Op-Ed — With All Due Respect, Mr. Trump, That’s Not How Deterrence Works
America won’t get stronger by withdrawing from the world
by MICHAEL HUNZEKER & ALEXANDER LANOSZKA
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Donald Trump suggested that the United States can continue to deter aggression even if it withdraw from its overseas bases and reduces its commitments to longstanding allies. “If we decide we have to defend the United States,” the Republican presidential candidate proclaimed, “we can always deploy [from American soil] and it will be a lot less expensive.”
Trump’s critics seized upon this statement as further evidence of his ignorance of foreign affairs. They argue that Trump understates the economic costs of this strategy, and they are right. But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake.
Even if Trump is correct that some allies are not paying their fair share, there are at least two compelling reasons to remain committed to those allies and retain military bases abroad. The first is deterrence. The second is anti-area/access-denial, or A2AD, technology. Both are inexorably linked.
To deter aggression the United States must convince potential adversaries that they will pay an unacceptably high cost for attacking. Successful deterrence therefore requires that the United States communicate that it is willing and able to carry out the threat. Deterrence fails when an adversary thinks the United States either cannot or will not follow through.
For decades, the United States has relied upon overseas bases to demonstrate that its deterrent threats are credible. Forward-deployed troops offer a tangible symbol that the United States has “skin in the game” and that it will pay the price to make good on its threats.
Forward-deployed troops also enhance deterrence because they put military personnel, aircraft, and ships close enough to potential hot spots to be of immediate use in a fight. Deterrence is better than fighting, but successful deterrence paradoxically means being able to fight well.
This observation leads us to consider the technological dimension that characterizes contemporary military affairs — anti-access/area denial. This is the practice of preventing an adversary — in this case, the United States — from getting to the battlefield and operating there effectively.
For years China, Iran and Russia have invested in long-range precision weapons, such as anti-ship ballistic missiles, and A2AD capabilities that range from naval mines and submarines to artillery and improvised explosive devices. It is a key feature of today’s strategic environment — one Trump’s foreign policy vision overlooks.
Armed with such weapons, these potential adversaries can now exact a heavy toll on any attempt to project force from the U.S. homeland. Anti-ship missiles, submarines and naval mines can target aircraft carriers and landing ships. Sophisticated air defenses can shoot down American fighter and attack aircraft.
Ballistic missiles and long-range artillery can damage the ports and runways needed to offload troops and gear. Landmines, IEDs and ambushes can impede ground operations.
Although A2AD weapons are not insurmountable, these technologies could make force projection costly enough to deter the United States from acting in a crisis. The result could be to embolden adversaries into behaving more aggressively and leaving treaty allies convinced that they must now take provocative steps, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons, to provide for their own security.
The result is a more dangerous world.
Trump may genuinely believe that he would be doing a service to the U.S. military and U.S. citizens by saving money and motivating allies to do more to bolster their own security.
Unfortunately, the cure is worse — and more expensive — than the disease. By trying to defend overseas interests from the U.S. homeland, as Trump suggests we should, we would undermine deterrence and international stability by raising the costs of intervening in a crisis. The United States should not make harder for itself to defend its own interests.
Michael Hunzeker is an assistant professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs. He is also a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Alexander Lanoszka is a lecturer in the Department of International Politics at City University London. This story reflects the authors’ views, not the official positions of any institutions.