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in June, reductions from Syria, ongoing threats to remove U.S. troops from South Korea and implied threats to Japan as well if Tokyo doesn’t contribute more to the U.S. presence there of some 50,000 troops.

It is tempting to explain it away as “America First,” Trump’s transactional view of the world in which alliances are not about expanding defenses but are merely businesses that should turn a profit or end. But maybe, just maybe, there is more at play here. Maybe, by disparaging and denigrating allies, Trump is forcing them to do more. Trump may be pointing, as did Nixon after the U.S. loss in Vietnam, toward a more realistic, balanced U.S. role in a multipolar world, where allies and partners do more and the U.S. does less.

As Nixon prepared for downsizing in Vietnam – his “Vietnamization” of that war – he announced what came to be known as the “Nixon Doctrine” in a 1969 speech in Guam. While he declared that the U.S. would remain a Pacific power, keep its treaty commitments (but not assume new ones) and extend nuclear deterrence, Nixon said that the U.S. would look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility for its defense, to which the U.S. would contribute assistance. 

Thus, as it evolved, the Nixon Doctrine sought to have regional allies – in Europe, the Saudis and Iran in the Middle East, and East Asian partners – bear more responsibility for regional security. One prominent academic described it as a plan for “retrenchment without political disengagement.” 

Whether or not that is Trump’s intent, too, it appears to be his effect. We see Europe focused more on enhancing its own defense while Japan, Australia, India and ASEAN nations are weaving a new web of intra-Asian security cooperation.

Ravaged by the social and economic impact of the coronavirus, political polarization and over-extension in “endless wars,” the U.S. may be facing a situation not entirely dissimilar to that which Nixon perceived 50 years ago. If so, the challenge may be the same: how to retrench while maintaining a leading U.S. role, a sort of “Primus inter Pares” (“First among Equals”). Sustaining a prominent, if more circumscribed, U.S. global role will be critical in managing an international system whose fabric increasingly seems torn.  

Of course, like a Rorschach test, an inkblot may be just an inkblot, though one’s perception can be read into it. Certainly, there is no “Trump Doctrine.” The president’s decisions often seem more like a jumble of impulsive acts “from the gut,” based on long-held views regardless of facts or logic. And there are legitimate fears that prematurely withdrawing U.S. troops from places like Iraq, not conditioned on events on the ground, could backfire as it did under President Obama, leading the U.S. to put more troops back in.

Yet, in any case, they all point in one direction: winding down U.S. overseas troop presence and pushing allies and partners to take on more of the burden. This is a reflection of a multipolar world in which other major players such as China, Europe, Russia or India seek a larger voice but, often, not responsibility — or, in the case of China, an imperious role. The overwhelming superiority of the U.S. military somehow results in the U.S. answering the call when the world dials 911. Shifting the burden and pooling more responsibility, particularly in Europe and Asia, is likely to be critical to a stable balance of power favoring American interests.

This appears to track with public opinion. No surprise there: It was Trump’s insight that the $6 trillion in blood and treasure on wars of choice with no obvious benefit, and the 2008-2009 mortgage meltdown and Great Recession brought on by the elites, was (and remains) a source of popular anger and resentment.

Most polls suggest that the American public is neither isolationist nor interventionist. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling since 1974 shows more than two-thirds of the public supports “an active U.S. role in world affairs” but also wants other nations to do their fair share.  

The challenge is how to find the right balance for a prominent U.S. role that is effective and has public support. Some think restoration of the world that existed before Trump would do the trick. This is a delusion; history doesn’t have a reverse gear. The 70-year-old international system is showing the creakiness and strains of its age. While a renewed U.S. commitment to a more reciprocal global cooperation would help, it needs surgery and reinvigoration. 

Whether this or the next U.S. administration is able to find that Goldilocks sweet spot of not too much U.S. commitment, nor too little, but just the right amount, would be a tall order even in a world not coming apart at the seams. Yet, a lot hangs on the answer to that question. President Trump, warts and all, may have stumbled in the right direction.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks (FSR) Initiative. He served as a senior adviser to the assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific (1989-1993), counselor to the undersecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.

Tags Donald Trump foreign policy Foreign policy of Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Donald Trump administration NATO Nixon Doctrine Presidency of Richard Nixon Richard Nixon Vietnam war

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