If Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States will soon turn the page on military interventions that destabilize foreign lands while dearly costing Americans. Trump has signaled there would be no more fiascoes like Iraq, no more quagmires like Afghanistan and no more tragedies like Benghazi. Once he becomes president, he declared to vigorous applause, “the era of nation-building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end.”
Unlike Trump’s other sweeping pledges such as “the wall,” the Muslim ban and making America great again, his vow to end nation-building provoked little consternation and even less scrutiny. Who wouldn’t want to abandon the fanciful notion that the U.S. military can rejigger other countries? Thousands of American service members have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more than a million others returned wounded — psychologically, physically or both.
Enter Trump, who faults recent presidents and their advisers for entangling us overseas. If the diagnosis is delusional leadership, the prescription is simple: Install a commander in chief who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. On this point, journalists who critique other aspects of Trump’s foreign policy have been notably credulous. They imply Trump, the supposed realist, can and will put a stop to nation-building. This belief resonates not only among Republicans but Democrats as well. Whereas progressives fear Trump will implement his proposals on immigration or reproductive rights, they may hope he delivers what he promised about armed intervention.
But such hopes are misplaced, for reasons both historical and contemporary.
Nation-building was not pioneered by Barack Obama or George W. Bush, who slammed lengthy military interventions as a candidate then launched what would become America’s longest war. Rather, for over a century U.S. presidents have been rallying Americans to nation-build — typically in circumstances far less dire than the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
For example, in 1898, President William McKinley mistakenly blamed a Spanish mine in Havana Harbor for sinking the USS Maine and killing over 250 crewmen. McKinley responded by trouncing Spanish forces and taking over Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, countries the United States would rule for decades by force.
The example of McKinley’s half-cocked imperialism has not stopped later presidents from using faulty or fraudulent information to claim nation-building is necessary and feasible. The imagined Gulf of Tonkin incident, Iraq’s fictitious weapons of mass destruction, and faulty claims about the Libyan uprising remind us that a cocktail of ill-founded antagonism and magical assumptions has duped leaders more experienced than Trump into thinking the military can and must reshape other countries.
Is there anything in Trump’s behavior to suggest he will be less likely than McKinley, Lyndon Johnson, Bush and Obama to shoot first and get evidence later? On the contrary, he peddles in the same kind of alarmism and aggression that propelled earlier U.S. interventions. Rather than reassuring Americans, Trump has stoked anxiety about Islamic State and Iran. Rather than embracing the full gamut of foreign policy tools, he is adopting a militarized approach. These postures would make it easy to portray nation-building as a panacea for adversaries — real or imagined — while dismissing more nuanced approaches.
For a man who claims to have foreseen disaster in Iraq and Libya, Trump is surprisingly keen to prime America for another war. His national security appointees are steeped in unsuccessful military interventions and short on diplomatic experience. His plans for the Pentagon include raising defense spending by nearly $100 billion annually and adding some 150,000 troops and sailors. This agenda has invigorated leading U.S. defense firms — and it almost guarantees that when a crisis hits, alternatives to the use of force will not get their due.
History and Trump’s priorities provide little reason to expect nation-building will vanish after his inauguration. Closing the era of failed nation-building would not only require changing the occupant of the White House, but also reconsidering the place of America in the world. Putting “America first” would need to give way to multilateral diplomacy that pursues America’s goals amid the community of nations. For now, the incoming administration augurs nothing of the sort.
Brownlee is a professor of government at the University of Texas.