Foreign policy and defense
United States is a nation in North America. Its capital city is Washington, D. C. Donald Trump’s entry as US President has meant a radical reorientation in US foreign policy. He makes clear with his slogan “America first” that American interests always go first – whether in trade, diplomacy or security policy. Trump is thus breaking a line that has been in place since the end of World War II.
US presidents have consistently supported the idea of the United States as the fan bearers of freedom and democracy. Different expressions have emerged: George W Bush (2001–2009) ran a tough anti-terror campaign, while Barack Obama (2009–2017) focused more on multilateral cooperation and diplomatic solutions. But there has generally been agreement that the United States should have a leadership role and that cooperation is desirable with the support of international regulations and organizations such as the UN, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in United States for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has struck a strong nationalist and isolationist tone. He expresses contempt for multilateralism, marks distances from allies in NATO and the EU, and has teared up or demanded renegotiation of international agreements on free trade and the environment (see Economic Review and Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, respectively ). He has also started scrapping entered disarmament agreements. The INF agreement on ground-based robots expires in 2019 after Trump tore it up (see Calendar), he has announced that another will be terminated (Open skies, see Calendar) and many reviewers believe he intends to have the New Start Agreement expire in February 2021. New Start from 2011 replaced Start I, which was closed in 1991 to limit strategic nuclear weapons (see Modern History).
The interest in maintaining good relations with America’s traditionally closest allies is clear. Among other things, Trump has unilaterally imposed trade tariffs and has been in open quarrel with leaders of other leading Western countries. At the same time, he takes a benevolent stance on undemocratic states and, in some cases, almost single-government leaders, such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians
An example of a drastic fluctuation in foreign policy concerns the protracted Middle East conflict. Israel has always been a close ally, receiving extensive assistance and strong support, not least in the UN Security Council where the United States is one of five permanent members. At the same time, Washington has supported the idea of a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli. Several US presidents have tried to come to a solution to the conflict. Under President Obama, relations with Israel were unusually strained as Obama tried to pressure Israel’s right-wing nationalist government to stop the expansion of settlements on occupied land. In addition, the Israelis opposed the US opening to Iran (see below).
Trump has embarked on a far more Israel-friendly path, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a symbolic step that has drawn sharp criticism from both Palestinians and the US’s closest allies. The United States has also withdrawn in principle all assistance to the Palestinians and its support for the UN Refugee Agency for the Palestinians, UNRWA. The Palestinian umbrella organization PLO has been ordered to close its Washington office and the United States has no official representation with the Palestinian Authority. Washington has recognized Israel’s sovereign right to the Golan Heights, which was conquered from Syria in 1967, and believes that Israel is entitled to its settlements on the West Bank – despite the fact that most of the outside world believes that both parts violate international law. In January 2020, Trump presented a long-promised peace plan, which admittedly gives Palestinians the right to their own state, but at the same time allows Israel to retain control of much of the West Bank. The plan, which Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has endured, is considered by international analysts to favor Israel and has been rejected by the Palestinians.
Iran and the Nuclear Energy Agreement
In relation to Iran, Trump has instead struck an aggressive tone. The relationship between Washington and Tehran has been hostile since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, but during Obama a breakthrough opened to thaw. After many years of tough negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, in 2015, an agreement was signed between Iran on the one hand and the US and five other major powers on the other (see Iran-Foreign Policy and Defense). The agreement meant that Iran would lose its nuclear energy program, to eliminate the risk of the country producing nuclear weapons, and allow UN inspections. In return, the United States, the United Nations and other actors would lift substantial financial sanctions on the country. The agreement was labeled as historic and considered by many as the Obama administration’s most important foreign policy success.
However, Trump has called the deal “the worst deal ever” and after his entry, new sanctions were imposed on Iran. In May 2018, Trump announced that the United States will abandon the agreement, and on the day a year later, Tehran announced that the commitments made in the 2015 agreement no longer apply. By then, the United States had already begun to re-impose harsh sanctions on Iran, despite US allies in Europe struggling to get Trump on second thoughts. The sanctions were sharpened in June 2019 when the contradictions were stepped up and Iran was accused of, among other things, having targeted attacks on foreign tankers (see Calendar). In early January 2020, Trump killed the head of Iran’s foreign force al-Quds, one of the country’s highest ranking people, in Iraqi territory. The attack worsened the security situation in the region and was followed by mutual threats (see Calendar).
North Korea and the nuclear threat
The United States and North Korea have been enemies since the Korean War of 1950–1953 (see Modern History). The United States had long sought to persuade North Korea to refrain from developing nuclear weapons when it conducted its first test blast in 2006. Obama’s attempt to breathe new life into a dialogue with North Korea did not bear fruit and during his reign another four test blasts were conducted. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
It was somewhat surprising, then, that Trump accepted yes when North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un invited Trump to a personal meeting. After a couple of months of confusion and word war, in June 2018, Singapore held what became a historic meeting: it was the first time a sitting US president met a North Korean leader. The result was a document with no concrete commitments, which Trump nonetheless described as groundbreaking, as he claimed that North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat was gone. Afterwards, he promised to suspend military exercises regularly conducted by the United States with North Korea’s arch-enemy South Korea. Several drills have also been canceled, although critics see it as a remedy for a recurring North Korean claim. The United States has nearly 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea since the Korean War.
Trump and Kim have since met twice, at a premature Vietnam summit (see February 2019) and in what was said to be an impromptu meeting on the border between South and North Korea (see June 2019). The President has on many occasions expressed great appreciation for the dictator in Pyongyang. But attempts to launch new nuclear talks between the two parties have stalled and North Korea has continued with robot testing. Few in the outside world believe that North Korea intends to disarm some weapons and the relationship between Trump and Kim now seems to have cooled. On New Year’s Eve 2019, a clear message came from Kim that North Korea is no longer bound by its one-sided test stoppage for nuclear weapons and long-range robots. In addition, he announced that North Korea will soon introduce a whole new weapons system, as a result of the US not easing sanctions on the country.
US in Iraq and Syria
One of Obama’s most important election promises was to withdraw US troops from Iraq (see Modern History). The last US troops left Iraq in December 2011. At that time, the war had claimed about 4,500 Americans since it began in 2003. At most, at the end of 2007, there were 170,000 American soldiers in Iraq. An agreement was reached on continued cooperation, including in security matters.
However, the US retreat was followed by a serious escalation of the conflict in Iraq while civil war broke out in neighboring Syria. In 2014, when the Islamic State terrorist group (IS) took up large land areas in both countries and proclaimed a “caliphate”, the US again intervened. From the summer, targets were bombed in northern Iraq and from the fall, US and allied combat aircraft also attacked IS targets in Syria. This was done in collaboration with Iraqi government troops, Syrian rebel forces and, not least, Kurdish militias on the ground.
After Trump took office, the White House came out suggesting that removing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria was no longer an overriding goal. But two nuclear weapons attacks in 2017 and 2018 led to US air strikes against Syrian positions.
During Trump, the number of aerial bombings against IS increased, a group designated by the president as the main security threat. Particularly in Syria, a difficult collection of countries and groups participated. In 2017, IS was expelled from almost the entire area controlled by the extremist group, but only in March 2019 did IS lose its last stronghold. Trump had already announced that the remaining 2,000 Americans would leave Syria, prompting Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign (see Calendar). In Iraq, the United States had around 5,000 soldiers, mainly military advisers. Following the attack on the Iranian general in January 2020 (see above), the United States decided to send additional soldiers to Iraq.
In October 2019, another unexpected departure came from Trump: he withdrew the US military presence in a Kurdish-controlled region of northeastern Syria and at the same time gave Turkey green light to enter instead. The message was met by stinging criticism even at Republican levels. The Turkish invasion that followed immediately triggered new refugee flows and chaos in the area (see Calendar).
Afghanistan: the longest war
Obama also tried to end the war in Afghanistan that began in 2001, after beginning his presidency with a sharp increase in troop presence in an attempt to wipe out the Islamist Taliban movement. At most, the United States had 100,000 soldiers in the country. Formally, the war effort ended in late 2014, but several thousand American soldiers remained in the country, as did other NATO soldiers. Their task was to train the Afghan military and help fight the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, eventually, IS.
With Trump, a new strategy was introduced. The number of American soldiers in the country increased again and here too the number of air strikes carried out rose sharply. At the same time, some discreet peace talks between the United States and Taliban representatives began in Qatar. Most of the talks went on in 2019. In September of that year, signals emerged that a peace deal was in principle ready to be signed – but shortly thereafter President Trump abruptly suspended the talks. He was referring to a bombing just performed in Kabul, in which an American soldier was killed (see Calendar).
Eventually, new signals emerged that a settlement was in progress, and on February 29, 2020, a peace agreement was signed between the United States and the Taliban, which was designated as historic (see Calendar). The settlement may be the first step toward an end to the longest war in US history that has claimed nearly 2,500 Americans – and over 100,000 Afghans. The agreement includes pledges on a US withdrawal as well as work on terrorism and negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. More than half of the 14,000 US soldiers will leave Afghanistan for the summer, and if all goes well, all foreign soldiers should be gone within 14 months.
In recent years, the United States has also carried out a wide range of attacks with unmanned so-called drones in Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. These are targeted attacks against suspected militant Islamists.
Impaired relations with Russia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ideological contradictions disappeared and the United States and Russia approached each other. Gradually, relations have cooled down and in many cases the countries have continued to support opposite parties in conflicts in third countries. NATO’s enlargement to include ancient Eastern states in Europe annoys Moscow, while Russian aggression in the immediate area stirs up Western powers. US relations with Russia have also deteriorated as the country has become increasingly authoritarian. American criticism of the Russian parliamentary elections in 2011 at one time made the contacts more strained. In August 2013, Obama canceled a meeting with his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin in response to Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, who leaked data on US global monitoring of the Internet and data communications (seeDemocracy and Rights). Data on US surveillance have attracted strong criticism in the outside world.
Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and not least the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, led to the US and the EU imposing financial sanctions. Before the presidential election in the US 2016, signals of Russian involvement in the electoral movement gradually emerged. As a result, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats after the election, following disclosures of emails stolen from the Democratic Party and leaked. In early January 2017, the United States’ 17 intelligence services unanimously reported that Russia was trying to influence the election results through data breaches, disinformation and dissemination of fake news.
Trump, who took office shortly thereafter, rejects all allegations of conspiracy between his election campaign and Russian government officials (see Current Policy). But the Justice Department has prosecuted 13 Russian citizens and the government has imposed sanctions on them and six more individuals as well as several institutions suspected of cyberattacks against the United States. Among the institutions are the Russian military intelligence service GRU and the troll factory Internet Research Agency.
In March 2018, the United States expelled 60 Russian diplomats since Britain accused Russia of a nerve poisoning attack on a Russian former spy and his daughter. Russia responded by expelling 60 Americans. In April of that year, Trump also voiced – in principle for the first time – sharp criticism of Putin, following reports of the new nuclear weapons attack on civilians in Syria. Russia participates in the war on the part of the Syrian government.
Expectations were low for an attentive meeting in July 2018 between President Trump and his Russian colleague Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Afterwards, it was also unclear what the meeting actually gave, as only the two leaders and their interpreters were present. Afterwards, however, strong reactions in the United States came against Trump, who was perceived as being opposed to Putin, especially on the issue of Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. Both Democratic and Republican politicians in Washington reacted negatively to Trump’s perceived belief in the Russian president more than FBI when Putin once again denied all involvement by the Russian state.
In October 2018, Trump suddenly announced that the United States is withdrawing from a 1987 disarmament agreement involving nuclear-armed medium-range robots. He accused Russia of violating the agreement. It was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan and USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and is considered to be an important step on the path to the end of the Cold War.
China is challenging
In recent years, China’s growing economic power and global role have become an increasingly challenging challenge for the United States. But the extensive economic exchange between China and the United States – China is a major lender to the United States and owners of US government bonds – makes the countries interdependent and therefore have an interest in avoiding conflicts. Relations are complicated by issues such as China’s human rights violations, branded piracy and the US’s large trade deficit with China.
The Corona pandemic, which broke out in 2020, has led to new bottom listings in US-China relations. Trump has accused China of lack of transparency and hinted that the virus came from a laboratory in China. Beijing, in turn, has accused the United States of spreading a “political virus” and creating a new cold war between two global powers.
Prior to Trumperan, the Obama administration adopted a more pragmatic approach to the Kinar relationship than the Bush administration and dimmed criticism of human rights violations. Trump, on the other hand, has mainly focused on trade policy and accuses China of unscrupulous currency manipulation.
In 2018, the United States began to impose tariffs on goods from China – which immediately responded with countermeasures. The countries continued to slowly step up the pace of a growing trade war until January 2020, when a kind of ceasefire was agreed (see further Economic overview).
At the same time, both heavyweights have cooperated in other areas, such as environmental policy. However, the United States opposes the whole world in terms of climate policy, with Trump’s decision to tear up the Paris Agreement (see Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment).
Greatest military power
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been by far the world’s foremost military force. The United States has no military duty but the soldiers are employed by the defense. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the US defense budget increased sharply, even in addition to the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars continued to be a major burden on the defense budget during the first decade of the 21st century. Following Trump’s entry came new sharp increases in the defense budget. In 2019, the US military budget was $ 693 billion – nearly four times as much as China’s second-most military spend.
READING TIP – read more about the United States in the UI web magazine Foreign Magazine:
Trump, Netanyahu and the End of the Two-State Solution (2019-04-05) “Century of Settlement” may be another nail in the coffin (20/05/2018) Iraq’s first test after Iran’s agreement breakdown (2018-05-11)
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 476 250 male (2017)
The air Force: 322 800 people (2017)
The fleet: 323 950 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 3.1 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 8.8 percent (2017)