Source: U.S. Congressional Research Service

There currently are multiple views on the question of whether the United States under the Trump Administration is changing the U.S. role in the world, some of which are outlined briefly below.

Some Observers Believe the United States Is Changing Its Role

Some observers, particularly critics of the Trump Administration, argue that under the Trump Administration, the United States is substantially changing the U.S. role in the world by altering some or all of the four key elements of the U.S. role : global leadership; defense and promotion of the liberal international order;  defense and promotion of freedom, democracy, and human rights; and  prevention of the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia. Although views among these observers vary in their specifics, a number of these observers argue that the Administration’s America First construct, its emphasis on national sovereignty as a primary guidepost for U.S. foreign policy, and other Administration actions and statements form a new U.S. role characterized by

  • a voluntary retreat from or abdication of global leadership,
  • a greater reliance on unilateralism,
  • a reduced willingness to work through international or multilateral institutions and agreements,
  • an acceptance of U.S. isolation or near-isolation on certain international issues,
  • a more skeptical view of the value of alliances to the United States,
  • a less-critical view of certain authoritarian or illiberal governments,
  • a reduced or more selective approach to promoting and defending certain universal values,
  • the elevation of bilateral trade balances and commercial considerations above other foreign policy concerns, and
  • an implicit tolerance of the reemergence of aspects of a might-makes-right international order.

In support of this view, these observers cite various Administration actions and statements, including, among other things:

  •  the Administration’s decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade agreement, the multilateral Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear agreement;
  • its earlier proposals for reducing State Department funding and foreign assistance funding, and delays in filling senior State Department positions;
  • the President’s skeptical statements regarding the value to the United States of certain U.S. alliances (particularly with European countries and South Korea) and more generally his apparent transactional and monetary-focused approach to understanding and managing alliance relationships;
  • what these observers view as the President’s affinity for certain authoritarian or illiberal leaders, as well as his apparent reluctance to criticize Russia and his apparent continued desire to seek improved relations with Russia, despite Russian actions judged by U.S. intelligence agencies and other observers to have been directed against the United States and overseas U.S. interests;
  • the President’s decision, announced by the Administration on October 6, 2019, to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria;
  • the Administration’s focus on pursuing bilateral trade negotiations with various countries; and 
  • the Administration’s infrequent or inconsistent statements in support of democracy and human rights, including the Administration’s reaction to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the President’s statements regarding the prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong

Other Observers Disagree

Other observers, particularly supporters of the Trump Administration, disagree with some or all of the perspective above. While acknowledging that the Trump Administration has changed U.S. foreign policy in a number of areas compared to policies pursued by the Obama Administration, these observers argue that under the Trump Administration, there has been less change and more continuity regarding the U.S. role in the world. In support of this view, these observers cite, among other things:

  • the Administration’s December 2017 national security strategy (NSS) document and its January 2018 unclassified summary of its supporting national defense strategy (NDS) document—large portions of which refer to U.S. leadership, a general emphasis on great power competition with China and Russia, and strong support for U.S. alliances;
  • Administration statements reaffirming U.S. support for NATO, as well as Administration actions to improve U.S. military capabilities in Europe for deterring potential Russian aggression in Europe;
  • the Administration’s willingness to impose a variety of sanctions on Russia;
  • the Administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) construct for guiding U.S. policy toward the Indo-Pacific region;
  • the Administration’s more confrontational policy toward China, including its plan to increase funding for U.S. foreign assistance programs to compete against China for influence in Africa, Asia, and the Americas;
  • U.S. trade actions that, in the view of these observers, are intended to make free trade more sustainable over the long run by ensuring that it is fair to all parties, including the United States; and
  • the Administration’s (admittedly belated) support of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protestors, its criticism of China’s human rights practices toward its Muslim Uyghur population, and its emphasis on religious freedom as a component of human rights.

Still Other Observers See a Mixed or Confusing Situation

Still other observers, viewing points made by both of the above sets of observers, see a mixed or confusing situation regarding whether the United States under the Trump Administration is changing the U.S. role in the world. For these observers, whether the U.S. role is changing is difficult to discern, because the President’s apparent views on certain issues—such as the value of U.S. alliances, the acceptability of certain actions by Russia or North Korea, and the importance of democracy and human rights as universal values—are frequently in tension with or contradicted by statements and actions of senior Administration officials, with the President’s views being more consistent with the change in the U.S. role outlined by the first set of observers above, and statements and actions of senior Administration officials frequently being more consistent with a continuation of the U.S. role of the past 70 years outlined by the second set of observers above.

Some Observers Argue That Change Began Earlier

Some observers argue that if the U.S. role is changing, that change started not under the Trump Administration, but under the Obama Administration, particularly regarding the question of whether the United States has reduced or withdrawn from global leadership. In support of this view, these observers cite what they views as the Obama Administration’s

  • focus on reducing the U.S. military presence and ending U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of focusing more on domestic U.S. rebuilding initiatives,
  • decision to announce but not enforce a “red line” regarding the behavior of the Syrian government, and
  • restrained response to Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and more generally, its reluctance, for a time at least, to fully acknowledge and adapt to less cooperative and more confrontational relationships with Russia and China.

Still others view the start of a change in the U.S. role as occurring even sooner, under the George W. Bush Administration—when that Administration did not respond more strongly to Russia’s 2008 invasion and occupation of part of Georgia—or under the Clinton Administration. For these observers, a change in the U.S. role in the world under the Trump Administration may represent not so much a shift in the U.S. role as a continuation or deepening of a change that began in a prior U.S. Administration.

Potential Combined Perspectives

The perspectives outlined in the preceding sections are not necessarily mutually exclusive— assessments combining aspects of more than one of these perspectives are possible.

Implications of a Changed U.S. Role

Among observers who assess that there has been a change in the U.S. role in the world in recent years, there are multiple views regarding the potential implications of that change.

Some Observers View Implications as Undesirable

Some observers who assess that the United States under the Trump Administration is substantially changing the U.S. role in the world—particularly critics of the Trump Administration, and also some who were critical of the Obama Administration—view the implications of that change as undesirable. They view the change as an unnecessary retreat from U.S. global leadership and a gratuitous discarding of long-held U.S. values, and judge it to be an unforced error of immense proportions—a needless and self-defeating squandering of something of great value to the United States that the United States had worked to build and maintain for 70 years. More specifically, they argue that the change in the U.S. role in recent years that they see is doing some or all of the following:

  • reducing U.S. power and foreign-policy capacity, particularly by weakening or hollowing out the State Department and reducing or devaluing elements of U.S. soft power;
  • weakening the U.S. ability to leverage its power and foreign-policy capacity in international affairs—and isolating the United States on certain international issues, effectively turning the concept of America First into “America Alone”— by
  • damaging long-standing and valuable U.S. alliance relationships,
  • reducing U.S. participation in multilateral political and trade negotiations and agreements, and
  • making the United States look more erratic and impulsive as an international actor, and less reliable as an ally and negotiating partner;
  • weakening the U.S.-led international order and encouraging a reemergence of aspects of a might-makes-right international order;
  • slowing the spread of democracy and human rights, encouraging a moral equivalency between the United States and authoritarian and illiberal countries, and tacitly facilitating a reemergence of authoritarian and illiberal forms of government;
  • disregarding the costly lessons of the first half of the 20th century, and how the U.S. role in the world of the last 70 years has been motivated at bottom by a desire to prevent a repetition of the events of that period; and
  • creating vacuums in global leadership on certain issues and in regional power balances that some countries, particularly China and Russia, and other countries, such as Turkey, Syria, and Iran, are moving to fill, often at the expense of U.S. interests and values.

Other Observers View Implications as Helpful

Other observers who assess that there has been a change in the U.S. role in the world in recent years—particularly supporters of the Trump Administration, but also some observers who were arguing even prior to the Trump Administration in favor of a more restrained U.S. role in the world—view the change in the U.S. role, or at least certain aspects of it, as helpful for responding to changed U.S. and global circumstances and for defending U.S. values and interests. More specifically, they argue that the change in the U.S. role in recent years that they see is doing some or all of the following:

  • adjusting the U.S. role to one that is more realistic regarding what the United States can accomplish in the world today and in the future, particularly given limits on U.S. resources and the reduction in U.S. economic and military preponderance in recent decades as other countries have grown economically and developed their militaries;
  •  enhancing deterrence of potential regional aggression by making potential U.S. actions less predictable to potential adversaries;
  • reestablishing respect for national sovereignty as a guidepost for U.S. foreign policy and for organizing international affairs;
  •  encouraging U.S. allies and security partners in Eurasia to do more to defend themselves, thereby reducing U.S. costs and developing Eurasia’s potential to become more self-regulating in terms of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons;
  • placing an emphasis on countering and competing with China, which poses a uniquely strong and multidimensional challenge to U.S. security and prosperity;
  •  working to strengthen the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region under the FOIP construct;
  • exploring possibilities for improving relations where possible with countries such as Russia and North Korea; and
  • making trade agreements more fair to the United States.

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