'America First' makes America last

What will Trump do differently against ISIS?
What will Trump do differently against ISIS?

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Story highlights

  • On Tuesday, Foreign Policy published a leaked memo of Donald Trump's defense priorities
  • Jonathan Cristol: Trump noticeably left off state adversaries like Russia and China
  • This indicates his intention to adopt a dangerous isolationist approach to foreign policy, Cristol says

Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)President-elect Donald Trump's top defense priorities came to light on Tuesday when Foreign Policy published a memo from Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon and informed by his conversations with the Trump transition team. According to McKeon, Trump's four priorities will be: "develop a strategy to defeat/destroy ISIS", "build a strong defense", "develop a comprehensive USG cyber strategy" and "find greater efficiencies."

While all these are important priorities, none of them should be his top ones. ISIS is indeed an adversary of the United States, but while it is an evil organization that has terrorized thousands, it is ultimately no more than a nuisance for the United States. As a point of comparison, ISIS and ISIS-inspired attacks have killed fewer Americans than gun violence by a factor of more than 1,000 to 1.
Jonathan Cristol
The only entity on Earth that has the capability to destroy the United States is Russia, and it is notable, if unsurprising, that Russia is not on Trump's list. Russia has over 1,700 deployed nuclear warheads and can strike the East Coast of the United States within 20 minutes. Nobody else, other than the United States, even comes close to Russia's destructive capacity.
It is perhaps more surprising that China, Iran and North Korea don't make the cut either. Except that by leaving off these state adversaries, Trump is setting the stage to follow through on his most disruptive, dangerous and destructive campaign promise: to withdraw the United States from the world.
Downplaying the threat from major state adversaries is step one in this withdrawal. It is also perfectly in line with Trump's general disdain for the US-led alliance system — NATO and our mutual defense treaties with our East Asian, Oceanic and Hemispheric allies — and the post-WWII international order rooted in free trade, international organizations and respect for territorial sovereignty. In short, this memo highlights Trump's willingness to follow through on his campaign statements that question the utility of alliances for the United States, view US military power as the core of a classic Mafia "collection racket" and promise to put "America first."
Of course, Trump has never demonstrated any understanding of what American interests are around the world, nor why the United States should spend money to defend anyone or anything but the American homeland. If he is willing to cede Eastern Europe to his comrades in Moscow if they don't pay their fair share and to encourage his compatriots in St. Petersburg to dig up dirt on his political opponents, then why would he make Russia a priority for defense planning? If he is willing to abandon South Korea and Japan in the face of a potential threat from Pyongyang, then why would he make North Korea a security issue?
Consequently, Trump's future defense priorities are all exclusively focused on the protection of the American homeland, a theme he owned on the campaign trail. Though ISIS is not a threat to the homeland, Trump thinks it is and even stated that if Hillary Clinton won the election ISIS "would take over [the United States] and this part of the world." There is no doubt that ISIS is determined to attack the United States, and it has certainly inspired several small-scale attacks, but the idea that a force of 31,000 fighters could find their way to the United States and take over the country would be laughable if so many people didn't think it were actually possible.
His other priorities are even more inward-focused. The memo refers to improving budget, efficiency, size and strength of US forces, a direct reference to the Defense Department. The memo's statements on these issues are suitably vague and may not be thought out at all, but it is clear from campaign statements that Trump seeks to exempt the Defense Department from sequestration, increase the size of the military, increase the number of naval ships, and yet also keep costs down.
His focus on cybersecurity could also be purely defensive. It is well-known that state-sanctioned hacking is a problem, but if he thinks that state-level hacks could be perpetrated by "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds," then he clearly doesn't understand the nature of the threat posed by state-sponsored hackers. And if he doesn't understand the threat, how can he be trusted to defend against it?
But the memo isn't the only source of Trump defense priorities. Trump's recent tweet about the F-35 fighter program continues his streak of dismissing or diminishing the real state actor threats. Trump wrote, "The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th." The implication is that the F-35 program might be cut in a Trump administration. Leaving aside the fact that the F-35 program employs 50,000-60,000 people, the F-35 was designed (and is marketed) to combat state adversaries, specifically the ones left off Trump's list: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. But if he doesn't think America faces any major state adversaries, then why would he need such a weapon?
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Trump's decision to de-emphasize the state threats that matter most goes against years of Pentagon assessments and reflects a dangerously isolationist approach to global affairs. Trump's isolationism may result in: higher prices on consumer goods, the result of tariffs and trade wars; nuclear proliferation among states that can no longer count on American assistance; and a global realignment away from the United States when states choose to hitch their wagons to other major powers they can trust.
None of these outcomes bode well for America's standing as a trusted global superpower, but then again, that might be exactly what a President Trump wants his country to become — for itself and no one else.