President Donald Trump's capacity to surprise the US establishment and the international community was demonstrated, once again, through his decisions to withdraw all troops from Syria and reduce the US army contingent in Afghanistan by half. The former constituted a major policy shift and the latter can only be construed as an important concession to the Taliban; powerful countries do not take such steps at the start of negotiations. Countries do undertake fundamental policy changes and also take contrarian negotiating positions but Trump's sudden about-turns and changed stances have dismayed US and global political and security classes who are concerned because of their actual and perceived impact on world order.
Since the end of World War II in 1945 US Presidents have certainly been the world's most important political personalities. Their backgrounds, temperaments and visions of global order have varied but all have striven to be predictable and show a durability of approach and policy. In sharp contrast Trump apparently likes to keep everyone guessing at all times. This is making diplomacy and the management of global affairs difficult at a time when international cooperation is vitally needed to address the challenges arising out of massive technological change, power shifts and environmental concerns.
Defence Secretary James Mattis's resignation was an immediate consequence of these decisions. He succinctly encapsulated the anguish of a large section of the US establishment rooted in the traditional ways of handling the world order. Mattis wrote, inter alia, in his resignation letter, "One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains that indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies". Obviously, Mattis was referring to the abandonment of US's Kurdish partners in Syria in the lurch. While this is true the real issue is if Trump is giving up on US's core alliance system which is the anchor of the current global order.
Trump is shaking up this alliance system by taking decisions without prior consultations with allies as in these two recent cases, or by going back on decisions made by his predecessors with the concurrence of the partners such as the Iran deal or the Paris climate accords. He is demanding that the alliance partners share more of the financial burden for he feels that the US carries a disproportionate part of it. He is also disdainful of the leaders of the alliance countries. All this is conveyed as part of his America First approach. What is important though is that he has not actually walked out of the alliance system despite all his initial negative comments on NATO. But his style imparts diplomatic turbulence and uncertainty which is being deeply resented by not only the US's traditional allies but by US establishment figures such as Mattis. Also, it is not 'respectful' of the allies as Mattis has hinted in his resignation letter.
Thus, Trump is not a traditional isolationist for he has not turned his back on US alliances. He is not a blind follower of the cautions that some of the country's founding fathers preached against 'foreign entanglements'. Their advice was against getting involved in European contentions and it was often followed by the majority of US politicians till World War II. The end of the war witnessed an exhausted Britain ceding its pre-eminent global role to the US. Colonialism was no longer sustainable and the world order was governed by two alliance systems led by the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet alliance system collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in 1991. However, the US system continued with its military arm NATO seeking justification on account of new, real and perceived, threats.
Referring to China and Russia in his letter Mattis wrote, "I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for instance, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic and security decisions—to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbours, America and our allies". Mattis has articulated an anxiety which is at the centre of current US strategic concerns for the rise of China poses a critical challenge to the US anchored world order.
Trump was extremely angry with the Mattis letter. The Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential elections has made him politically vulnerable. He has taken tough steps against China on trade though follow-up measures have been paused after his meeting with President Xi Jinping following his meeting with him earlier this month. Be that as it may a large part of the US strategic community simply does not consider him capable of handling complex strategic issues. Thus, his claim that "There has never been a president who has been tougher (though fair) on China and Russia—Never just look at the facts" cuts no ice with them.
Trump revels in his disruptive style and the world has no choice but to suffer it. It has caused confusion but has not taken the US into isolationism; he has maintained the essence of the alliance based US world order.