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A nation must think before it acts.
On January 23, Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, gave a talk regarding his new book called American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump at FPRI.
As almost any foreign policy expert will tell you, the U.S. has long enjoyed the economic and political fruits for leading Europe and other young liberal democracies into the “Liberal order.” Brands acknowledges that until recently U.S. leadership has been almost synonymous with global peace and stability, even with its sometimes inconsistent emphasis on democracy and human rights. But even before the end of the Obama administration, candidate Trump was already raising questions and critiques about shifting global trends that threatened American prosperity. Brands explains that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and agenda has indeed shed light on real issues regarding U.S. internationalism, including financial burden-sharing, the growth of competing super powers, and the increased threat of terrorism. However, at both the rhetorical and policy levels, Brands argues that Trump’s shift away from conventional U.S. Grand Strategy has hurt the U.S. reputation abroad and may have significant negative impacts on its leadership. He worries that this may promote global instability and alienate our historic democratic allies in Europe and beyond.
Even for the most erratic heads of states, high level and complex grand decisions regarding foreign policy have to be made. This was perhaps made most clear in the aftermath of World War II and the Great Depression where leaders realized that no country is an island, operating in isolation. Brands explains that every world leader has a theory about how the world works and his/her country’s position in it. Trump is no different.
It was easy to evaluate the positions of candidate Trump as one of completely overhauling conventional U.S. Grand Strategy. He went further than any of his Republican counterparts or presidential predecessors in rejecting the belief that the U.S. should pursue its national interest through an active internationalist leadership role in the world order. In other words, Trump disavowed the idea that “we do well when our allies do well.” Trump’s alternative Grand Strategy instead adopts a largely zero-sum perspective where even politically like-minded allied countries are competing with the U.S. and are actively taking advantage of its generosity.
Brands reminds us that like past presidents, Trump is subject to moderating and constraining forces on his agenda and power. This includes his top political and national security advisors as well as Congress. However, without a consistency in messaging or policy, Trump administration staffers and spokespeople often contradict one another and even the president himself. This not only leaves an esoteric understanding of the administration’s Grand Strategy for U.S. foreign policy officials, but also conveys inconsistency and weakness to rival state actors.
As Brands claims, President Trump has broken with the narrative of the past 70 years of U.S. leadership in the world, stating that America is exporting its wealth and that American Nationalism, as he defines it, is incompatible with American Internationalism. He is one of the first presidents in modern times that has taken a substantially critical view of our democratic allies in Europe and advocated for closer relationships with non-liberal authoritarian states like Russia and China. Brands correctly identifies that many of these authoritarian regimes have applauded and enjoyed Trump’s high regard for national sovereignty because autocrats and dictators often use it to stave off calls for democratic reforms within their country. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s behavior and policy implementation have raised questions about America’s reputation as a highly professional and competent foreign policy actor. Brands contends that the threats of nuclear war through tweets and disparaging comments towards other nations have raised doubts in our political allies and rivals alike regarding the U.S. suitability for global leadership.
Trump has also changed America’s reputation as a global first responder. Starting with the European reconstruction effort after the Second World War and continuing still today with military engagements against terrorist groups like ISIS, America has been committed to tackling global issues, reassuring our allies and promoting global peace and stability. However, as Brands points out, Trump is pulling the U.S. back from this vanguard role, which it has fulfilled for almost a century. With threats of scrapping the Iran Nuclear deal to withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump has considerably ceded the U.S.’ role as a leader of global affairs and a force for stability. Although many of these shifts appear to have negative consequences, Brands cautions that many of these policies and behaviors will have long-term repercussions that may not be clear until Trump leaves office.
Although it is hard to gauge exactly how the global order is changing in the age of Trump, Brands criticizes certain actions that will most certainly have negative impacts. One example is the overly aggressive overhaul of the State Department. According to Brands, the agency is undergoing a significant loss of human capital in terms of diplomats with decades of expertise that take time and government funds to develop. Many foreign heads of state have also learned how to appease Trump during state visits in order to receive a positive response from him. Brands points to the Chinese who were seemingly able to win Trump’s favor by rolling out the red carpet, and organizing a large military parade in his honor. Many of Trump’s supporters have tried to justify his erratic and unpredictable behavior through the mad man theory, stating that appearing unpredictable to our political rivals is smart leadership. But Brands worries that Trump has not yet learned to properly utilize or “calibrate” this trait in the same way Richard Nixon famously had. Like the conflicting statements from White House staff and the president, this further damages the U.S. reputation as a reliable and stable leader.
Despite these short-term downturns in confidence in U.S. leadership, Brands reminds us that the U.S. has had close to three quarters of a century to create and strengthen the “Liberal Order” since WWII. Furthermore, U.S. hegemony and leadership is more closely tied to American political values and reputation than to a particular head of state. That being said, Trump’s actions have raised concerns about future U.S. capabilities to coalition-build after scrapping multilateral deals such as the TPP and the Paris Accord and seriously questioned others like NAFTA or even NATO. In a Pew Research survey of 37 nations, respondents were less confident in President Trump than they were in Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to “do the right thing regarding global affairs.” This trend, Brands worries, might lead to the growing global leadership role of states like China and Russia at the expense of U.S. national interests.
As stated before, it is hard to tell exactly what will be the viability of President Trump’s Grand Strategy after his tenure. Brands argues that the world has in many ways become more dangerous and that it is imperative that the U.S. invest in its military. With the rise of rogue nations like North Korea and undemocratic super powers like Russia and China, both our hard and soft power capabilities are more necessary than ever before. Although Trump has publicly committed his administration to strengthening our military, only time will reveal whether he and his administration have the ability to effectively implement such policies.
Brands also questions whether the American citizenry will continue to accept an “America First” agenda if its policies cause an economic downturn domestically. If the president follows through with his campaign promise of scrapping NAFTA, which would adversely affect his own supporters, he is likely to lose key congressional GOP allies as well as his political base. For now, the economy has shown signs of growth and prosperity, but if this trend were to reverse, Trump could face major political consequences of implementing his often poorly-informed 2016 campaign promises.
 Pew Research Center. “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership”