November 10, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Trump’s Foreign Security Assistance Dilemma
For decades, U.S. foreign policy has benefitted from historic alliances and strategic partnerships, often undergirded by billions of dollars in U.S. foreign security assistance. With the November 8 election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president, a large degree of uncertainty now looms over the future of this historic instrument of U.S. foreign policy. With many U.S. alliances already under strain, the Trump Administration’s foreign security assistance policy is likely to face competing security, political, and budgetary priorities. While the specifics of the next administration’s foreign policy are unclear, President-elect Trump has consistently emphasized self-sufficiency for traditional allies, and a foreign policy conducted under strict budget constraints. However, as ongoing security challenges develop and new crises emerge, the sanctity of old alliances and the challenge of newly emerging threats are likely to frustrate such parameters.
Despite much talk about conflicts in the Middle East throughout the campaign, significant uncertainties exist over the future of U.S. foreign security assistance in the region. For decades, U.S. annual military aid to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, has been the foundation of counterterrorism and conventional military cooperation, as well as broader geopolitical alignment. Trump’s contention that our allies should be more self-reliant may not bode well for the U.S. relationship with countries like Egypt, which has come to view U.S. annual military aid as the sum total of the alliance itself. Threats to cut off U.S. military aid to Egypt under President al-Sisi have not produced a more pliant ally; rather, they have pushed Cairo closer to strategic alignment with Russia. In a country like Jordan, a reduction in U.S. security assistance could undermine the stability of one of the few stable American allies in the region. The U.S. also provides foreign security assistance for counterterrorism to a variety of other countries across Africa and the Middle East, which allows U.S. intelligence, air power, and special operations forces to partner with local security forces, acting as force multipliers in the fight against terrorism while diminishing the risk exposure to U.S. military personnel.
Trump has made the defeat of the so-called Islamic State a signature issue in his campaign, with significant implications for U.S. foreign security assistance. Until now, the U.S. grand strategy for counterterrorism has emphasized a small U.S. military footprint, bolstered by significant military aid and training to local allies. Such a strategy naturally relies on the provision of foreign security assistance to countries that are engaged in the fight against terrorism. The strategy appears to be finally paying dividends, as evidenced by mounting Islamic State losses in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. However, the gains against the Islamic State are not irreversible. The Islamic State has demonstrated a unique ability to turn strategic defeats into temporary setbacks, and countries like Iraq and Libya will struggle to address the underlying causes of terrorism for years after the Islamic State is beaten back.
As countries in the Middle East struggle with underperforming economies and low oil prices, they will likely need significant security assistance if they are to turn short-term tactical gains against the Islamic State into long-term strategic success. These countries will also require substantial assistance to rebuild their economic infrastructure after years of brutal warfare; without such reconstruction, the underlying drivers of terrorism in the region are unlikely to be addressed. However, with the Islamic State on the run in its traditional stronghold in Iraq and Syria, and facing losses in Libya, justifying large amounts of security assistance to countries in the region will become increasingly difficult, especially considering the fiscal constraints that will likely be imposed in the next four years.
In Europe and Asia, the challenges for reconciling the administration’s budgetary and geopolitical priorities are equally daunting. The U.S. commitment to NATO and to its allies in Asia is likely to suffer from the same uncertainties surrounding the future of U.S. security assistance, especially as regional allies seek to bolster their positions vis-à-vis increasingly assertive Chinese and Russian militaries. Already, a number of world leaders have voiced their uncertainty and anxiety over what a Trump presidency will mean for long-standing security pacts, seeking both clarity and reassurance from the incoming U.S. president.
While there are always growing pains in a new administration’s foreign policy, the level of uncertainty surrounding Trump’s commitment to the staples of U.S. foreign policy is unparalleled in recent history. As the Trump Administration attempts to juggle a complex set of security challenges, America’s historic use of foreign security assistance to serve the national interest abroad is likely to face unique challenges.
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