America’s Defense: Are We Better Off Today Than We Were Four Years Ago?

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In 2020, are you better off today than you were four years ago?

The phrase dates to the final week of the 1980 presidential campaign between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Although the race was considered close, it turned sharply in Reagan’s favor when he asked that famous question of the audience: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” 

This November, voters' answer to a similar question may have much to do with the effect they personally feel from the Covid-19 virus, the way they perceive the administration has handled the pandemic and the state of the economic recovery.

In contrast, American foreign and defense policy seldom play a defining role in U.S. presidential elections. However, in recent Gallup polls, national security/terrorism ranks right up there with health care, education, gun policy, and the economy as issues the electorate cares about. The lack of preparation for a pandemic may lead to further questions on America’s national security. It is worth asking, then, in terms of national defense: are we better off today than we were four years ago?

To draw up a security scorecard, let’s consider the principal threats to America as detailed in the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy: the revisionist powers of Russia and China, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and the disruptive terrorist tactics of non-state actors.

Has our national security improved relative to these state and non-state actors during the Trump administration’s four-year management of American defense policy? Critics of American defense policy during the Obama/Biden administration might consider such a comparison a rather low bar—but the contrast is troubling.


The Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia failed, despite Russian cooperation on arms control, Iran sanctions, and support for military action in Afghanistan and Libya. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its interference in the 2016 presidential election led the United States to impose severe sanctions on Russia and to deploy forces forward to reassure its NATO allies.

The Trump administration initially followed Obama's policy toward Russia: increasing sanctions, not recognizing the Crimea annexation, bolstering NATO; and, providing military assistance to Ukraine. Although Obama noted the Russians were not abiding by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, Trump abandoned it. Based on China's cooperation, renewing or renegotiating the strategic arms treaty, fostering transparency and limiting nuclear weapons and delivery systems, appears unlikely. Claiming the Russians abused the Open Skies Treaty, allowing 34 countries to monitor military activity through routine aircraft flyovers, the United States is withdrawing from the agreement.  

The threat of Russian interference in the 2020 elections has energized U.S. agencies in their defense. Although the President has championed the "reintegration" of Russia into international fora such as the G7, Putin’s authoritarian aggression has led to the characterization of U.S-Russian relations at their most dangerous point in decades.


The Obama administration’s effort to “rebalance” strategic focus to Asia was overcome by events elsewhere. China refused to play by established international rules and extended its reach into the South China Sea with illegal territorial claims and new military bases. In response, the Obama administration reassured U.S. Pacific allies, signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership—although failing to see that agreement through to ratification.

Under President Trump, the U.S. policy toward China has been a mix of trade sanctions and security concerns, but the blame game regarding the origins of the Covid-19 virus, plus Chinese moves against Hong Kong coupled with threats to Taiwan, has nearly severed relations. While conspiracy theories abound regarding China’s complicity in spreading the virus, China’s military moves are not under dispute. 

The South China Sea confrontation remains a stalemate, as China buttresses its claims and fortifies its bases, while U.S. ships attempt to ensure freedom of navigation along Asia’s vital sea lanes. Addressing Chinese threats, the Indo-Pacific combatant commander has requested $20 billion to disperse troops and advanced weaponry across the Pacific and to deploy additional missile defense systems, while the Marine Corps proposes restructuring to meet the Chinese naval threat. With Congressional support, a Pacific Deterrence Initiative is underway. Perhaps these initiatives were prompted by a recent report concluding: “Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: We have lost almost every single time.”


The Obama administration’s jointly negotiated nuclear deal offered Teheran economic relief in return for a moratorium on their nuclear program. Although Iran appeared to be abiding by the pact, the agreement was criticized for not extracting other concessions, such as curtailing Iranian support of anti-American proxies and terrorism throughout the Middle East. That fear materialized as Iran gained control of vast stretches of Iraq and Syria and increased its presence in Lebanon and Yemen.

Calling it “the worst deal ever,” President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, promised a more comprehensive agreement, and directed a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. But the Iranians made clear they would not negotiate a new deal and have threatened to resume their path to a bomb. In January 2020, a U.S. drone strike killed Quds force leader Soleimani, resulting in Iranian missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and motivating the U.S. to redeploy forces from outlying bases. Although both states appear to have stepped back from the brink of outright war, with not-so-subtle hints of a U.S. policy of regime change, tensions remain high.

North Korea

The Obama administration offered to “reach out a hand” to Kim Jong Un, but he responded by testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. The United States then turned to United Nations’ sanctions and Chinese pressure, rather than negotiations, to pursue denuclearization on the peninsula —without any success.

Despite President Trump’s claims of “friendship" and “love” for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, that relationship has not brought about positive change in America’s defense.  Lacking progress in summit diplomacy, the U.S. policy of “strategic accountability”—relying on China to pressure Pyongyang—resembles Obama’s approach of “strategic patience.” The rhetoric, however, is far more troubling.

The President has alluded to pre-emptive strikes, claimed the military option is “on the table,”  and threatened “fire and fury.” In contrast, he canceled joint military exercises in the South seen by his military commanders as useful deterrents to North Korean aggression and badgered the Republic over burden sharing.  Meanwhile, North Korea has advanced its intercontinental missile and nuclear weapons capability, threatening to hold U.S. regional allies—and U.S. cities—at risk. 

Non-state actors and terrorism

The Obama administration gambled that previous gains against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan could be sustained without a significant U.S. presence, and declared exit strategies and dates. They lost that bet.  In these irregular wars, only the minimum force necessary —unmanned strikes, sanctions, negotiations—were authorized to pursue limited objectives against terrorists. The American withdrawal from Iraq and nonintervention in Syria aided the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). However, the international coalition formed during the Obama administration was key in subsequently reclaiming territory under ISIS control.

Donald Trump shares Barack Obama’s view that the Middle East is not of vital interest to the United States and deserves fewer resources. In his 2019 State of the Union address, Mr. Trump decried “endless wars.” Then, declaring victory over ISIS, he directed the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, prompting his Defense Secretary’s resignation, dismaying his allies, and diminishing U.S. influence there.

In Afghanistan, the United States pledged under the recent Doha agreement to reduce its forces to 8,600—about the same number of troops there when Trump took office. Despite options to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan before the U.S. presidential election, the escalation of the air war against the Taliban through relaxed rules of engagement has not deterred the Spring offensive, while Taliban and Al Qaeda ties remain troublesome. Meanwhile, ISIS conducts a "low-level insurgency" in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. More than 10,000 U.S. troops and two aircraft carriers have recently deployed to the Middle East.

Four more years?

Perhaps, a few months from now, there will be a Presidential debate on national security. When the Democratic candidate asks of the sitting President’s record in defense policy, “Are we better off today than we were four years ago,” how might the audience respond?

For the answer, please turn your calendars to November 4th.

Robert Haffa, a retired Air Force colonel, is a Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and teaches American Defense Policy as an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

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