From the mid-1930s through the Cold War, Europe was critical to U.S. strategic thinking, which developed around the assumption that foreign domination of Europe was inimical to U.S. national security. With the end of the Cold War, the United States sought to forge a Europe that was “whole and free.” However, since Putin has returned to office, he has launched a determined effort to reassert Moscow’s influence in areas formerly under Soviet control. Russia’s objective is to overturn the European security order that emerged after the end of the Cold War. As Russia continues to invest aggressively in modernizing its military, many NATO countries continue to pursue policies of disarmament, divest themselves of key capabilities, and struggle to meet NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense spending requirement. Europe’s political disunity, lack of leadership, and absence of appetite for confrontation with Russia, as well as the weakest United States military presence in Europe since World War II, allow the Kremlin to exploit its growing military capabilities along its periphery. The dwindling presence of NATO forces is now running the risk of failing to deter Russian aggression.
The Trump administration has inherited a military that, while engaged worldwide in defense of America’s interests, has been suffering from the combination of high operational tempo and the corrosive effects of sequestration.
There is excitement at the Pentagon over President Trump’s pledge to undertake a buildup of the country’s military. Support for the new president’s defense agenda is also found among many on Capitol Hill, with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain proposing to add roughly $430 billion to the defense budget over the next five years.
The United States will soon reach a crossroads in its struggle against terrorism. The international coalition fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has driven the group out of much of the territory it once held and, sooner or later, will militarily defeat it by destroying its core in Iraq and Syria. But military victory over ISIS will not end the global war on terrorism that the United States has waged since 9/11. Some of ISIS’ provinces may outlive its core. Remnants of the caliphate may morph into an insurgency. Al Qaeda and its affiliates will still pose a threat. Moreover, the conditions that breed jihadist organizations will likely persist across the greater Middle East. So the United States must decide what strategy to pursue in the next stage of the war on terrorism.
Since the Cold War, the U.S. Navy has followed a well-worn template to deter aggression and respond to crises in the Middle East and the Western Pacific: a “one size fits all” carrier strike group and amphibious ready group. This approach won’t do the job any longer. China and Russia are violating international law and threatening U.S. allies even as ongoing operations in the Middle East are consuming the service lives of the Navy’s ships and aircraft. In response, the Department of Defense has deployed Navy and Marine forces longer and more frequently, creating what Navy leaders are calling a readiness crisis in the fleet. This is exacerbated by a reduction in the fleet’s size from 318 ships in 2000 to about 275 ships today.
Donald Trump wants to make a partner of Russia in Syria. One of Trump’s most consistently expressed foreign policy ideas, both during the campaign and now since his election, is that the United States and Russia are natural counterterrorism allies, and that the obvious place to begin such cooperation is in Syria, against the Islamic State. Both the United States and Russia are waging war against the Islamic State, Trump’s reasoning goes, so the best way to hasten the defeat of that organization, and perhaps to launch a broader U.S.-Russia rapprochement, is by bringing Russia into the counter-Islamic State fold and undertaking more coordinated military action targeting the group. In a recent Fox interview, in which Trump controversially drew a moral equivalence between the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he said “it’s better to get along with Russia than not and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, major fight, that’s a good thing.”