Capstones: Trump Leaves Resources and Tools for Biden

January 2021

Anyone who has read Capstones columns the past four-plus years knows I was a critic of President Donald Trump long before his election victory. I criticized his harshness with NATO allies, his downplaying of human rights, foreign aid and free trade, his zigzagging approach to North Korea, chaotic approach to governing and transactional approach to foreign policy, and his eagerness to remove America’s stabilizing hand from Afghanistan and Syria. But I also pointed out the times he made the right call in conducting foreign policy and defending the national interest. Some of those policies will help the next administration. For those of us who care about the affairs of state—and who recognize that conducting foreign policy is far more difficult than critiquing it—giving credit where it’s due is just as important as calling out mistakes. 


We begin before the Trump presidency. In order to address the deficit crisis spawned by the Great Recession, a Democratic president and a Republican-majority Congress agreed to $1 trillion in spending cuts—evenly divided between defense and certain domestic programs—known as “sequestration.” It pays to recall that before the sequestration guillotine fell, the Pentagon had been ordered to cough up $487 billion, which meant the Pentagon would lose nearly $1 trillion in expected resources by the time sequestration had run its course. Thus, in a time of war, defense spending tumbled from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to around 3 percent by 2016. Readiness, training, modernization, maintenance, weapons development, acquisition and overall deterrent military strength suffered as a consequence:

  • The Air Force was whittled down to the smallest it had ever been. Dozens of squadrons were ordered to stand down due to sequestration’s funding constraints.
  • The Army’s active-duty endstrength fell to 476,000—smaller than it was before 9/11. In other words, sequestration left America with a smaller Army in a time of war than it fielded in a time of peace. Of the Army’s 58 brigade combat teams, only three were ready post-sequestration to “fight tonight.”
  • The Marine Corps fielded 202,100 active-duty personnel before sequestration. By the end of 2016, there were only 184,000 Marines on active duty, and only 41 percent of USMC aircraft were able to fly. 
  • The Navy fleet ebbed to just 277 active deployable ships—nowhere close to America’s maritime needs. Fifty-three percent of Navy aircraft couldn’t fly as sequestration took its toll—twice the historic average.

It’s no coincidence that as Washington disassembled America’s military, China began its illegal island-building campaign, dialed up its intimidation of Taiwan, and tried to turn the South and East China Seas into “Lake Beijing”; Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimea and regained its Cold War-era toehold in the Mediterranean; Syria used chemical weapons with impunity; Iran seized U.S. Navy vessels operating in international waters; and ISIS conquered some 91,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria.

The Trump defense team recognized that this self-inflicted mutilation of America’s military had to end. Trump signed a $700-billion defense budget for FY2018 (a 13.2-percent increase over the previous year), a $716-billion budget for FY2019 and a $738-billion budget for FY2020. Sustaining these investments in defense will be difficult but crucial. “It took us years to get into this situation,” as Gen. James Mattis warned during his stint leading the Pentagon. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”


The Pentagon is investing some of those resources into America’s newest military branch: the U.S. Space Force (USSF). When Trump announced plans to stand up the USSF, some media outlets dismissed the idea as a “space farce.” Some in the press called it “ridiculous.” Netflix created a comedy mocking the very notion of a branch focused on defending U.S. interests in space. What the sneering media apparently didn’t know was that Trump’s plans were in line with almost 60 years of policymaking.

Just a year old, the USSF is busy tracking satellites, managing the U.S. constellation of GPS satellites upon which Americans depend for the everyday stuff of modern life, providing early warning on enemy missile launches, manning new weapons systems, operating an orbital warfare unit and the super-secret X-37B, and leading an international partnership committed to defending the free world’s assets in space. Indeed, following the Trump administration’s lead, NATO recognized space as an operational domain of warfare, and Britain, France and Japan stood up space-defense commands.

These allies recognize that, as with freedom of the seas, ensuring freedom of space depends on responsible powers deterring bad actors, dissuading reckless behavior and enforcing “rules of the road.” The importance of bringing “rules of the road” to space—as the free world’s navies do at sea—cannot be overstated. The natural order of the world is not orderly. There are no police to enforce the rules or maintain order. To its credit, the Trump administration recognized that the need to maintain some semblance of order is not limited to the domains of land, sea and sky; it extends into space and wherever man’s broken nature affects his fellow man.


While on the subject of order, Trump deserves credit for defending two of the main ingredients of international order: the nation-state and the nation-state system.

Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) argued that a key antidote to instability is “strong, sovereign and independent nations.” Trump used the document to make clear that his administration would help partners “confront nonstate threats and strengthen their sovereignty,” help “nations maintain their sovereignty,” resist efforts that “undermine sovereign governments,” and confront China, which has “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”

This effort to reassert sovereignty is important given a decades-long assault on the nation-state system and the very notion of sovereignty—a worrisome development that represents a serious threat to U.S. interests and the liberal international order America forged after World War II.

There’s evidence that President-elect Joe Biden might hew closer to the Trump stance on sovereignty than to President Barack Obama’s “citizen of the world” position: When then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared in 2004 that only the UN can authorize and legitimize the use of force, Biden countered, “Nobody in the Senate agrees with that…He is dead, flat, unequivocally wrong.” And in 2020, Biden vowed to seek “the informed consent of the American people” when using military force. He said nothing about seeking the UN’s blessing.

NATO and Russia

Although Trump’s comments about NATO were often critical and sometimes counterproductive (see here, here, and here), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg notes that Trump’s “actions speak louder than words.”

Trump tripled Obama’s funding levels for the European Deterrence Initiative; reactivated the Navy’s Second Fleet (which was deactivated in 2011, after defending the Atlantic and supporting NATO throughout the Cold War); re-established the Army’s Germany-based V Corps (which was deactivated in 2012, after decades defending Europe); authorized construction of and/or upgrades to bases in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Estonia; agreed to add Montenegro and North Macedonia to the NATO fold; and laid the groundwork for the permanent basing of 5,500 troops in Poland.

These tools and resources will help the Biden team deter Putin’s Russia, which occupies parts of Ukraine, has activated anti-aircraft systems along the Mediterranean coastline, is threatening allied ships in international waters and buzzing allied planes in international airspace, is violating arms treaties, has slipped warships into the English Channel for provocative sail-throughs, has armed Taliban forces waging war against NATO personnel operating under UN mandate, is conducting strategic-influence operations against the free world’s political institutions, has carried out menacing tests of anti-satellite weapons, and has added 600 new warplanes to its arsenal.

Whether triggered by Putin’s actions or Trump’s criticisms—probably a little of both—NATO nations got serious about the common defense during the Trump presidency. In 2015, only three NATO members met the alliance-wide goal of investing 2 percent of GDP in defense. Today, 10 have reached the 2-percent mark. By 2024, 20 will meet that standard. NATO’s European and Canadian members have added 131,000 troops to their ranks and $130 billion in fresh defense spending since 2016.


Spurred by Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID19, the Trump administration dealt with China firmly and bluntly. Biden seems likely to continue Trump’s hardline stance with Beijing, suggesting that COVID19 could represent a turning point akin to the communist bloc’s attempt to seize West Berlin and South Korea, which solidified bipartisan commitment to waging the Cold War.

Again, Trump leaves Biden with helpful tools as America wades deeper into what increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0.

The Trump administration has launched a free-world 5G partnership. This effort positions the free world to pool technological resources, build on shared values, and harness interoperability in order to forge a clean 5G network and defend the digital frontier.

Similarly, the nascent Economic Prosperity Network is bringing together partners committed to “respect for rule of law, respect for property of all kinds, respect for sovereignty of nations and respect for basic human rights” to build uncompromised supply chains for the free world.

The Quad partnership has been revived, as the U.S., Australia, India and Japan widen and deepen cooperation on military exercises, training, basing, procurement, intelligence-sharing, supply-chain resilience, and pandemic recovery.


Given Trump’s surprising post-election decision to shut down key counterterror efforts inside the Pentagon, it’s easy to forget that his gloves-off approach to ISIS rolled back Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Trump’s team understood that smashing the Islamic State rapidly was far better for humanity than “degrading” it slowly.

Recall that 10 months into the anti-ISIS air campaign, which began in summer 2014, 75 percent of warplanes were returning to base without releasing their weapons. Contrast that with what Trump authorized: There were 5,600 more weapons released during the first nine months of 2017 than in all of 2016. As Brett McGurk, State Department envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition under both Obama and Trump, explained in mid-2017, ISIS in January 2017 was “planning major attacks against the United States, against our partners, and they were doing it in Raqqa, using infrastructure of a major city. Today…they are fighting for their own survival. It is a fundamentally transformed situation.”

The reason, according to McGurk, was Trump’s decision to delegate “tactical authority from the White House…to our commanders on the ground.” The payoff: The Islamic State, while still a threat, is no longer a state—and Baghdadi has been sent to wherever mass-murderers masquerading as holy men go once justice catches up with them.

The same applies to Qasem Soleimani, former commander of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force. Soleimani had the blood of 608 American troops and civilians on his hands. A U.S. Army report details how Soleimani and his henchmen in August 2004 began providing Iraqi militias “guidance, training, logistics and financial support” and “IED training.” Given that Soleimani was a terrorist leader who ordered, facilitated and bankrolled terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, his killing was very much in line with the Baghdadi, bin Laden and Zarqawi strikes. Put another way, if you didn’t have moral qualms about the end of those terrorists, you shouldn’t have any about the end of Soleimani.

Soleimani’s death re-exposed a dirty little secret that too many diplomats would rather not talk about: The men who run Iran—men like Soleimani—have normalized terrorism into a basic function of government. The Islamic Republic is not a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime. Hopefully, the Biden administration will contemplate this truth before rejoining the fatally flawed nuclear deal with Tehran’s terror masters.


Alan Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.

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