Trump is Not a Transformative Foreign Policy President
If you have been paying attention to allies and critics of President Donald Trump, the conduct of American foreign policy has been going through historic transformation under the current disrupter occupying the White House. And from now on, nothing will be the same!
To paraphrase the late Secretary of State Dean Acheson, we are all present at the destruction of an old international order—and the creation of, well, of something new, and whether that is good or bad news, depends very much on your point of view.
In a way, Trump’s fans and bashers are both applying their wishful thinking as they try to make sense of, and lend intellectual credibility to, Trump’s handling or mishandling of U.S. foreign policy. They suggest that it is supposedly driven by a “doctrine” or some grand-strategy and an attempt to challenge the way his predecessors in office approached the international system.
Never mind that other presidents, even those who ran for office championing a set of coherent foreign policy principles, ended up muddling through after entering office, as they were forced to suddenly react to international crises, or to face political pressures at home and abroad. They eventually had to operate contrary to the earlier pledges they had made: not to intervene in world wars (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt), to punish the “butchers in Beijing” (Bill Clinton), to conduct an “humble foreign policy” (George W. Bush) or to end U.S. military interventions in the Middle East and “re-start” U.S.-Russia relationship (Barack Obama).
Yet intellectuals and ideologues who tend to conceptualize and cherish philosophies that explain how the world works, continue to insist that what drives the foreign policy of this or that president is a great idea, some comprehensible view the world, which happens to align with, or runs contrary to theirs.
Indeed, if you believe that knowledge and the philosophical reasoning that produces it should be the basis for action, you are reluctant to treat policymaking as an evolutionary process and prefer to see the president playing a historic role in the great war of ideas. You do not buy into the image of the president as an empiricist—which in fact fits very much with the way the American government with its system of checks and balances works.
That explains why notwithstanding a reality in which President Trump, who even his fans admit does not read a lot of books, has certainly very little interest in abstract ideas, and has been engaged in the last three years in managing foreign policy by trial and error, not a day passes without a pundit explaining that the former real-estate tycoon and reality television host is promoting a certain vision of the world. They assume that when he attacks “globalism” or advocates “nationalism,” for example, he actually understands what he is talking about.
The result is the contrived debate between so-called nationalists who claim Trump as their hero, the leader committed to preserving the nation-state that is supposedly disappearing—tell that to the Catalonians, Scots, Kurds and Palestinians who want to create new nation-states—and the so-called globalists who depict him as a villain, warning that Trump is threatening the free flow of products, money and ideas, just when his company is planning to expand its hotel chain into another country.
There is an element of intellectual masturbation in this never-ending debate that pits members of one elite group against the other who seems to be busy role-playing games in make-believe universes.
Hence, jet-setter Stephen Bannon, a millionaire and a recipient of a Harvard MBA, spending more time schmoozing with his pals in cafés in Paris and London than with blue-collar workers in West Virginia, as he blasts the Davos Man and portrays himself as Trump’s philosopher and telling the Italians—who are pleading with a Chinese for new investments—to prepare for a new Cold War with Beijing that the economic nationalist from Washington is supposedly leading.
No less amusing is the anti-Trump hysteria among the defenders of the “post-1945 liberal international order,” with their terrifying scenarios in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, are no longer with us (all you have to do is pay a visit to the headquarters of these multilateral organizations to find out that all is well there, and that their well-paid officials and employees are doing just fine. Thank you!)
And guess what? Contrary to the fantasies concocted by Bannon and Company, or to the horror movies produced liberal internationalists, the “nationalists” in Poland, Hungary and Italy want to remain in the EU while NATO is expanding, with the Trump Administration strengthening its military cooperation with Poland. Isolationism, indeed!
One of the reasons for why the competing narrative of nationalists vs. globalists has been taken seriously has been the somewhat inflammatory rhetoric employed by Trump. His demand that NATO members increase their defence budgets—echoed in the past by Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton—sounds like he is asking America’s European allies for divorce. Meanwhile, his reasonable proposals to reassess and reform free trade accords like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) always lead to stark portrayals in the press suggesting an end of the free trade system.
At the same time, President Trump’s more assertive U.S. posture in the negotiations with China reflect the growing consensus in Washington—which enjoys bilateral support —that the status-quo in the economic relationship between China and the United States is not viable anymore. One can assume that a President Hillary Clinton would have pursued a very similar, perhaps more nuanced, China policy.
But there is certainly nothing very “transformative” about the trade battles Trump is conducting with China, which are not very different from the trade clashes with Japan under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Clinton, or the decision by President Richard Nixon to leave the gold standard. Neither of these moves led to a global economic meltdown or marked the end of the world, which is the impression you get these days reading the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Not unlike his three predecessors in office, Trump is just another transitional foreign policy president, and actually much less transformative than President Clinton with his decision to welcome China into the global economic system and President Bush and his long and costly wars in the Middle East. Those policies had more impact on the shape of the international system and on the U.S. position in it than anything that President Trump has done until now.
If anything, President Trump may be the ultimate pragmatic president, trying to re-adjust American interests to the geo-strategic and geo-economic realities that have been changing the end of the Cold War and remain still a work in progress.
Hence he plays a game with chicken with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and tries to reach a deal with Pyongyang that would freeze its nuclear program and avoid a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps even lead to the unification of the two Koreas.
Trump’s approach on other foreign policy fronts is not different: Trying to open a detente with Russia while abrogating a nuclear deal with it. Threatening to annihilate Iran while promoting a new nuclear agreement with Tehran. Figuring out if and when to revive the Israeli-Palestinian process. Experimenting with several strategies in response to the political and economic unrest in Venezuela.
So do these moves prove that Trump is a hawk or a dove? A warmonger or a peacemaker? A nationalist or a globalist? Probably neither of the above which is why at the end he would probably disappoint all the foreign policy doctrinaires.
Leon Hadar, a TAC contributing editor, writes regularly for National Interest Online, Asia Times, Haaretz, and Quillette.