I am writing this from Budapest, where Corvinus University has been kind enough to invite me to be a distinguished international fellow. (Having been a university instructor decades ago, I can confidently say being a distinguished international fellow is much nicer.) Since arriving in Budapest, I have been repeatedly asked why the United States is disengaging from the world. I have heard this said by some Americans as well, but my response is always the same: The United States continues to be deeply engaged in the world, and the myth of disengagement derives from American rhetoric and not American actions.
Take the renegotiation of NAFTA for example. The United States is involved in discussions with Mexico and Canada over the future of continental trade. Lest this be regarded as a trivial relationship, the total population of North America is about 500 million, roughly the same as the European Union. The combined gross domestic product of these three countries is roughly that of the combined GDP of EU members. So the redefinition of this trade relationship is as complex and difficult as such a negotiation would be in Europe.
The United States is also trying to redefine its trade relationship with China. It recently imposed tariffs on a large number of Chinese imports to the U.S., arguing that China has engaged in unfair trade practices through currency manipulation, barriers to U.S. exports and so on. China has responded with tariffs of its own.
Meanwhile, the United States remains on alert over North Korea. The North Koreans appear to be backing away from commitments to denuclearize, and the possibility that this will extend to deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States has not evaporated. U.S. aircraft remain poised on Guam, approximately 30,000 U.S. troops are deployed in South Korea, and naval assets are available. War is not near, but it is still possible, and more talks are being considered.
At the same time, U.S. vessels are periodically conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims. The U.S. has also backed Australia and New Zealand’s attempts to limit China’s economic leverage over South Pacific island nations like Tonga.
This is part of a broader attempt to limit Chinese power in the region that also includes the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an alliance that lays the groundwork for cooperation between Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. In the past, the four nations have conducted, in different configurations, naval exercises in the Western Pacific, and the United States, Japan and Australia seem to want to formalize the military aspect of the alliance. (India is prepared to cooperate on an ad hoc basis, but not as part of a formal military alliance.) U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is visiting India this week, and talks on the Quad are likely to take place. In addition, the United States and Vietnam have taken significant steps to coordinate their military and security efforts, focusing on China.
In South Asia, the United States is engaged in negotiations with the Taliban to bring the 17-year war in Afghanistan to some sort of conclusion. There have been secret talks in the past, but the current negotiations are quite open and coincide with a repositioning of U.S. troops away from offensive operations. These talks are complex and will inevitably involve Pakistan. Not incidentally, Mattis will also be visiting Pakistan this week.
To the west, the United States is trying to refine a strategy on Iran. Owing to the U.S. failure to pacify Iraq, the Iranians have a powerful hand there, as well as in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The spread of Iranian power is of greater significance than Iran’s nuclear program, as it is a far more immediate threat. The U.S. is increasing its support for anti-Iranian forces in Iraq, as well as for Kurdish groups in Iran and Iraq. The U.S. is tangled in relations with Israel, which is challenging Iran in Syria, and with the Saudis and United Arab Emirates, both of which are involved in Yemen. The situation is made even more complicated by the weakening of the Iranian economy and the rise of some degree of public opposition in Iran.
Then there’s the United States’ relationship with Turkey. Turkey is attempting to play the U.S. and Russia against each other, and threatening to limit its relations with Washington in favor of Moscow. Given the long history of tensions between Turkey and Russia, and the fact that in any entente with Moscow Ankara would be the weaker player, the U.S. tends to disregard this. Nevertheless, the U.S. hit the Turks with new tariffs on exports a few weeks ago, at a time the Turkish currency was in decline. The U.S. is now using tariffs as a tool to shape political relations, but Turkey has not yet taken steps to break with the United States.
In Europe, the U.S. has stationed troops, aircraft and other assets in Poland and Romania. The likelihood of a Russian attack is low; the Russians have retreated to the Ukrainian border in the south, and they know that an attack in the north would rapidly involve U.S. forces. Those forces may be insufficient to stop a full-blooded Russian attack, but they are part of a strategy Washington also deployed during the Cold War. The U.S. had a brigade in West Berlin that wasn’t large enough to stop a Russian assault, but the Russians understood that attacking and killing American troops would bring a massive and unpleasant response.
This list of very current activities demonstrates that the U.S. is far from disengaged in the world. But it is disengaged from Germany and Western Europe simply because no U.S. interest is threatened there at this time, and these countries and NATO won’t or can’t provide substantial and strategically significant support for major U.S. interests in the Pacific. Despite U.S. engagement in Poland and Romania, the European perception is, as I will put it frankly, that if the U.S. is not engaged with France and Germany, it is not engaged in the world. This is because France and Germany think of themselves as the center of the world. This is an unkind and perhaps unfair statement, but it helps to explain this strange Western European idea of American disengagement.
It is also important to note that many of these engagements are simply a continuation of older policies. The North Korean nuclear issue dates back to the Clinton administration, which had the same red lines. The Quad alliance originated in the George W. Bush administration. The relationship with Vietnam and India has been evolving through many administrations, and negotiations with the Taliban have been ongoing at least since the Obama administration. The deployment along the Russian frontier was started under George W. Bush and increased under Obama, and the crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations goes back at least to the 2016 failed coup. There are a few new developments, however – namely the use of tariffs, the NAFTA negotiations, and the need to limit Iranian expansion.
There is certainly a political battle between factions in the United States, and the atmosphere is tense. But it is noteworthy that regardless of what some might think, U.S. foreign policy has had far more continuity than disruption. The atmosphere has certainly shifted, and U.S. strategy has merely evolved. Geopolitics dictates that nations are driven in their major relations by necessity, and that has held true for the U.S.
There has long been a vast divergence between the rhetoric of politicians and American reality. The U.S. has always been difficult for many Europeans and others to understand. But then, Americans are frequently baffled by America as well. But for all the storms and stresses, the U.S. remains deeply engaged in the world. We can agree or disagree with particular actions, but the idea of disengagement has no basis in reality.