On a chilly January morning nearly 16 years ago, my Times colleague Frank Bruni and I went to visit the president-elect of the United States at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. He made us coffee while his dogs barked, and said: “I just don’t understand what Gore was talking about,” referring to the campaign debate about whether the United States should be a “nation builder.” He would not fall into the trap of seeking to change the world, he vowed, when there was so much to do at home.
Less than a year later George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, and began some of the grandest, and least successful, American experiments in shaping other societies since the Marshall Plan after World War II. By the time of his second Inaugural Address, Bush was fully converted — he saw America as on a mission. “It is the policy of the United States,” he declared, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” There was no prioritizing of American national interests. “When you stand for your liberty,” he promised, “we will stand with you.”
Today as another president-elect prepares to take office, he sounds like the George W. Bush who made us coffee in his country kitchen that morning. In two interviews earlier this year, Donald J. Trump told me and Maggie Haberman that he, too, rejected nation-building. He was about “America first,” he said, and that meant sending few American troops abroad except to kill terrorists, and a new, transactional relationship with longtime allies to assure they pay their fair share. Iraq was a “disaster,” which, he said, Barack Obama had worsened.