Home / Articles / Obama and Trump: Foreign Policy Opposites or Twins?
Traitors in ancient Rome were punished with damnatio memoriae or “condemnation of memory,” where they were literally scrubbed from history, their names obliterated from the records, their statues smashed into the dust. Donald Trump has sought to perform a kind of damnatio memoriae on Obama’s foreign policy, undoing his work, piece by piece, from the Paris climate deal to the Iran nuclear deal. Last year, a U.S. diplomat in the embassy in London gave a speech to British students about the importance of the transatlantic alliance and was subsequently fired. His crime was to mention Obama by name. The “adults in the room,” or establishment officials, were supposed to guide Trump toward traditional U.S. diplomatic goals, but the president has dismissed them from his presence, leaving Trump seemingly free to demolish Obama’s legacy.
Surprisingly, however, there’s significant continuity between the Obama and Trump foreign policy doctrines because of something that is much more difficult for Trump to ignore—geopolitics. Obama and Trump are like two siblings who deeply dislike each other, and seem opposites in every possible way, and yet nevertheless share many of the same genes.
Whereas Obama spoke eloquently about the importance of the American creed, or the founding ideals of human rights and democracy, Trump may be the first president to openly admire foreign despots.
Whereas Obama traveled to Cairo in 2009 in pursuit of a “new beginning” between the United States and Muslims around the world, Trump wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Once in office, Trump’s animus extended to virtually all refugees: October 2019 was the first month in recorded U.S. history when zero refugees were resettled in the United States.
Obama and Trump’s opposing personal beliefs reflect a post-Cold War dynamic where Americans tend to elect a president who is the reverse of the last guy: the empathetic Clinton replaced the patrician Bush senior; the evangelical Bush junior replaced the lusty Clinton; the scholarly Obama replaced the C-student, Bush junior; the bombastic businessman Trump replaced the Ivory Tower Obama.
Those who sought continuity in U.S. foreign policy from Obama to Trump pinned their hopes on the “Blob,” or the diplomatic establishment, checking Trump’s more illiberal instincts. In the 1958 movie The Blob, an alien entity arrives on earth, gobbles up the good people of Phoenixville and Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and grows and grows and grows. In the same vein, the U.S. national security state can seem like a virtually indestructible creature that absorbs its enemies, and rolls on, regardless of the president’s preferences. After all, the upper ranks of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, don’t share Trump’s kinship for dictators, or his scorn toward alliances, free trade, and human rights. In 2018, a senior official in the Trump administration wrote an “anonymous” Op-Ed in the New York Times, and confidently promised that the “steady state” had things in hand. For instance, when Moscow allegedly poisoned a former Russian spy in Britain, Trump opposed expelling Russian spies as punishment, but his foreign policy team pushed back and got its way.
In the 1958 movie, however, the Blob loses. It turns out that the alien has a fatal weakness. “That’s why it didn’t come in the ice box after us,” says Steve McQueen’s character. “It can’t stand cold!” The foreign policy Blob also has a deep flaw: senior bureaucrats serve at the whim of the president, who can dismiss them from the room and label them swamp-creatures.
Mattis tried to guide the president but that didn’t work, and the defense secretary resigned over Syria policy. McMaster tried to teach the president about the global order, but that didn’t work and Trump was a bored student. National Security Advisor John Bolton (who replaced McMaster) tried to stop Trump from negotiating with America’s enemies but that didn’t work, and Bolton was fired in a dispute over hosting Taliban leaders at Camp David (Bolton said he resigned).
The establishment has now waved the white flag of surrender. The “anonymous” author recently published a book, A Warning, which said the steady state had failed to restrain the president, and the voters and Congress would need to step in.
With the Blob frozen out of decision-making, Trump is seemingly poised to destroy Obama’s legacy.
Trump Vs. Geopolitics
It would be a mistake, however, to see the Trump doctrine as a negation of the Obama doctrine. Trump is, in many respects, a man of his time, and there is striking continuity between Obama and Trump. The reason is not the Blob, but geopolitics. Trump can dismiss his advisors like a peevish child monarch, but he can’t so easily ignore the shifting international tectonic plates.
The first geopolitical force driving the Trump doctrine is the absence of a peer competitor. In certain eras of U.S. history, like World War II and the early Cold War, there was an obvious great enemy such as Nazi Germany or the USSR. These are times of domestic unity where Americans rallied behind the cause, for example, the “Cold War consensus” of the 1950s. Americans also picked experienced presidents with long resumes in Washington, like FDR, Truman, Ike, and JFK. And Washington built global institutions and alliances to defeat the opponent and protect the peace, like the UN and NATO in the 1940s.
In other periods of U.S. history, like the 1920s or the post-Cold War era, there are no compelling threats. These tend to be eras of domestic disunity, for example, the extreme economic inequality and surging Ku Klux Klan of the Gatsby age, or the hyper-partisanship of the 1990s and beyond. In the post-Cold War era, Americans also preferred “outsider” presidents who challenged the system: after 1992, the only president who had any experience in Washington before taking the oath of office was Obama—and he had spent just two years in the Senate.
Eras of safety are periods when Americans retreat from global engagement and question the value of alliances and institutions. Amidst the security of the 1920s, Americans abandoned the League of Nations. During the post-Cold War era, George W. Bush pursued a unilateral strategy, including the invasion of Iraq without UN approval. Obama was much more attached than Bush to the value of multilateralism, but even Obama embraced drone strikes and criticized allied “free-riding” during the 2011 Libya War. Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said NATO faced a “dismal” future unless the Europeans did more to protect their own security.
Trump is a classic post-Cold War president: an outsider who governs a divided country and is critical of foreign alliances. With no mighty adversary to focus minds, foreign policy is often subsumed into domestic politics. Many Republicans see the real enemy as the Democrats (and they return the favor). Trump happily enlists foreigners as confederates to tackle the domestic peril, asking Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Biden family. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. president during the Cold War colluding so explicitly with the Soviets for help at home—or being so readily forgiven by their own party. In a sense, therefore, Trump is the child of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The second aspect of geopolitics that shapes the Trump doctrine is the emergence of China as a potential new peer adversary. From 2004-2018, China’s share of global GDP more than tripled, from 4.5% to 16.1%, whereas the U.S. share fell from 27.9% to 23.3%. China could overtake the United States in defense spending as early as the 2030s. The White House’s “National Security Strategy” labeled China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist power.”
The global power transition would profoundly shape the terrain for any president, regardless of ideology. Obama’s “Asia pivot,” for example, called for beefing up the U.S. diplomatic and military presence in the region to manage Beijing’s newfound strength. China’s rise reinforces some of Trump’s instincts, for example, his willingness to engage in a trade war. But the arrival of a new great power adversary also overwhelms other Trump preferences. Despite the president’s skepticism about foreign aid, in 2018, he signed into law the BUILD Act, bipartisan legislation that created a new foreign aid agency with $60 billion in funding to encourage U.S. investment in developing nations. The explanation for Trump’s pivot was China: the BUILD Act was America’s response to China’s international development program, the Belt and Road Initiative. Looking ahead, geopolitics will strongly pressure the United States to engage in alliance-building in East Asia, despite Trump’s wariness about coalitions.
The third aspect of geopolitics that shapes the Trump doctrine is the shadow of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leaders learn from history—but not all history. They learn more from past failures rather than successes, and from recent events rather than distant events. The most powerful source of learning is therefore the last big failure. And in today’s politics, that is the twin debacles is Iraq and Afghanistan.
The heart of the Obama doctrine was no more Iraq wars. For example, the Libya War in 2011 was designed to be the opposite of Iraq, with UN and Arab League backing, the United States taking a backseat role, and no nation-building. (Ironically, Libya ended up being similar to Iraq in its outcome, with regime change leading to the collapse of civil order).
Iraq and Afghanistan are also at the heart of the Trump doctrine. In some ways, Trump learned different lessons from Obama. Whereas Obama concluded that the United States should use force with restraint and allied support, Trump thought that Washington should focus on killing bad guys without worrying too much about the laws of war. Other lessons were broadly shared. Both presidents determined that nation-building is a bad idea. Both presidents pursued a narrative of extrication from forever wars in the Middle East. Both pursued the same basic strategy in the war against ISIS, backing Syrian Kurdish fighters with Special Forces and airpower. During the Obama administration, ISIS lost half its territory; during the Trump administration, ISIS lost the other half. And both presidents believed that Iraq meant the system was broken. Obama wanted to change the “Washington Playbook,” whereas Trump railed against “a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” It wasn’t Trump who named the foreign policy establishment the “Blob,” it was Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes—and he included Hillary Clinton and other supporters of the Iraq War in the ranks of the diplomatic establishment.
Fire and Fury
Two things are clear. The first is that Trump is utterly unique and the apotheosis of Obama. The second is that Trump and Obama are both creatures of the age, governing in an era of security and social division under the shadow of Iraq.
If the Trump doctrine is a fusion of Trump’s personality and geopolitics, what is the result? One effect is heightened incoherence. Without a clear enemy, the United States has struggled for decades to create a lucid grand strategy to replace Cold War era containment. But Trump’s personality has put incoherence on steroids. The president does not seem to have read his own National Security Strategy. He withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, while also questioning the value of sanctions against Russia, and maintaining a strange personal amour for Vladimir Putin. There is no coherent policy toward rogue regimes: Trump undermined the nuclear deal with Iran while seeking a parallel agreement with Pyongyang. Trump decided to strike Iran after a U.S. drone was shot down, then backed away minutes before the attack and said he wanted to avoid war, and then threatened, “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.” On North Korea, Trump warned of “fire and fury” before saying he was “in love” with the North Korean dictator.
The combination of geopolitics and Trump’s personality also worsens American short-termism in foreign policy. The lack of a clear adversary encourages the United States to make kneejerk responses to newfound threats, or set policy by the electoral calendar or the 24-hour news cycle, rather than pursue the kind of long-game strategy seen in World War II or the Cold War. In recent decades, for example, Washington sought to topple dictators without considering the consequences, creating numerous power vacuums that aided adversaries like Iran. In turn, the disastrous experience in Iraq deepened American short-termism by removing any interest in prolonged attempts to stabilize foreign states.
Trump worsens this tendency with a kinetic vision of war that focuses on battle and firepower, rather than politics. Trump pushed for greater spending on big-ticket hardware like aircraft carriers, while cutting expenditure on the State Department and peacekeeping capabilities, which are central to consolidating foreign policy success. Trump used the world’s largest conventional bomb—the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB)—on an ISIS complex in eastern Afghanistan, without considering that the use of a $16 million bomb to little or no strategic effect is an act of self-harm. Following the suppression of the physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Trump tried to hastily remove American soldiers from northern Syria, abandoning America’s Kurdish ally, and enabling the expansion of Turkish, Russian, and Syrian regime influence.
Obama and Trump are like two rival sculptors who end up working on the same statue. Trump can’t obliterate Obama’s legacy without destroying his own.