America's Selective Burden Shedding?

Dec 8, 2017

This article was first published on December 8, 2017 on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

At the December meeting of the Loisach Group, I was intrigued by the description of where U.S. foreign policy seems to be headed under the Trump administration offered by my colleague Daniel Hamilton–"selective burden shedding." This term is a riff off the the more standard proclamation that the United States seeks its partners and allies to engage in burden sharing. In contrast, "selective burden shedding" suggests that the United States, under the Trump administration, will be re-evaluating its commitments and engagements and selectively (and perhaps unilaterally) deciding which ones to retain and resource and which ones to abandon.

"Selective burden shedding" provides a succinct and clarifying answer to the question posted in the December 3, 2017 column ("American Withdrawal from the World?") It also then provides the calculus for assessing the limits and parameters of what has been termed "the withdrawal strategy": the renegotiation of "the terms of American engagement in the world" with the proviso that in the event the terms are not to Washington’s satisfaction, "the U.S. would be prepared to withdraw." President Trump himself again reconfirmed this approach in his rally in Pensacola, Florida, on the evening of December 8th–where he stressed that trade pacts and other agreements would either be renegotiated to deliver better terms to the United States or abandoned altogether.

"Selective burden shedding" themes may not be openly stressed in the emerging draft of the new National Security Strategy, which attempts to situate the foreign and national security policies of the Trump administration within the more traditional bipartisan consensus of the past several administrations, but which also contains more specifically "Trumpian" language. Notably, the draft argues that America's past commitment to global engagement has not always been beneficial to U.S. interests–and may argue that an emphasis on multilateralism may be overblown. (Trump himself also seemed to indicate this in Pensacola, arguing he prefers bilateral deals between the U.S. and one other state, rather than tying the United States down into more complicated arrangements with multiple states.) And some who have had the chance to view drafts are concerned that the new strategy will de-emphasize the role of American values in foreign policy. Others, however, argue that it will be a "corrective" that does not overestimate America's power and influence to push for change around the world–and which will better align America's stated foreign policy goals with the commitments the American voter is likely to support. No matter how the strategy is characterized, however, it does seem that it will support an approach of "selective burden shedding" by promoting a more transactional, cost-benefit analysis to U.S. foreign policy.

UPDATE, 12/10/2017: And to add a further comment: The President’s comments on NATO at the Pensacola rally again reinforced the transactional approach to U.S. foreign policy. In speaking about his talks with other NATO members, he noted, "I guess I implied if you don't pay, we're out of there." His rendition of his conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which he related her concerns about increasing German defense spending, ends with "The American people aren’t happy with the way we have it now."

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