Home / Articles / America First, But What Comes Next? Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Age of Donald Trump
This essay is based on remarks given to the Right-Angle Club, Philadelphia, on May 4, 2018.
Donald Trump entered the Oval Office promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington, riding a wave of anti-elite and anti-expert sentiment that helped him build a coalition including both traditional Republican voters and a number of disaffected (mostly white) working class voters in key battleground states. Whether he has actually succeeded in fulfilling all of the promises made in the campaign (or could possibly do so) is less important than the fact that he has so far managed to hold onto the key segments of that coalition. His critics may hope that ongoing investigations will bring his administration to an early end, elections this fall may shift the balance of power in Congress, but he is President now and for at least the next three years, able to shape policy according to his preferences.
Predicting what that might mean for practical policymaking is an uneasy business. Translating the Trump coalition’s rejection of history, tradition, expert opinion, and swamp dwellers into foreign policy is especially hard considering that foreign policy is one of the swampiest of all policy regions. That the State Department is located in Foggy Bottom is almost too on the nose. Metaphors notwithstanding, foreign policy remains the region where expert opinion weighs most heavily and where establishment critics of the President have been especially vocal.
And yet, the conflict between expert opinion and politics in the making of American foreign policy is not completely new. It’s important to place President Trump in a broader American context. Whether one happens to agree with him or not, it does no good to pretend that he dropped from outer space. Trump (or at least those intellectuals who have chosen to interpret him seriously, if not literally, and have been developing justifications for his policies) can draw on a long tradition of American criticism of foreign policy professionals and a preference for a foreign policy based on assumptions about American separation from and superiority to the rest of the world. Walter Russell Mead, among others, has christened this combination of truculence and unilateralism Jacksonian, in honor of our proto-Populist seventh president. Trumpian foreign policy draws on Jacksonian principles but is more than just that. One can see in Trump’s rejection of global leadership and skepticism about alliance commitments bits of Washington’s Farewell Address and a dashes of reverence for 19th century traditions, reinforced intellectually and politically by a Paleoconservative reaction against both the global meliorism and progressive rhetoric of the Obama administration and also the sins of George W. Bush and the Neocons, who are accused of squandering American post-Cold War advantages in the deserts of the Middle East.
Any president elected in 2016 would have had to manage the reality of relative American decline balanced against the equally stark reality of deep American global commitments. Even if that president is Donald Trump. For all of his surface contrasts with previous occupants of the Oval Office, it is still possible to trace lines of continuity not only within Republican foreign policy debates, but also within a broader American approach to the rest of the globe.
The idea that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is completely unique is a misconception shared by both his most ardent fans and his most aggressive detractors. America First is a loaded slogan, even if Trump does not himself always appear to be aware of its historical resonances, but that historical resonance includes many voices, ranging from Charles Lindbergh to George McGovern. Trump may be an innovator in style, but not in substance. His foreign policy centers around the idea that the USA is (or should be) essentially self-sufficient, secure behind its oceanic ramparts, and can choose when and where to engage with the world. From this perspective, foreign “entanglement” is a choice, and it may be time to reject the preferences of the foreign policy establishment to focus instead on domestic concerns. Trump may have stated his case with a unique combination of vehemence and historical ignorance, but his is essentially the same message proclaimed by every successful presidential aspirant since 1992.
President Trump—who has launched cruise missiles in response to Syrian chemical attacks, accelerated the process of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and is assiduously pursuing a summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—recently has turned to foreign affairs in search of policy “wins.” This is not a new phenomenon in American politics, either. Most Presidents, even those who initially display little interest or skill in foreign affairs, realize the advantages of executive power in that area, to distract either from a stalled legislative agenda or from domestic scandal. What is unusual is how the President (so far at least), even as he has enjoyed the pageantry of major state visits to Saudi Arabia, China, and France has traveled less and for shorter periods than his predecessors. That, however, may change, especially as both a trip to the G-7 summit in Canada and his meeting in Singapore with Kim lie ahead.
Trump also fits squarely in the tradition of tension between a State Department that is considered too soft and a more political, more aggressive, and more loyal White House and National Security Council. Rex Tillerson’s hollowing out of the State Department, which may have been inspired by his own misguided management principles, certainly raised no objections from the White House. Mike Pompeo should be able to draw on his good relations with the President to revitalize the department, but that will take time. We have seen this dynamic before, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, though the Trump administration adds the extra complication of a President who feels empowered to express his opinions spontaneously and broadcast them widely through Twitter, even against the wishes of his own staff.
Thus, even if he claims to break with all traditions, Trump actually has straddled a line between rejecting all previous policy and claiming to manage it more effectively. That tension is reflected in both style and substance, which veers between extreme rhetoric and practical continuity, and also between claiming to base foreign policy purely on material interests and transactions and asserting some sort of shared values.
Trump’s transactional orientation has led him to take a jaundiced view of many traditional alliances, be they with Europe, Japan, or our closest neighbors Canada and Mexico. Trade plays a huge role in this conception, as Trump is still shaped by economic debates from the 1980s, especially his belief that our trading partners have been playing us for suckers. Since one usually trades more with one’s friends than one’s adversaries, an aggressive approach to trade will create friction with allies. Thus, President Trump essentially has rejected not only the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), but also the more than two-decade old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Criticizing those arrangements is not, however, in itself particularly unique. His Democratic rival in 2016 also launched rhetorical salvos against TPP and TTIP, and Democratic Party leaders have been more critical of NAFTA over the years than most Republicans. In each case, President Trump claimed to be able to negotiate a better deal, though he has not yet delivered on those promises. To this point, he has taken extreme positions that effectively have scuttled renegotiations. Agreement here appears less important to him than demonstrations of strength and resolve, all guided by a confidence that America’s partners will have no place else to go. Time will tell.
America’s allies certainly can do more, both in responding to American concerns about trade practices and also in contributing to the common defense. Their efforts will be for naught, however, if President Trump is unwilling to credit them. Until recently, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Shinzo Abe have been considered the most successful in establishing a personal rapport with the President. Nevertheless, they have found that even a positive personal relationship is no guarantee of policy harmony. Neither has been able to convince the President to accept their objections to his positions when it matters. On trade, Macron tried to express European concerns about tariffs both in person and in a recent “terrible” phone call, only to be rebuffed. There is also no evidence that Trump or his team have embraced Macron’s enthusiasm for a stronger European Union—if anything, his disdain for Europe is more pronounced than ever. Abe has run into frustrations both on trade and on geopolitics, with Trump appearing unwilling to modify his tariff proposals or to include Japanese regional concerns in his policies related to North Korea. Meanwhile, Germany’s Angela Merkel, whose relationship with Trump has been frosty from the beginning, has not only failed to influence the President’s thinking on any particular issue, but she also recently has had to listen to the new American Ambassador in Germany express his desire to “empower” her conservative critics at home and in Europe.
Of course, President Trump is not completely insensitive to arguments about enduring friendships and values. His approach to Israel, for example, has been in line with previous Republican administrations, though it is a reversal from the more distant relationship between Washington and Jerusalem during the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s efforts to encourage the silent rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is also of note, as the administration links that relationship to efforts to build an anti-Iran bloc. The rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal, JCPOA) is a repudiation of Obama’s foreign policy and also a blow to cooperation with Europe, but is very much in line with Republican foreign policy on Iran.
A policy that focuses on attacking the status quo has the perverse tendency to be harder on longstanding allies than on new potential partners—even if those new potential partners, like Kim Jong-un, have been long-time adversaries. That same search for dramatic photo opportunities has led past Presidents to Beijing, Hanoi, and Havana. The fact that foreign policy experts tend to cluck their tongues at the abandonment of traditional positions is, if anything, further incentive to do it—it merely proves that the radical mold-breaker is correct. Remember that the same attitude marked people like Ben Rhodes in the Obama administration, who praised their boss for wanting to reach out the hand of cooperation to Cuba and especially to Iran, dismissing the community of foreign policy experts as a “Blob” that did not appreciate the chance to strike out in new directions and whose criticisms could be casually ignored.
Where Trump has most visibly departed most from mainstream Republican foreign policy orthodoxy is in relations with Russia, where the President’s infatuation with strongmen has also led him to adopt a position of uncritical acceptance, even admiration, of Vladimir Putin. In one of the few examples of resistance from his own party, the Republican-led Congress has insisted in maintaining sanctions on Russia. Leaving aside any speculation about baser motives, it certainly does appear that the President prefers to imagine diplomacy as a personal contest between individual leaders, and thus displays an affinity for authoritarians such as Putin or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, or China’s Xi Jinping. So far, however, that has not led to any dramatic breakthroughs with either Russia or China.
Trump’s focus on individual talks has, however, led him to pursue his negotiations with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. President Trump wants a deal, and there is one to be had, though not necessarily the complete and immediate denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula initially promised. Kim already has wrung a major concession from Trump through his willingness to meet in the first place. Pyongyang has sought parity with Washington for decades with a one-on-one meeting. Previous presidents refused to give the Kim dynasty such a gift without major concessions; Trump has, for better or worse, given that particular trump card away. To paraphrase the late William Safire, I don’t doubt that Trump’s impulses are Nobel.
Nevertheless, this rush to the summit is full of risks. What possible deal could come at this stage? If the only result of this meeting is a promise to meet again, or a deal that offers a watered-down definition of denuclearization, how can the same administration that rejected the JCPOA claim a victory when North Korea is allowed to keep its nuclear weapons? Washington’s allies in Seoul and Tokyo also worry that a deal that works for U.S. but not for them (such as one that limited North Korea’s ICBMs, but allowed other missiles, or one which reduced American commitments to the region in return for promises of denuclearization) would leave them worse off. To this point, the President has not allowed allied concerns to deter him from this meeting, whatever its practical result.
Trump’s preference for drama over detailed policy preparation has dominated the discussion of this summit, which has generated excitement even as expectations for policy breakthroughs have declined. Accepting the idea of meeting on relatively short notice, without the multiple preparatory meetings that usually precede a summit was a break with diplomatic tradition and a clear invitation that his focus was on the event rather than any consequences. His equally abrupt decision to cancel the meeting in response to North Korean rhetoric was at least as surprising, though his personal letter to Kim left the door open to yet another dramatic reversal. As of this writing, the meeting is on again—though viewers are encouraged to stay tuned.
Whatever happens after the Kim-Trump meeting, the true result will not be known until long after the concluding photo op. So much will depend on the longer-term visions that guide each participant, and the strategies they are prepared to follow in pursuit of those visions.
That basic fact must be kept in mind in all discussions of President Trump’s foreign policy. Ultimately, any President’s foreign policy will be judged not on how well it aligns with previous administrations, but on how well it points the way toward a more stable and secure future. With that in mind, it is of limited utility to complain that President Trump has shown insufficient respect for what has come before. Even if that is true, there is enough to criticize in the world as it is to inspire many efforts to change it.
Where one can and should criticize a President is on the question of what vision is being served by his or her allegedly radical acts of liberation. It is easy to praise a President for being an iconoclast if one already rejects the icons being smashed; much less so if you actually think the icons have value. But smashing is not policy; for that, one has to be willing and able to build. As this President should already know, building requires patient work, and overzealous destruction can undermine that work.
Consider an example that intellectual fans of the President should take to heart: Andrew Jackson relished crushing the Bank of the United States and the struggle with banking elites it represented. By shattering the banking system, he bequeathed an unstable financial order to his successor, Martin van Buren, whose presidency came to grief thanks to the Panic of 1837 and the decade-long recession that followed. In more recent times, supporters of President Obama have learned how a President who bases his foreign policy on bold statements and executive decisions, but is unable to secure deeper institutional support for those policies, can see those policies reversed by a successor with different priorities. True policy realignments require boldness at the start, but also an awareness that any change depends on the construction of firm foundations, in which existing institutions and establishments have to be partners.
One of President Trump’s most energetic intellectual acolytes, columnist and classicist Victor Davis Hanson, often praises the President for his rejection of conventional wisdom as if that is a virtue in itself. As befits a scholar of ancient Greece, Hanson has compared the President to Alexander the Great, who famously disdained pointless and laborious efforts to untie the Gordian Knot and simply sliced through it with his sword, fulfilling his destiny to be king of Asia. Hanson’s contempt for Trump’s establishment critics is as clear as his admiration for “brash Alexanders who won’t play by traditional rules and instead dare to pull out their swords.”
Slicing the Gordian Knot remains the favored metaphor of those who believe that major problems have simple solutions if only one is brave enough to take the chance. Yet, even here, the question remains of what happens after that moment of brave decision. Alexander himself died young, having barely any time to relish his conquests before nature struck him down; his empire outlived him by little more than a decade before dissension among the Diadochi led to the outbreak of a generation of civil war. Slicing knots is easier than building a lasting legacy.
Americans are especially fond of boldness and quickly embrace leaders who promise swift and decisive strokes that will change the game completely, whether those strokes come from the right or the left. This understandable impulse, however, depends on an equally common American faith that engagement with the wider world is optional and can be turned on and off at American convenience. That is the essence of the Jacksonian persuasion in foreign affairs, which has experienced such a resurgence in the aftermath of American global over-commitment. After nearly seven decades of managing a world system tailored to American policy preferences, American voters have elected presidents who promised to reduce those commitments and reorganize relationships.
Reorganization, however, cannot happen overnight and will require more than just a single bold stroke or single meeting. The global community of the 21st century will impinge on the United States, even if Washington no longer has the desire or ability to sit at the center. Some form of engagement will be necessary. Governing is not about simply chalking up success for the next quarter but planning for the next quarter century and beyond. Since I am not a classicist like Professor Hanson, I will make my point with a cultural reference more attuned to my own intellectual background. Drawing on the wisdom of the Eagles, we need to recognize that Geopolitics is like the “Hotel California”—you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. The world will continue to turn; someone or some group of someones will play a leading role in the evolving global order. As a major power, one can choose to play an active role in shaping that order in consultation with friends and allies, or one can choose to isolate oneself and risk being made to submit to the decisions of others. Choosing not to engage is a form of engagement.
Every administration has a finish line, an end, as does every individual life. There is, however, no finish line in the lives of nations (or at least we hope there isn’t). Any administration, no matter how radical it may style itself to be in breaking with the past, is but a chapter in a longer story, and should remember that it has a responsibility not only to its base in the present, but to the future. Donald Trump needs to remember that. More importantly, so do we.