Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November, a product of surging anti-establishment populism, has unnerved the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and its liberal-internationalist cousins abroad. They fear that under Trump’s leadership the United States will disengage from the global leadership role it has played since 1945. And then, they solemnly warn, the prevailing post-World War II international order—Pax Americana, based on America’s preeminent position upon the globe—will unravel.
On the other hand, Trump’s triumph raised hopes among foreign-policy realists that he might engineer a major overhaul of U.S grand strategy, shifting the United States from its decades-long aim of pursuing global hegemony to a less interventionist strategy of geopolitical restraint and “offshore balancing’’ (relying on other states to maintain regional balances of power).
Both camps are wrong. As the new administration took shape and key foreign-policy players emerged, it seemed clear that neither the establishment’s fears nor the realists’ hopes will be realized during the Trump administration. Foreign-policy continuity, not a new direction, is the most likely approach of the new government, at least for the short term. Character issues or domestic politics may render some of Trump’s choices for top national-security posts controversial. But in foreign-policy terms they are products of the establishment just as much as their post-1945 predecessors were—hawkish, internationalist, interventionist.
Still, it would be wrong to conclude that Trump has had no impact on the nation’s foreign-policy debate. During the campaign, he promised to “Make America Great Again.” Whether intended or not, the implication was that America had declined in important aspects: economically, culturally, and geopolitically. This is what realists have been arguing for years. The big forces of history, in this view, are reordering international politics, and American grand strategy must adjust accordingly. The question of grand-strategic adjustment is fundamental and hence will be the subject of ever more intensive debate in coming years.
This debate likely will be reminiscent of those various “great debates” about the U.S. world role that have erupted from time to time since America emerged as a great power at the beginning of the 20th century. These included the debates over whether to: annex the Philippines after the Spanish-American War; intervene in World War I (and, later, whether it had been a good idea); counter the rise of Germany and Japan as war engulfed Europe and threatened Asian stability; abandon the traditional U.S. policy of abjuring alliances in favor of constructing NATO; and fight in Vietnam and, if so, how to go about it. The nature of America’s role in the Middle East has been the focus of another such great debate. Today we are poised on the edge of another great debate over such questions as: can the United States sustain its post-World War II strategy of global primacy? And, if not, what should be America’s next grand strategy?
That this is a momentous time is reflected in the fact that the country’s current grand strategy has guided its foreign relations for more than 70 years. Even as World War II gripped the globe, U.S. policy planners already were formulating U.S. postwar policy objectives. Washington’s overriding goal was to ensure that the United States enjoyed a preponderance of power in the postwar world; that is, the U.S. sought an imbalance of power in its favor. American policymakers intended to use U.S. dominance to construct a stable international order—that so-called Pax Americana—that would ensure peace and prosperity. The prevailing distribution of military and economic power in the international system was propitious. Indeed, 1945 was America’s first unipolar moment. The United States alone accounted for half of the world’s manufacturing output, possessed two-thirds of the world’s gold and foreign-exchange reserves, enjoyed a capacity to project more power more widely than any other nation; and, of course, held a crucial monopoly on atomic weapons. The United States leveraged these instruments of overwhelming power to build the military, economic, and institutional architecture of Pax Americana.
At the dawn of this new era, only the Soviet Union stood between the United States and uncontested global dominance. Then the Soviet collapse in 1989–91 removed that obstacle and unleashed a tsunami of American triumphalism, which was epitomized by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and Thomas Friedman’s celebration of peaceful “globalization” underwritten by America’s “benign hegemony.” Most American strategic thinkers believed the Cold War’s end heralded a new era of international politics in which no geopolitical or ideological foe to the United States’ global preeminence could emerge. Simply put, most U.S. policymakers and foreign-policy scholars believed the Cold War’s end had ushered in the start of a long era of peace based on the spread of democracy, globalization, and international institutions— backstopped, of course, by the United States’ hard military and economic power.
When America’s superpower rival imploded, the country could have chosen to scale back the expansive (and expensive) security and leadership burdens it had borne during the Cold War. As political scientist Jeanne Kirkpatrick put it, the United States could have again become a “normal country in a normal time.” But this did not happen. Rather than triggering a re-examination of the strategy of primacy, the Cold War’s end served to reaffirm it. Instead of a grand-strategic downsizing, America’s overseas commitments expanded both geopolitically (NATO expansion, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf) and ideologically (the Clinton administration’s strategy of “engagement and enlargement,” and the George W. Bush administration’s aim of transforming the Middle East and ending tyranny in our time).
Insisting on the imperative of “American leadership” (meaning, of course, primacy), the American foreign-policy establishment asserted that both the nation’s prosperity and international peace required active engagement abroad to spread America’s “universal” liberal values of democracy, human rights, and economic openness. (Has anyone in the foreign-policy establishment ever wondered why it is that, if our values are universal, the U.S. has to fight so many wars to get other people to accept them?) Seeing America as the world’s “indispensable nation,” U.S. policymakers believed the U.S. was obligated continually to flex its military muscles to preserve the liberal international order.
Events have demonstrated that the hopes fostered by post-Cold War triumphalism were illusory. America’s second unipolar moment has been replaced by China’s emergence as a peer competitor, the revival of Russian military power, and the European Union’s multiple crises (Greece, Brexit, economic stagnation, uncontrolled immigration from the Middle East and North Africa). Further, the United States has been unable to extricate itself from the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya dramatized the limits of liberal interventionism. Syria has demonstrated the hollowness of U.S. pretensions to reshape the Middle East. It is apparent today that there are very real limits to U.S. power. Yet in official Washington, and the broader foreign-policy establishment, faith in primacy remains unshaken, impervious to the erosion eating away at the foundation upon which America’s grand strategy of primacy was erected.
And then along came Donald Trump, probably the most unlikely presidential candidate in the country’s history. Without demonstrating any discernible depth of understanding of foreign policy, he pressed forward forcefully in breaking with the internationalist, interventionist worldview that had been advocated by the American foreign-policy establishment since 1945. Trump contrasted himself with his rival, Hillary Clinton, who supported the use of American military power in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Harking back to the period between the Fall of France and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, from June 1940 to December 1941, he vowed to follow an “America First” foreign policy by defining U.S. security interests narrowly, and keeping the United States out of overseas conflicts that did not directly affect American security.
Trump broadly outlined what his America First foreign policy would look like. First, he said he would improve U.S. relations with Russia. Second, he vowed to review the relevance of NATO, even casting doubt over whether the U.S. should honor its treaty commitment to defend the Baltic States in the event they are attacked by Russia. Trump threatened to force South Korea and Japan to pay more for their own defense. He even linked the “burden sharing” issue with the question of whether South Korea and Japan should be allowed to continue sheltering beneath the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” Trump stated during the campaign that they should not and instead should acquire their own nuclear arsenals for protection against North Korea. With the exception of trade policy—notably his plan to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports—Trump had little to say about the great power dimension of the Sino-American relationship.
On the Middle East, Trump made two points during the campaign. First, ignoring the fact that President Obama was largely successful in keeping the United States from being sucked into the Syrian quagmire, he attacked the Obama administration for failing to eradicate the Islamic State (ISIS). He said he would solve the problem, quickly, by “bombing the hell out of ISIS,” which the Obama administration already had been doing for two years. (Trump also suggested that cooperation between the United States and Russia could accelerate the Islamic State’s defeat.) Second, he denounced the Iran nuclear accord, promising to work to dismantle it and adopt a more pugnacious stance toward Tehran.
Taken together, Trump’s campaign statements about foreign policy did not add up to a new vision of American grand strategy. At best, they were impressionistic, a series of hints at what a Trump administration might do rather than a road map. Moreover, some of Trump’s foreign-policy views were contradictory. How, for example, could he lead America out of the Middle East quagmire while demonstrating unrestrained bellicosity toward Iran?
But whatever Trump’s jumbled foreign-policy pronouncements will add up to in policy terms, they did not signal a “neo-isolationist” foreign policy, as many of his critics have alleged. It’s always wise to be skeptical when the “I” word is injected into debates about U.S. grand strategy; usually it signals a desire to stifle debate. In fact, America has always been deeply connected with the world economically and culturally, even when it chose to remain aloof from great power conflicts abroad.
So what really is meant when the term “isolationism” is invoked with respect to a specific set of grand-strategic proposals? University of Pennsylvania diplomatic historian Walter A. McDougall expressed it well in his book, Promised Land, Crusader State. Isolationism is a term of opprobrium—“a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.” It’s still true today, when America Firsters of 1940–41 are lumped with Charles A. Lindbergh as either overt Nazi sympathizers or as fellow travelers. Susan Dunn’s 2014 book, 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, and Hitler—The Election Amid the Storm, is an especially egregious example. In fact, most of those who believed in non-intervention in the European war in 1940–41 had sound strategic and national-interest reasons for doing so. Britain and the Soviet Union (with the help of U.S. economic support and war materiel) were tying down Nazi Germany. At the same time, geography and rapidly increasing American naval and air power effectively insulated North America from German attack. Of course, the received wisdom is that the United States was drawn into World War II because its “isolationist” policy failed. This is false. In fact, the U.S. became involved in the war because it was not isolationist enough. Far from taking a hands-off stance in 1940–41, the United States actively opposed Japan’s ambitions to become the hegemon of its own region, East Asia. American policymakers knew full well that U.S. policies toward Japan—including a crippling oil embargo—could culminate in war between the United States and Japan. Washington nevertheless deliberately ran that risk. The result was Pearl Harbor. Thus can we see that sometimes, despite the pejorative name-calling, non-interventionism (restraint, offshore balancing, even neo-isolationism, if one wants to call it that) can be a good grand strategy that keeps the United States from spilling its blood and treasure in otherwise avoidable wars of choice.
Will this be Trump’s outlook and strategy? Apparently perceiving that America’s “unipolar moment” is a thing of the past, he offered a tantalizing hint that America’s “neo-isolationist moment” might be just around the corner. Specifically, his campaign comments at the least suggested that a Trump administration would recalibrate America’s alliances in Europe and East Asia, pursue rapprochement with Moscow, and curtail U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
But this shouldn’t be overblown. True, Trump’s advisers want America’s European and East Asian partners to pick up more of the slack with respect to defense. But this is a purely transactional concern—over who pays how much for defense. America’s foreign-policy establishment has been wrestling with burden-sharing issues for decades, dating back almost to NATO’s beginning. And Trump’s foreign-policy team doesn’t include people who seem inclined to fundamentally rethink America’s alliance commitments. Nor is there any indication that Trump’s senior appointees share his desire to heal Washington’s relations with the Kremlin. On the contrary, they view Russia through a Cold War lens. Nor is there any reason to believe that any of his senior appointees will pick up on Trump’s suggestion that South Korea and Japan should provide their own nuclear deterrence instead of relying on the American nuclear shield.
Far from disengaging from the Mideast quicksand, many key members of the Trump national-security team seem bent on plunging the United States even more deeply into the region. Indeed some, such as National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn, are champing at the bit to trigger a civilizational war between the United States and the Islamic world. By the same token, there is no sign that any senior Trump appointee dissents from the idea of American exceptionalism, or questions whether the United States is the world’s “indispensable nation.” In other words, the senior foreign- and defense-policy figures in the Trump administration are very much in the mold of the foreign-policy establishment types who have staffed every administration since FDR’s.
There is a big reason why America’s grand strategy under Trump probably will not break in any significant way with the establishment’s post-1945 foreign-policy consensus. Even if Trump wanted to redirect U.S. grand strategy along the lines of offshore balancing and restraint, it would be nearly impossible for him to do so. Policy is decided by personnel, and there just aren’t enough qualified non-interventionist realists to fill the key positions at the assistant secretary, deputy assistant secretary, and NSC staff levels of an administration.
For the non-interventionist realists to actually change America’s grand strategic course, they must undertake the “long march through the institutions.” This means developing a cadre of future foreign-policy officials who can think innovatively about U.S. grand strategy and challenge the foreign-policy establishment’s foundational assumptions about America’s world role. The Charles Koch Foundation is trying to help build a new generation of grand strategic innovators by supporting the creation of excellence in grand strategy at top U.S. universities. But it will take time before a “counter-establishment” of offshore balancers and restrainers can emerge to staff and help guide an administration committed to adopting a realist, non-interventionist grand strategy.
Meanwhile, big forces of history are re-ordering international politics, and American grand strategy eventually will have to adjust accordingly. The great debate is coming, forced into the consciousness of America’s foreign-policy elites by big events and developments around the globe.
Trump’s electoral victory elicited great anguish among the liberal foreign-policy elites, both here and abroad. Leading voices—Robert Kagan, Gideon Rachman, Philip Stephens—have voiced fears that Trump’s presumed “neo-isolationism” will cause the crackup of the “rules-based international order.’’ Indeed, Pax Americana is in trouble, but not because of Donald Trump. American primacy is in question because the foundations of the international order that the U.S. constructed after World War II are weakening. In macro-historical terms, the geopolitical and economic centers of gravity in the international system are shifting from the Euro-Atlantic world to Asia. New challengers to American power are rising (or, in fact, have risen), and old rivals are resurgent. These factors, not Trump, are generating doubt about the staying power of the post-1945 liberal-international order.
The United States and the international system are approaching an inflection point. The unavoidable question now is whether America can afford a grand strategy of primacy, and also whether public support for that strategy can be sustained. Indeed, there are increasing signs that Americans are suffering from hegemony fatigue. As the Financial Times reported, a recent poll by Survey Sampling International, the Center for the National Interest, and the Charles Koch Institute found widespread public opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad. Uncertainty about primacy bubbled to the surface during the 2016 presidential campaign, and also is receiving increased attention from the community of scholars in the field of security studies.
It isn’t clear just how the Trump administration will respond to these tectonic economic and geopolitical shifts that are weakening primacy’s foundations. First impressions based on Trump’s team-building are not encouraging. But administrations—and presidents—change and evolve. And there are good reasons for the United States to rethink its alliance relationships that are more fundamental than mere burden sharing. Far from providing stability, U.S. alliances in Europe and East Asia are potential causes of instability—and even war (potentially nuclear). U.S. grand strategy needs to aim at burden shifting, not burden sharing—and, even more important, risk shifting. Those nations with the highest security stake should bear the greatest strategic risk, not the U.S. Instead of worrying about a trade war with China, Washington should be fearing a real war. The power dynamics in East Asia resemble all too closely those that culminated in the catastrophe of 1914. How will the United States accommodate the reality of China’s rise? If Trump’s decision to speak to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen by phone is any indication, Trump could usher in a tumultuous era in Sino-American relations that dramatically heightens the risk of conflict. Rather than thinking of international politics as a morality play, the U.S. should relearn some of the fundamentals of great power politics, such as spheres of influence and the importance of power balance. If the United States wants to repair its relationship with Russia—and it should—Washington not only needs to re-examine its lingering Cold War narratives but also to recognize that, like all great powers, Russia long has had security interests in the regions that are geographically proximate to it. Finally, the U.S. needs to extricate itself from its disastrous involvements in the Middle East. That region is afflicted with its own serious maladies, and it is far beyond America’s capacity to fix them.
Perhaps President Trump eventually will follow his “neo-isolationist” instincts (if, indeed, he has them) and become a grand-strategic change agent. As leading realist scholars of American foreign policy—George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Robert Osgood, Robert W. Tucker, and Kenneth Waltz—understood, the U.S. is safer when it follows a prudent, restrained grand strategy rather than an interventionist one. One can hope that eventually the Trump administration comes to understand this. In a world where the foundations of Pax Americana are crumbling, U.S. leaders must chart the path forward in a world that no longer is dominated by unrestrained American power.
Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security, at Texas A & M University.