Barry Posen offers a helpful description for Trump’s foreign policy:
Yet Trump has deviated from traditional U.S. grand strategy in one important respect. Since at least the end of the Cold War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued a grand strategy that scholars have called “liberal hegemony.” It was hegemonic in that the United States aimed to be the most powerful state in the world by a wide margin, and it was liberal in that the United States sought to transform the international system into a rules-based order regulated by multilateral institutions and transform other states into market-oriented democracies freely trading with one another. Breaking with his predecessors, Trump has taken much of the “liberal” out of “liberal hegemony.” He still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.
Posen hits on something important here, and it helps explain why Trump’s approach to the world appalls both liberal internationalists and advocates of restraint. The former recoil from Trump’s zero-sum positions and enthusiastic embrace of authoritarian regimes, and the latter reject his support for the open-ended policing and meddling around the world that drive up the costs of our foreign policy. Restrainers would probably not care about giving up on democracy promotion if it implied a cessation of endless wars of choice and toxic entanglements with bad clients, but dropping the pretense of being interested in improving political conditions abroad has just made these other things easier to perpetuate. Trump doesn’t bother claiming that his foreign policy is intended to improve other countries at all, but that isn’t going to stop the U.S. from policing many of them indefinitely anyway.
“Illiberal hegemony” is the worst of both worlds. It combines the many costs of pursuing hegemony with higher costs of a damaged reputation and the trashing of commitments previously made in good faith. Illiberal hegemony still generates the same resentments and hostility as its liberal version, but it also stokes more distrust and loathing among our allies. It keeps getting the U.S. involved in wars it doesn’t need to fight, and it shows even more blatant disregard for the lives of foreign civilians than before. The definition of our interests remains just as expansive and all-encompassing as ever, and there is even less respect for the requirements of international law.
None of this has anything in common with restraint. As Posen says at one point, Trump’s foreign policy is “decidedly unrestrained.” Trump doesn’t do the things needed to encourage burden-sharing. On the contrary, he inundates our military with funds and gives other governments no incentive to do more for their own security. Trump is always claiming that other countries take advantage of the U.S. and the U.S. wastes its resources overseas, but when it comes to the most expensive and consequential commitments–foreign wars and security commitments–Trump is happy to be the biggest sucker of all. Instead of demanding more from allies and clients as his supporters might have expected him to do, Trump is far more indulgent of their worst habits so long as they flatter him and endorse his policies. Because he is a militarist and hegemonist, he can’t imagine reducing the size of the military or eliminating any of its missions, and instead supports more and more commitments abroad. Rather than letting regional allies take the lead in handling their own security problems, he wants the U.S. to dictate the terms of the solution.