Trying to make sense of Trump’s foreign policy

Marty Rochester

By Marty Rochester

Now in the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, we are still trying to figure out what to make of his foreign policy. 

Clearly, he is not a “liberal internationalist” like Jimmy Carter, of the sort who strongly values international law and organization and stresses the importance of multilateral cooperation and global institution-building. 

Given his constant mantra of America First, combining a flag-waving belief in American exceptionalism with a penchant for unilateralism, does that make him a neoconservative a la George W. Bush? Is he closer to being a realist such as Richard Nixon, with a pragmatic focus on the maintenance of American power in pursuit of United States national interests? Or does he defy the standard categories used to label foreign policy? 

I should be able to answer these questions. Yet, notwithstanding a decent resumé in the field of international relations, I find it hard to describe the Trump foreign policy.

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I am not alone.

Take, for example, Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In his book “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump,” he writes that “the central organizing principle of Trump’s statecraft has been the idea that America is systematically exploited as a result of the [post-World War II liberal world order] arrangements it has constructed — free trade pacts, alliances, international organizations — and that the country will only become prosperous and powerful again if it accepts that global affairs are fundamentally a zero-sum game” and returns to an emphasis on “nationalism and sovereignty.” 

But Brand also writes that Trump’s “bark has often been worse than his bite.” He has appointed “more moderate officials to key positions” (such as James Mattis, John Kelly and Nikki Haley), and on many issues his “policy has remained fairly close to the mainstream.” 

Brands reiterated these themes in the Edwin Fedder Lecture he gave at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Sept. 13, when he argued that every U.S. administration since 1945, despite some slight variations, has been committed to a “grand strategy” of global leadership that has proved successful over time, and that Donald Trump represents a break from this tradition in seemingly calling for disengagement. 

Brands acknowledged that Trump has rightly diagnosed some problems that previous administrations failed to address, namely the “free-riding” of many countries at American expense – for example China’s unfair trade practices and the refusal of our NATO allies to pay their fair share of the alliance’s common defense. Yet he questioned whether Trump has the diplomatic touch to improve these relations.

In contrast to Brands, professor Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, offers “Three Cheers for Trump’s Foreign Policy,” writing, approvingly, that the president’s “worldview is fundamentally realist in nature.”  

Schweller admires Trump for “shedding shibboleths and seeing international politics for what it is and has always been: a highly competitive realm populated by self-interested states concerned with their own security and economic welfare.” Schweller criticizes pre-Trump U.S. foreign policy for ignoring realist precepts; in Trump’s words, “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”

Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard, in the April 17 issue of Foreign Policy, asks, “Has Trump Become a Realist?” He is not entirely sure. 

Walt writes that “there’s reason to think Donald Trump is becoming a closet realist. … Admittedly it’s hard to credit him with having a coherent strategy of any kind, given the recurring contradictions in what he says. … But in the Middle East, at least, one could argue that Trump is trying — in his own ill-informed, impulsive and erratic way — to return to the strategy of offshore balancing that the  United States pursued more or less successfully in this region from 1945 to 1992. …  When the United States did intervene with military force, it kept its presence small and didn’t stay long. … [Trump’s approach] has been to let America’s local clients – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Syrian Kurdish militias, etc. – do more to counter various regional opponents (Iran, Syria and, increasingly, Russia), as well as nonstate troublemakers, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. … The United States stays out of the region and lets the locals duke it out.”

However, while Walt acknowledges that “Trump is appropriately wary of what he sees as open-ended military quagmires,” he writes that the president has failed “to reduce the U.S footprint in the greater Middle East. In addition to sending more troops to the unwinnable Afghan war, he has authorized the Defense Department to ramp up U.S. counterterrorism activities,” increasing American military presence by a third, to a total of 54,000 troops and support personnel. 

Walt also feels that Trump has violated the realpolitik playbook by giving unconditional support to Israel and Saudi Arabia without leaving the door open to improved relations with Iran should the latter behave more to our liking. 

Meanwhile, his policies seem to veer back and forth on NATO, Russia, China, North Korea and other relationships, alternating  tough talk one moment with more conciliatory language the next, without distinguishing much between our friends and foes. 

He has launched a trade war with our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, no less than China, threatening to pull out of the World Trade Organization, the intergovernmental organization created in 1995 to further global free trade. Then again, he also threatened to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before recently renegotiating and saving the treaty.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said that “Donald Trump’s United States is not isolationist.” Instead, he refers to “America and the Great Abdication” (The Atlantic, Dec. 28, 2017), “the voluntary relinquishing of power and responsibility. … Trump is the first post-World War II American president to view the burdens of world leadership as outweighing the benefits. As a result, the United States has changed from the principal preserver of order to a principal disrupter.”

However, Haass, in his latest book, “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” has pointed out that the liberal world order the United States created after World War II was already unraveling before Trump arrived, manifested most plainly by the growing conflicts in the Middle East and the resultant migration crisis that threatens the functioning of the European Union. Trump merely mirrored the anti-globalization forces of populism and nationalism that one could see developing in Europe. Rather than blame Trump for causing world disorder, one might blame Western elites in the United States and elsewhere who had no answer to those disruptive forces.

Whether Donald Trump can be called a realist or an isolationist or some other label is ultimately less important than whether his unorthodox approach to foreign policy reverses declining world order trends and produces more U.S. foreign policy successes in Afghanistan, North Korea and elsewhere.   It is still too soon to tell.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”