Shadow Government

Foreign Officials See Bush and Obama in Trump

From an international perspective, the 45th president doesn't seem like a bolt from the blue.

Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush stand side by side after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. (Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush stand side by side after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. (Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

One of the perverse benefits of being a strategy wonk in Washington these days is getting to observe the anxious ally parade. Over the past year, officials from virtually every key U.S. ally have repeatedly visited Washington in an effort to determine what to make of the Trump administration and how best to cope with it.

As a broad generalization, most of these officials relate some version of what Shadow Government’s Colin Kahl has termed, aptly, the 80/20 rule. They are cautiously encouraged by the fact that perhaps 80 percent of U.S. policy appears to be proceeding more or less normally. NATO’s enhanced forward presence is proceeding, U.S. spending on the European Deterrence Initiative (formerly the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI) has increased, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea have continued and even been intensified, and day-to-day working relationships with U.S. allies remain fairly robust. Yet most officials are also quite alarmed by the fact that this 80 percent continuity came only after President Donald Trump considered dramatic breaks with established policy — withdrawing from the Iran deal and the North American Free Trade Agreement, pulling out of Afghanistan, lifting sanctions on Russia, and so on — and no less by the other 20 percent of U.S. policy. They lament Trump’s incendiary and self-defeating rhetoric; the innate, visceral skepticism that Trump obviously feels toward America’s longest-standing friends and partners; his obvious preference for autocrats over democrats; his retreat from global leadership on trade and climate issues; and his tendency to inject instability, incompetence, and incoherence into U.S. policy across a broad array of issues.

From an American’s perspective, talking with these officials is invariably disheartening, simply because there is only so much reassurance one can provide honestly about the president and his behavior. But these meetings are also invariably interesting because they provide a window into the anxieties and perspectives of the countries with which the United States most productively interacts.

One such insight to emerge from a number of these meetings is what while most interlocutors from abroad are somewhat perplexed by Trump, they do not necessarily view him as a political bolt from the blue. Rather, multiple people have remarked that they see traces of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the current president. Bush, in their view, represented the type of abrasive unilateralism that Trump exemplifies. His confrontational rhetoric, alleged disdain for international opinion, diplomatic clashes with long-standing allies, and withdrawal from international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty all prefigured — particularly from a European perspective — some of the more troubling aspects of Trump’s presidency.

Obama, according to this thesis, had a penchant for nation building at home as opposed to nation building abroad, was skeptical of the value of U.S. alliances (“free riders aggravate me”), and showed a disdain for the advice of the foreign-policy establishment — all impulses that Trump has, in various ways, taken into overdrive. He was rhetorically supportive of the goals of the post-World War II international order but sometimes resistant to the costs and exertions associated with leading that order. Although foreign officials never quite put it this way, one can thus detect a sense that some of them see Trump as a combination of the worst of Bush and the worst of Obama — as the embodiment of the tendencies they liked least in America’s two most recent presidents.

This perspective must, of course, be taken with a grain of salt because allies always complain about the features of the present administration that they don’t like — complaints that then feed into critiques made by domestic commentators. And, in some ways, the Bush-Obama-Trump comparison seems downright ludicrous. Bush pursued some questionable and counterproductive policies after 9/11, but he was also an institution builder — constructing the Proliferation Security Initiative, for instance — and he worked with considerable success to repair U.S. relationships with Europe after the trauma caused by the debate surrounding the invasion of Iraq. By his second term, in fact, he bore little resemblance to the trigger-happy unilateralist he was sometimes perceived to be; rather, he was undertaking important diplomatic initiatives, often on a multilateral basis, on a number of key issues.

As for Obama, he did clearly think that the United States was facing a degree of strategic overstretch when he took office and was determined to induce a degree of restraint in U.S. policy. But like Bush, he was clearly committed to the basic idea of a liberal world order, and he undertook multiple initiatives — from the Asia pivot to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the ERI — to shore up and even expand that order as his presidency progressed. Finally, what makes the Bush-Obama-Trump comparison particularly galling is that both Bush and Obama were fundamentally decent, honorable people who took their oaths of office seriously, believed that the United States must live its values, and never would have engaged in the boorish, juvenile, and quasi-authoritarian behavior that is Trump’s calling card. As I have written elsewhere, Trump does represent a real departure in U.S. policy, one that the Bush-Obama-Trump comparison too easily elides.

Yet the comparison is nonetheless worth considering, a little more than a year into Trump’s presidency. For one thing, it reminds us that Trump did not come from nowhere. The aspects of his presidency that have been most discomfiting to supporters of the American internationalist tradition both at home and abroad do have precedents in the past two decades of U.S. diplomacy. Just as important, the comparison shows that other countries, rightly or wrongly, have seen worrying tendencies in U.S. policy for some time, and they are not entirely convinced that everything will go back to normal after Trump leaves office. That is surely a sobering prospect for many countries around the world that have come to depend on enlightened American leadership. It should be sobering for Americans who worry about how the nation’s foreign policy is perceived in the world as well.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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