Why a very old-school foreign policy doctrine might actually work for the Trump administration.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The big question following Donald Trump’s “victory” in the Electoral College (but not the popular vote) is this: Does he do what he said he would do during the campaign, or does he do what is smart? By “smart,” I mean both what might be good for the country and also good for his own popularity and historical legacy. Given his massive ego, one suspects Trump does not want to go to his grave knowing he has wrested the title of “All-Time Worst U.S. President” from the likes of George W. Bush, Andrew Johnson, or James Buchanan.
Foreign policy may offer his most plausible path to validation. Trump’s approach to foreign policy offers the promise of an improvement on what he will be inheriting. (Admittedly a low bar.) As I pointed out a few weeks ago, some of the things he said during the campaign are reasonable, such as his commonsense observation that key U.S. allies are free-riding, his recognition that open-ended “nation-building” exercises are foolish, and his belief that U.S. foreign policy should first and foremost serve the U.S. national interest.
Had he stuck with those three ideas, he would be hardly worrisome at all as commander in chief. But as I also said back then, he combined those sensible notions with a lot of divisive, ignorant, and dangerous nonsense. When added together with his deep character flaws and a seemingly lukewarm commitment to the Constitution, many of us who favor a less interventionist foreign policy sensibly ran the other way.
But if I were asked (and you may rest assured I won’t be) what advice I would give him now, I’d start by suggesting he settle on a simple foreign-policy concept to guide his decisions and his policy pronouncements in the weeks and years ahead — something a bit more sophisticated than “build a wall” or “tear up NAFTA.” His challenge, on foreign policy and much else, is to figure out how he can remain true to his campaign persona yet also do right by the country as a whole. Can he find foreign-policy concepts to help express his nationalist foreign-policy instincts — the ones that helped inspire his passionate base — in measured, sensible, and reassuring ways for Americans and those countries whose friendship and support we value?
This is no easy task. First, there are political constraints. More than half the voters wanted someone else to be president, and more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for him. It is therefore axiomatic that Democrats are going to oppose much of what he tries to accomplish and all the more so if what he is doing looks dangerous or stupid. But his opponents also include much of the Republican Party, which is deeply divided on foreign policy. You’ve got interventionist hawks like Lindsey Graham and John McCain — no love lost there! — along with the small-government, isolationist-leaning, libertarian tea partyers. Not the world’s most unified group, and Trump needs support from both wings.
Furthermore, there are economic constraints. Trump might defy lots of domestic opponents and past traditions, but he cannot defy the laws of economics or the power of the bond market. If he ignites a global trade war, produces budget-busting deficits, and can’t magically conjure up blue-collar jobs that we lost decades ago (spoiler alert: he can’t), he’ll discover his small hands are no match for the invisible hand of the market. And if the economy (eventually) tanks, there go his approval ratings, and his GOP colleagues will distance themselves even more, initiating his political death spiral.
Last but not least, there are constraints imposed by the present international system. Even if you believe the United States needs to rethink its grand strategy, moving to a different grand strategy needs to be done with skill, nuance, time, and attention to detail. Shifting to a new strategy without triggering unnecessary and dangerous instability is not a task for amateurs. And given that most of the Republican foreign-policy establishment said openly that Trump was unfit for office, he may not have a lot of experienced and talented people to draw from. (I mean, seriously: When a huckster like Newt Gingrich is in line to be secretary of state, the whirring sound you hear is coming from the graves of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and even John Foster Dulles. Henry Kissinger would be spinning, too, but he’s still with us and giving interviews instead.)
So what’s the Donald to do? Is there a foreign-policy formula that is consistent with Trumpism yet not wholly destructive of the current international order?
I think there is. It’s an old idea and one that is not especially fashionable in academia, the think tank world, or the current foreign-policy establishment. But it is a venerable idea and one wholly in sync with the message Trump has been preaching ever since he announced his candidacy.
That old idea is “Westphalian sovereignty.” If Trump is looking for a unifying concept for his approach to foreign policy, it is the idea that states are responsible for their own territory and citizens and that other states shouldn’t interfere with either. This notion is consistent with Trump’s own “America First” mentality, and it resonates with the sentiment of populist nationalism that has driven everything from the Brexit vote to the assorted European xenophobes who are so jazzed by Trump’s success. And it is hardly a controversial concept; indeed, it still forms much of the basis for existing international law.
In this vision, the United States would of course oppose any government interfering in American affairs. I know, the United States can’t simply evade much of international law, such as useful institutions like the World Trade Organization, but as a rhetorical device, “national sovereignty” is just what his supporters want to hear. Under this mantle, the United States would get out of the business of trying to spread democracy (whether by force or through less coercive means) and would instead adopt a “live and let live” approach toward governments that are different from its own. No more regime change, no “Responsibility to Protect,” and no more trying to tell the world that it has to become like America in order to earn our respect.
At the same time, Westphalian sovereignty takes the sanctity of existing borders seriously, and it recognizes the value of a reputation for a certain degree of reliability and trustworthiness. This approach would therefore permit Trump to adhere to America’s existing alliance commitments. If any current treaty partners were attacked, a Westphalian approach would commit the Trump administration to take action to help them. If commitments need to be modified (or in extreme cases, broken), it should be done in a cautious and measured way. Trump expressed doubts about many existing alliance commitments during the campaign, but reassuring America’s present allies in the short term is a good idea. Even if you think these relations should be recast over time, that process should occur slowly, with lots of mutual consultation, so that the United States doesn’t suddenly face a cascade of panicky responses all over the world.
This approach would also go a long way toward resolving some of our current tensions with Russia, which Trump has said he’ll do. Further NATO expansion would come off the table permanently; Trump would make clear that the United States is not trying to reform Russia’s own government and that he doesn’t give a fig about how Vladimir Putin (mis)manages his own country. This step would reduce Russia’s own incentive to pay us back by interfering in our internal affairs (which is what those Russian hacking operations were all about), and it would open the door to greater cooperation on issues where our interests align. At the same time, Trump would be reminding Russia (and our allies) that the United States would still oppose forcible attempts to alter the existing territorial status quo — especially if such efforts were directed at U.S. allies.
I know what you’re thinking: But what about Crimea? How can that action be squared with a commitment to national sovereignty and territorial integrity? That should be easy for a businessman as slippery as our future 45th president. All he has to do is remind everyone that 1) Ukraine is not a formal U.S. ally, 2) we never promised to defend it, and 3) the whole mess there is Barack Obama’s fault anyway. If Crimea was lost, it was because Obama, Clinton, and Kerry didn’t keep a tight enough leash on the European Union and on Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and instead tried to give Putin a black eye by wresting Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and into ours. It’s too late to get that toothpaste back in the tube now, but Trump can promise that something similar won’t happen on his watch, in part because he’ll respect Russian sovereignty and won’t keep humiliating them.
In short, getting out of the democracy promotion business and respecting the norm of sovereignty are the easiest ways for Trump to keep his quasi-isolationist base happy yet also reassure America’s deeply worried allies. And it even allows him to play the tough guy when dealing with states that hack U.S. websites, steal U.S. intellectual property, or try to tell the United States how to do things here at home. It won’t make liberal interventionists and other global do-gooders happy, but they didn’t vote for Trump on Nov. 8 and probably never will.
But will he follow this sensible course? Damned if I know. Pulling this off would require a fair degree of diplomatic skill, and there’s no evidence yet that he’s going to assemble a team that can actually act in a subtle and measured way. It’s likely to be amateur hour in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and you may rest assured that professionals in other countries will be ready to take advantage of the rookie mistakes that Trump & Co. are bound to make.
Last but not least, I don’t for a minute believe this election was about foreign policy (U.S. elections rarely, if ever, are), though Trump did tap into broad public perceptions of foreign-policy failure. Instead, it was mostly a reaction to domestic conditions and especially the resentment and anger of middle- and lower-class white Americans who felt dissed by the “elites” in both parties. And although I think there is some risk that Donald Trump will in fact run a foreign policy that weakens the United States overseas, that should not be Americans’ gravest concern.
What Americans should worry about is the possibility that Trump (and Trumpism) poses a long-term threat to our traditional constitutional order. To my mind, the question isn’t whether he’s a bellicose international risk-taker like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but whether he’s a clever power-grabber like Silvio Berlusconi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or Putin and someone willing to run roughshod over the Constitution to get his way and keep himself in office. Among other things, this is a possibility some of his more enthusiastic supporters in the noninterventionist camp have completely ignored. I’ll address that topic in my next column.
Photo credit: Getty Images/University of Texas at Austin/Gerard ter Borch/Foreign Policy illustration