The American president’s approach to power is a throwback to the decade of his youth.
- By Charlie LadermanCharlie Laderman is a lecturer in international history at the War Studies Department, King’s College London and a Harrington faculty fellow at the Clements Center for National Security, University of Texas, Austin.
When President Donald Trump was born on June 14, 1946, the power of the United States was unprecedented. It had come out of World War II as the wealthiest and strongest nation in the world. It was the only major state to emerge from the war vastly richer rather than much poorer, and its standard of living was higher than that of any other country. Its per capita gross domestic product exceeded that of any other nation. Its manufacturing production accounted for more than half of the global total, and it was responsible for a third of the world’s production of goods. On top of this, the United States possessed an exceptional military arsenal. Its navy was unrivaled, its air power was unsurpassed, and, at the time, it alone possessed the atomic bomb — a weapon whose awesome power had just devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world had never seen economic and strategic power on this scale.
In Trump’s formative years, however, Americans were forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s power, though considerable, had its limits. Many Americans look back on the 1950s as a golden time in U.S. history, an era when the nation was secure, self-confident, and supreme in its global hegemony. Yet as Harry S. Truman prepared to leave the White House in 1952, the United States was mired in the Korean War and Americans were angry at their government, alarmed by their nation’s military performance and anxious about the country’s position in the world. Despite possessing unparalleled power and prosperity, the United States was struggling to secure victory on the Korean peninsula and the Truman administration was being accused of having “lost” China, after Mao Zedong established a Communist regime in 1949.
Writing in the lead-up to the 1952 presidential election, the British historian D.W. Brogan summed up the prevailing American attitude. Across the United States, Brogan observed widespread disbelief that there were areas of the world where America’s power did not extend. For Brogan, this “illusion of omnipotence” was encapsulated by a common American attitude to the Chinese Revolution. Rather than recognizing this as an event of immense historical importance that the United States could not control — occurring as it did 6,000 miles away in a country containing a fifth of the global population — American setbacks in Asia were simply blamed on the incompetence of its elected and non-elected officials. As Brogan noted, many Americans held to “the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States only exists because some Americans have been fools or knaves.”
Trump was a child of the 1950s and, just as his domestic agenda is a nod to that era’s vision of the American Dream, his worldview reflects the mentality that Brogan identified. This attitude maintains that if the world is moving in ways that are disagreeable and dangerous to the United States, then this can only be explained by the incompetence of American officials.
For Trump, almost every international problem that has beset the United States is explained by the idiocy of its leaders. For decades, he has claimed that America’s politicians are being duped by the rest of the world. In his 1987 open letter to the American people, when Trump bullishly inserted himself into national politics for the first time, Trump declared that “the world is laughing at America’s politicians.” The same day that letter appeared, he told Larry King in a CNN interview that other countries “laugh at us behind our backs, they laugh at us because of our stupidity and [that of our] leaders.” He has been repeating that refrain ever since.
Convinced that the United States is losing out in international trade, Trump declares: “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid. We have people that aren’t smart.” In its alliances, Trump says, the United States is “defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us,” while they “laugh at our stupidity.” In America’s immigration policy, Mexico is “laughing at us, at our stupidity.” On the environment, while “China and other countries, they just burn whatever the hell is available,” the United States adhered to international regulations because “our leaders are stupid, they are stupid people.” When oil prices rose in the 1980s and 1990s, Trump suggested that “the cartel kept the price up, because, again, they were smarter than our leaders.” And the fact that the United States did not “reimburse” itself and its allies by taking Iraq’s oil before its withdrawal in 2011 is because “our politicians are so stupid that they’ve never even thought of it.” For decades, under Republican and Democratic administrations, Trump has blamed virtually every international development that has negatively affected the United States on the foolishness of America’s leaders.
Trump’s litany of charges constitutes a decisive challenge to the bipartisan consensus that has underpinned U.S. foreign policy since the early years of the Cold War. Central to Trump’s indictment is his antipathy to America’s alliance commitments in Europe and East Asia, which he argues do little to aid American security and prosperity, while allowing its so-called friends to take advantage of it on trade and exploit its strategic protection.
Many of these security commitments were made in the decade after World War II. And some of the most vociferous Republican critics of Truman’s policies in China and Korea in the early 1950’s, such as Sen. Robert Taft, were also suspicious of the alliance arrangements that the United States was then embarking on in Europe and Asia.
No figure in the debates of the early 1950s is directly analogous to Trump. That was a very different era. Trump does not share the fears of Truman’s opponents, who were attempting to balance Cold War concerns about Soviet Russia and the spread of Communism against their anxiety about growing state power at home and expensive overseas commitments. Nor, as the Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright has pointed out, did the most prominent figures, like Taft, share Trump’s mercantilist economic policies or his affinity for authoritarian leaders.
Like Truman’s critics, however, Trump scorns America’s alliances and favors a more unilateral, nationalist approach to foreign policy. And like those Americans who displayed, in Brogan’s words, “a curious absence of historical awe” about the Chinese Revolution, Trump has shown a remarkable lack of curiosity about the myriad conflicts that have engulfed the Middle East, which taken together constitute a civil war within the world’s second-largest religion, but which he sees merely through the prism of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Above all, like the many Americans who were frustrated in the 1950s that no clear triumph had occurred in Korea, Trump has consistently complained that “we don’t win anymore.” One example among many was Trump’s declaration when announcing his campaign for presidency in 2015 that “we don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but [now] we don’t have them.” Trump’s reason for this is similar to that espoused by Truman’s critics — the ineptitude of America’s leaders.
Trump’s message resonated with voters because, ever since the Korean War, many Americans have shared his bewilderment and outrage that America’s overwhelming military and economic power has not translated into decisive victories. The clearest example was the war in Vietnam where, despite a half million American ground troops, technological superiority, and success in conventional battles, the United States was forced into an ignominious withdrawal. Even when the United States has crushed an adversary, such as in the first Gulf War, a decisive victory has proved elusive. Indeed, large numbers of U.S. troops have been stationed in the Middle East ever since. And since 9/11, the United States has been engaged in a “war on terror” that has involved seemingly interminable military engagement overseas. For Trump, who told Rona Barrett in a 1980 NBC interview that he looks at life as “combat,” endless struggle with no clear victory is intolerable.
In Trump’s view, for the United States to become a “winner” again and reassert its “greatness,” all that is required is effective leadership. As he remarked to Barrett more than 30 years ago, “I feel that this country with the proper leadership can go on to become what it once was, and I hope, and certainly hope, that it does go on to be what it should be.” In 1987 Trump took out a full advertisement in three major newspapers to present these views. As the headline accompanying it proclaimed: “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.”
The international situation and the global balance of power is not the same as it was in the years immediately after World War II. While the United States remains the strongest and most prosperous country in the world, its relative power has declined. America is now responsible for less than a fifth of global industrial production, and China has surpassed it as the world’s largest trading nation. Trump is acutely aware of this shift. Since the 1980s, he has constantly claimed that the United States has become a “second-rate economic power.” Nor does Trump believe that America’s liberal and democratic values can or necessarily should be promoted around the world. Yet Trump has persisted in his belief that America’s power should be decisive whenever and wherever it decides to apply it. And if the imposition of American power is resisted or overcome then this can only be explained because of stupidity on the part of American leaders.
Trump is a believer in the power of human agency to bring about fundamental change, particularly when that agent is Trump himself. As he put it in a 1990 interview with Playboy: “People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies.” And, after many years of flirting with the presidency, in 2015 Trump declared: “Our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.” He had clearly decided, as he put it at the 2016 Republican National Convention when accepting the party’s nomination for president, “I alone can fix it.”
Trump certainly portrays himself as a showman. But during the past three decades, he has also been laying out in interviews, articles, books, and tweets what amounts to a foreign-policy philosophy. For most of that period, he has been roundly mocked by pundits and politicians, and his ideas widely dismissed. His critics have failed to engage seriously with his worldview, to their own detriment.
Trump represents a nationalist critique of American liberal internationalism that might have been dormant in policy circles since the 1950s but which has never really gone away. It has always retained considerable purchase on the public mind. The irony is that while some leftist critics have claimed that U.S. foreign policy is too focused on advancing American economic interests, others on the right have complained that it does not put those interests first and that America’s overseas interventions have not done enough to materially benefit the United States.
In fact, as the historian John Thompson has recently shown, there is some truth to the critique that the multilateral trading system and liberal political order established by the United States in the 1940s has not been geared primarily toward advancing America’s economic interests, narrowly defined, or to a limited conception of national security. But that’s because what has undergirded America’s global role since World War II is the belief that the nation’s unprecedented power brought with it the responsibility and opportunity to fashion an international order that advanced a broader conception of America’s national interest, security, and prosperity. That order, based on the rule of law and economic openness, was designed to ensure that international trade flourishes and that the United States was not embroiled in a large-scale regional interstate conflict, such as what occurred in World War I and World War II.
International political stability depends on American leadership; it is underpinned by Washington’s alliances with more than 60 countries across the globe and American military bases in 65 countries, helping to deter would-be aggressors. It is an order that certainly aids America’s allies, but it is one that also benefits the United States immeasurably by ensuring that the world is more stable, orderly, and prosperous.
For the United States to continue playing that global role, however, American internationalists, like their predecessors in the 1950s, will have to convince the public that it’s retreating from international commitments, not maintaining them, that would be foolish. In the meantime, after decades of lambasting America’s leaders as the real fools, Trump will be trying to prove that he can do a better job.
This is adapted from Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview, co-written with professor Brendan Simms of the University of Cambridge and published by Endeavour Press. It is available now as an ebook and in paperback on Amazon.
Credit: Donald J. Trump Facebook page/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration