During his four years in office, Trump not only successfully deterred Russia from acting against Ukraine, he effectively deterred a lot of bad behavior across the planet. He focused on ending America’s foreign wars rather than launching new ones. At the same time, he brokered the Abraham Accords to expand peace in the Middle East.
The exercise of American power to deter adversaries is a complicated business. It involves a mix of military, economic, political, and diplomatic strategies and actions that together communicate the costs of threatening U.S. national interests.
Ultimately, the art of statecraft boils down to whether a president projects American strength that deters adversaries, or projects American weakness that emboldens our adversaries.
So how did Trump succeed in containing Putin while the Russian autocrat has run wild with others in the White House? Why was he so successful at spreading peace elsewhere? We believe the long answer begins with these ten ways that Donald Trump projected American strength and kept the bad guys in check:
- Rebuilt the American Military
- Crusaded for American Energy Dominance
- Set the Tone by Launching Surgical Missile Strikes in Syria in Early 2017
- Developed Strong Relationships with Middle Eastern Nations Based on Mutual Interests
- Was Ruthless with the Taliban While Winding Down the Afghanistan War
- Crushed the ISIS Caliphate
- Demonstrated a Consistent Willingness to Take out the Bad Guys
- Stood Up to China
- Strategically Used Unpredictability as an Asset in Foreign Affairs
- Advanced Tough Russia Policies and Provided Lethal Aid to Ukraine while Maintaining an Open Dialogue
Each of these points are worthy of unpacking in-depth, but there are several that illustrate the dramatic difference in approach between Trump and Biden, starting with Afghanistan.
When President Trump initiated the process of ending America’s longest war, senior officials huddled in the Situation Room to discuss tactical challenges on the ground. The president reminded the group of America’s humiliating withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, and said we must do whatever it takes to leave in a safe, orderly, and dignified way. When military leaders bemoaned the costs and logistical challenges of bringing home our equipment, the president said that he did not care if it was a helicopter or a styrofoam cooler. If it had an American flag on it, it was either coming home or getting destroyed to keep it from falling into the hands of our enemies. He vowed that we would leave on our terms, or we would not leave at all.
Tragically, President Biden’s approach – which included the decision to abandon the strategically important Bagram Air Base prior to the evacuation – cost the lives of 13 American servicemembers and led to the Taliban parading victoriously through Kabul with billions of dollars of American combat equipment. The administration’s stunning incompetence – detailed in an official U.S. Army report – made the United States look weak and vulnerable on the world stage, and Putin was watching.
The world took notice when Trump ordered the killing of Iranian terrorist general Qassem Soleimani, who had operated with impunity throughout the Middle East until the U.S. military sent two Hellfire missiles through his vehicle. As a candidate for president, Biden released a statement condemning the righteous attack as a “hugely escalatory move” that brought us to “the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” This, of course, proved to not be the case, but it illustrated Biden’s unwillingness to do what it takes to establish credible deterrence.
This principle of deterrence applies across the globe, which explains why the Chinese military has sent a record number of airplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone since Biden took office.
To the specific case at hand, Trump was much tougher on Russia than the media have led people to believe, while Biden has been far softer.
Trump deployed such aggressive sanctions against Russia that President Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called them the toughest in history, and he withdrew from one-sided treaties that hamstrung the U.S. while Russia violated the terms.
Biden has taken the opposite approach, appeasing Putin by handing him his top two geopolitical priorities on a silver platter. He unconditionally extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, allowing Russia to continue building tactical nuclear weapons while constraining our ability to modernize. And while Trump imposed sanctions to stop Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in its tracks, construction was allowed to resume when Biden took office.
President Trump understood the power of building American energy dominance. By slashing onerous regulations, Trump sparked an American energy boom that ensured we would never be reliant on any other nation to meet our energy needs. Geopolitically, America’s increased export capacity reduced Putin’s leverage over our European allies, who depend on Russia for 40 percent of their gas and more than a quarter of their oil.
Trump approved the Keystone XL oil pipeline at home and shut down Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Eastern Europe. Biden reversed both decisions, meaning he has been harder on America’s energy producers than he has been on Russia’s. To add insult to injury, as the Russian army pushed into Ukraine, Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry hoped aloud that “President Putin will help us to stay on track with respect to what we need to do for the climate.”
Vladimir Putin’s appetite for expansion did not wane during the four years Trump was in office, and the world was not just miraculously a safer place. Bad actors like Putin simply knew that they had to restrain themselves or deal with the consequences. In nearly every way possible, President Biden has weakened the United States and our allies and empowered Putin. As a result, Russia is on the march, even as the Ukrainian people have inspired the world with their courage and resilience. And in the wings, America’s greatest threat – Xi Jinping’s China – waits, and watches.
John Ratcliffe served as the 6th U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Cliff Sims served as U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Strategy and Communications.