“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” proclaimed President Donald J. Trump just three months ago in his inauguration speech. Since then, Trump has entangled the United States in several international crises by attacking a Syrian airbase, dropping our largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan and heightening tensions with North Korea. Despite his promises to put “America first,” Trump knowingly escalated three of America’s most notorious international conflicts. Those actions mark an end to Trump’s dangerous isolationist stance and harken back to the misguided imperialism of the George W. Bush era. Trump failed to learn from the foreign policy mistakes of his predecessors and is instead pursuing a foreign policy that further endangers the U.S. and the world.
One of Trump’s first major forays into the world of foreign policy occurred with his April 6 attack on Syria. In Syria, Trump had an opportunity to help resolve a crisis that former U.S. President Barack Obama had proved inept at handling. Obama’s 2012 threat to take action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians ultimately proved to be a national embarrassment when Obama refused to follow up on his promise one year later.
While Trump should be applauded for punishing Assad’s use of chemical weapons, he should not have acted unilaterally. Not only did he risk provoking Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, but he also exercised the same American interventionism that destabilized the Middle East and engendered anti-American sentiment throughout the region, driving people to groups like the Islamic State (IS). For a president who lists defeating IS as his “highest priority,” Trump’s use of unilateral action reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the need for international cooperation in solving the Syrian crisis.
In Afghanistan, Trump once again demonstrated the misguided Bush-era belief that military action can solve any crisis using our largest non-nuclear bomb against a terrorist target. That operation is the least problematic of Trump’s recent foreign policy actions since it likely succeeded in killing terrorists, but is still indicative of flawed foreign policy. Insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan have long since proven their ability to evade the U.S. military through guerilla tactics. U.S. military involvement elsewhere in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Libya and Somalia, has been similarly unsuccessful in restoring order. And yet, Trump pushed a $54 billion increase in military spending in his federal budget proposal to Congress. That indicates a desire for renewed U.S. militarism, which was reinforced by dropping what has been nicknamed “the mother of all bombs” on an IS tunnel complex.
While the destruction of a center of terrorist operations is commendable, doing so with the excessive force of a previously unused weapon does nothing more than signal that the U.S. is ramping up military activity. The U.S. already spends $596 billion on defense, more money than the next eight countries combined. An increase in military spending would merely devote more money to an already oversized military — money that could better be used for education, healthcare or infrastructure. Furthermore, a larger military would do little to resolve international conflicts, as evidenced by the continuing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade after the U.S. invaded those countries.
Trump’s most problematic move of the three was his decision to escalate tensions with North Korea. Multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials said the U.S. may conduct a preemptive strike against North Korea if the country goes through with a planned nuclear weapons test. That statement was vehemently denounced by China, which urged Trump to stop provoking North Korea. Similarly to Syria and Russia, North Korea is protected by a powerful ally, China. Thus, acting unilaterally against a country risks conflict with another world power. While North Korea is a dangerous rogue state that must be dealt with, any action taken must occur with Chinese cooperation. The primary reason China continues to support North Korea is because it provides a buffer between China and South Korea and Japan. Despite that desire for a buffer state, China recently blocked coal imports from North Korea, indicating an increasing willingness to take action against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Thus, it is likely that China can be convinced to cooperate with the U.S. and bring down North Korea through economic sanctions. Attacking North Korea merely breaches Chinese trust, which is not beneficial to either party.
Unlike its interactions with Syria and Afghanistan, the U.S. has engaged in diplomatic rather than military conflict with North Korea for two reasons: the country’s aforementioned relationship with China and, more importantly, the fact that it is armed with nuclear weapons. A preemptive strike against North Korea could have the disastrous result of renewed nuclear conflict, something which the international community has tried to prevent since the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Such an attack would also endanger U.S. allies South Korea and Japan; many believe they would be the first targets of a North Korean counterattack.
All of that recent activity is a blatant violation of Trump’s administration’s claim that “we do not go abroad in search of enemies … we are always happy when old enemies become friends and when old friends become allies.” Trump’s reckless actions have worsened already tense relations with Syria, North Korea, Russia and China. While Obama was often too cautious in his foreign policy, Trump has swung too far in the other direction, picking fights wherever they can be found. American presidents must learn to stand up for American interests while still embracing diplomacy, and should Trump fail to do so, the consequences will certainly be grave.
Cameron Hall is a College freshman from Columbus, Ohio.