Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Can U.S. Internationalism Survive Trump?

American internationalism is not dead yet, but that it faces serious longterm maladies.

By , the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
US President Donald Trump looks on upon his arrival at EU headquarters ahead of a meeting with European Council President, as part of the NATO meeting, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNAND        (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump looks on upon his arrival at EU headquarters ahead of a meeting with European Council President, as part of the NATO meeting, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump looks on upon his arrival at EU headquarters ahead of a meeting with European Council President, as part of the NATO meeting, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

It is hard to avert one’s eyes from the flaming train wreck that is the Donald Trump presidency. But with respect to foreign policy, Trump’s rise has raised a question that will endure even after his time in office ends: What is the future of American internationalism? After all, for all the discussion today of how Trump’s foreign policy has proven more mainstream than his campaign rhetoric promised, the fact remains that in 2016 the American people elected a candidate who scorned or ridiculed many aspects of the foreign policy traditions that the United States has followed since World War II — free trade, alliances, promotion of democracy and human rights, a commitment to a positive-sum global order, and others. So was Trump’s triumph simply an aberration, or does it signal that American internationalism is politically dead?

This is the question I explore in a recent report for War on the Rocks. But suffice it to say that the answer is ambiguous — that there is evidence to support two very different interpretations of this issue.

On the one hand, it is easy to make the case that Trump’s election was more of a black-swan, anomalous event than something that tells us much about the state of public opinion on foreign policy. The election campaign was dominated not by deeply substantive foreign policy debates, in this interpretation, but by the historic unpopularity of both candidates. And of course, Trump was decisively defeated in the popular vote by a card-carrying member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — and he might well have lost decisively in the electoral college, too, if not for then-FBI Director James Comey’s intervention and a series of other lucky breaks late in the campaign.

It is hard to avert one’s eyes from the flaming train wreck that is the Donald Trump presidency. But with respect to foreign policy, Trump’s rise has raised a question that will endure even after his time in office ends: What is the future of American internationalism? After all, for all the discussion today of how Trump’s foreign policy has proven more mainstream than his campaign rhetoric promised, the fact remains that in 2016 the American people elected a candidate who scorned or ridiculed many aspects of the foreign policy traditions that the United States has followed since World War II — free trade, alliances, promotion of democracy and human rights, a commitment to a positive-sum global order, and others. So was Trump’s triumph simply an aberration, or does it signal that American internationalism is politically dead?

This is the question I explore in a recent report for War on the Rocks. But suffice it to say that the answer is ambiguous — that there is evidence to support two very different interpretations of this issue.

On the one hand, it is easy to make the case that Trump’s election was more of a black-swan, anomalous event than something that tells us much about the state of public opinion on foreign policy. The election campaign was dominated not by deeply substantive foreign policy debates, in this interpretation, but by the historic unpopularity of both candidates. And of course, Trump was decisively defeated in the popular vote by a card-carrying member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — and he might well have lost decisively in the electoral college, too, if not for then-FBI Director James Comey’s intervention and a series of other lucky breaks late in the campaign.

There is, moreover, substantial polling data to suggest that American internationalism is doing just fine. According to surveys taken during the 2016 campaign, 65 percent of Americans believed that globalization was “mostly good” for the United States, and 89 percent believed that maintaining U.S. alliances was “very or somewhat effective at achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.” Support for U.S. military primacy and intervention against threats such as the Islamic State also remained strong, as did domestic backing for the United Nations and the Paris climate change accords.

As an extensive analysis of this polling data by the Chicago Council concluded, there does not seem to be any wholesale public rejection of American internationalism underway: “The American public as a whole still thinks that the United States is the greatest and most influential country in the world, and bipartisan support remains strong for the country to take an active part in world affairs.” And indeed, insofar as Trump has had to roll back some of the more radical aspects of his “America first” agenda since becoming president — tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement, declaring NATO obsolete, launching a trade war with China — he seems to be adjusting to this reality.

That’s the good news. But on the other hand, American internationalism simply cannot be all that healthy, because Trump did win the presidency by running on the most anti-internationalist platform seen in decades. American voters may not have been voting for that platform itself, but at the very least they did not see Trump’s radical views on foreign policy as disqualifying. And as one digs deeper into the state of American internationalism today, it becomes clear that there are indeed real problems with that tradition — problems that Trump exploited on his road to the White House, and that are likely to confront his successors as well.

Trump’s rise has highlighted five key strains that have been weakening the political foundations of American internationalism for years now.

First, since the end of the Cold War, it has become harder for Americans to identify precisely why the United States must undertake such extraordinary exertions to shape the global order. Without a pressing, easily identifiable global threat, in other words, it is harder to intuitively understand what American alliances, forward force deployments, and other internationalist initiatives are for.

Second, although U.S. internationalism has proven very valuable in shaping a congenial international system, it is undeniable that aspects of that tradition — such as nation building missions in Afghanistan and Iraq — have proven costly and unrewarding in recent years. Not surprisingly, many Americans are thus questioning if the resources that the country devotes to foreign policy are being used effectively. This disillusion has shown up in public opinion polling: Whereas 29 percent of Americans believed that promoting democracy should be a key foreign policy objective in 2001, only 18 percent thought so in 2013.

Third, the credibility of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has also been weakened over the past 15 years. This is because policy elites in both parties pursued policies — the Iraq War under President George W. Bush, the subsequent withdrawal from Iraq and creation of a security vacuum in that country under President Barack Obama — that led to high-profile disasters. As a result, when Trump — who actually supported the invasion of Iraq before later opposing it — answered establishment criticism by pointing out that the establishment had brought the United States the Iraq War and the Islamic State, his rejoinder probably made a good deal of sense to many voters.

Fourth, U.S. internationalism has been weakened by the declining economic fortunes of the working and middle classes — a phenomenon that has made those groups less enthusiastic about bearing the costs and burdens associated with U.S. foreign policy. The pursuit of globalization and free trade has not been the primary culprit here — issues like automation and the transition to a postindustrial economy have been more important. But it is undeniable that globalization has exacerbated economic insecurity for the working class in particular, and China’s integration into the global economy has taken a significant toll on manufacturing and related employment in the United States. During the Republican primaries, in fact, 65 percent of Trump voters believed that U.S. involvement in the international economy was a bad thing. During the general election, Trump overperformed in areas hardest hit by competition from international trade.

Fifth, and finally, one can discern among many voters an amorphous but powerful sense that U.S. internationalism has become unmoored from U.S. nationalism — that America’s governing classes have pursued an agenda that has worked nicely for the well-to-do, but brought fewer benefits to the ordinary Americans whom U.S. foreign policy is meant to serve. This dynamic is evident in the 57 percent of the population who believed in 2016 that the United States was focusing too much on other countries’ problems and not enough on its own. Cracks are growing in the political consensus that has traditionally undergirded American internationalism — cracks through which Trump was able emerge in 2016.

The bottom line is that American internationalism is not dead yet, but that it faces serious longterm maladies that could, perhaps, ultimately prove fatal. Regardless of what policies Trump pursues as president, or how long he lasts in that job, addressing those maladies will be a fundamental challenge for future presidents and for all observers who still believe that U.S. internationalism is worth preserving.

Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @HalBrands

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.