Misunderstanding Trump’s Foreign Policy
Hal Brands makes a very strange assertion in his latest column:
The way to establish a fresh, constructive Democratic identity on foreign policy in the age of Trump, a growing number of party leaders and progressive writers seem to have concluded, is to embrace his basic approach to global affairs.
Brands’ claim is breathtakingly wrong, but it serves as a useful starting point for making an accurate assessment of what Trump’s foreign policy is and is not. He claims that part of the Democratic Party is seeking “to out-Trump Trump on global affairs,” but he bases this on a total misunderstanding of Trump’s position and a similar failure to understand the president’s progressive critics. The misunderstanding of Trump might have been forgivable three years ago when he was just starting out as a candidate and his views were not well-known, but after a year and a half of the Trump presidency there is no excuse for it.
Brands cites two recent pieces by Peter Beinart and Daniel Bessner that outline foreign policy alternatives for Democrats and democratic socialists respectively. He might have also cited Daniel Nexon’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, but he neglected to include it in his discussion. One will look in vain for significant overlap between what Trump has actually done as president and what these authors recommend doing.
According to Brands, “the ideas at the heart of Trump’s critique of U.S. foreign policy are also the ideas at the heart of the progressive critique,” but that’s also simply not true. Trump’s worldview is dominated by a zero-sum view of international relations in which the U.S. is constantly being ripped off by everyone. The progressive critics he cites specifically reject that assumption and emphasize the importance of international institutions. Trump is a militarist by instinct and as a matter of policy, and his progressive critics repudiate that as well. Trump’s critique of past U.S. foreign policy boils down to complaining that other countries don’t pay us for protection and that the U.S. doesn’t plunder resources from the countries it invades. This is not, to put it mildly, what progressives consider to be wrong with U.S. foreign policy.
The key failing in Brands’ column is that he buys into the falsehood that Trump is in favor of “global retreat,” and so he worries that both parties will soon be led by candidates advocating for that. For one thing, there has been no “retreat” under Trump, and everything he has done since taking office has been to mire the U.S. more deeply in the multiple wars he inherited. For another, progressives aren’t calling for a “retreat” from international engagement, either. They are opposed to certain aggressive and destructive policies, but they don’t eschew engagement and cooperation with other states. On the contrary, they are advocating for more of that while rejecting the militarism that Trump embraces. Indeed, Bessner anticipates Brands’ silly criticism and explicitly says, “None of this means the United States should retreat from the world.”
Brands links to the Beinart and Bessner pieces, but it seems clear that he hasn’t paid much attention to what they said. For example, Bessner recommends that “socialist politicians should push to reassert Congress’s long-abdicated role in declaring war, encourage more active oversight of the military and create bodies that make national security information available to the public.” Obviously this is not a case of “out-Trumping Trump.” Trump has been presiding over illegal, authorized wars in Syria and Yemen since he took office, and he has shown no interest in restoring Congress’ role in matters of war or in improving oversight and transparency. Bessner goes on to demand accountability for foreign policy failure: “A system that does not punish poor foreign-policy making is a system doomed to repeat its mistakes.” I submit to you that a president who picks John Bolton of all people as his National Security Advisor doesn’t care about bringing more accountability to our foreign policy. Bessner goes further still and says the left “should demand that those who violated domestic or international law see justice, even if that means prosecuting them.” Trump not only wouldn’t prosecute war criminals, but he also has no problem enabling foreign governments in their war crimes and proposing that U.S. forces commit them. Bessner calls for reducing America’s military footprint abroad, and Trump entertains putting in a new, unnecessary permanent base in Poland. Bessner calls for threat deflation, and meanwhile Trump is busy hyping threats from Iran, North Korea, and even Venezuela when it suits him. Perhaps the most obvious and glaring disagreement with Trump is in Bessner’s section on internationalism. He writes:
America should engage with other countries through peaceful diplomacy. An important first step would be to embrace international treaties and institutions endorsed by most nations, like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the International Criminal Court. Moreover, policymakers should urge disarmament talks with all major powers and reinstate the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump is diametrically opposed to all of these agreements and institutions. Obviously his progressive critics share none of his objections to these things, and they regard his withdrawal from or hostility to them as major errors.
Brands’ argument doesn’t make sense in the abstract, and it doesn’t hold up when we consider specifics. Like Kagan’s whining about “isolationism” earlier this week, it mistakenly conflates a certain kind of hawkish meddling with internationalism itself. That is how Brands can describe someone openly endorsing internationalism as a critic of internationalism. This argument does nothing to make the audience more informed about the foreign policy of the president or his progressive critics, but instead tries to mislead readers into thinking that the two sides are fundamentally in agreement when they have practically nothing in common. To argue that progressives want to “out-Trump Trump” on foreign policy requires promoting unfounded caricatures of both. It is remarkably bad analysis, and it isn’t even very convincing spin.