Trump’s Foreign Policy Is Here to Stay

Democrats have the upper hand to take the White House—but whoever wins may have to adopt the current occupant's worldview.

Senator Elizabeth Warren attends a news conference to discuss immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Senator Elizabeth Warren attends a news conference to discuss immediate humanitarian needs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Only two years to go before Inauguration Day 2021! There’s a good chance the next U.S. president’s name won’t be Trump, which is to say that person could be a Democrat. Take heart, Blue America.

But it’s time to ask: How much will it matter? That is, how much of what President Donald Trump will have wrecked by that time, at least in regard to America’s relationship with the world, can be put back together? How much, by contrast, will have so deeply altered pre-existing reality as to constitute a new and intransigent reality?

Fortunately, at least from the point of view of prediction, the United States carried out a similar experiment only a decade ago, when Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush. We can, then, start our forensic exercise by asking how much of Bush’s bellicosity, unilateralism, and self-righteous chest-thumping did Obama manage to exorcise?

Today’s obsession with Obama’s relation to what his senior aide Benjamin Rhodes called “the Blob”—that is, to the issue of military intervention abroad—has obscured the former president’s original ambition, which was to restore America’s international standing in order to enable cooperation on climate change, nonproliferation, and other pressing global issues. (See, for example, my 2007 interview with him.) In his first year in office, Obama gave a series of speeches around the world—Istanbul, Prague, Cairo—in which he combined a soaring rhetoric of hope with a realist proffer of “mutual respect for mutual interests.” We know from poll numbers, not to mention vast and euphoric crowds, that Obama succeeded in his immediate goal of raising America’s standing around the world—though he also learned that in undemocratic countries, and even in many democratic ones, citizen enthusiasm does not translate into state policy.

Trump’s successor—unless it’s Vice President Mike Pence—will surely embark on a comparable reassurance tour and is likely to be greeted with a similarly desperate gratitude. In one respect, the work will be easier, because Trump’s contempt for allies and scorn for statecraft itself is so aberrational by historic American standards that the next president need only say, in effect, “the madness is over.” What’s more, Trump’s grossest offenses—so far—lie in the realm of rhetoric and posture rather than action, and thus can be more easily rectified through language and comportment. A new president will not hesitate to say, “America believes in diplomacy and honors its diplomats.” The new leader of the United States will not treat Russia as its friend or Germany as its enemy. The world will exhale, as it did in 2009.

But the next president cannot simply wish away the damage Trump has done to institutions, any more than the damage he’s done to waterways or air quality. The new president can rejoin NATO if Trump has pulled the United States out, but it will take far longer to convince Europeans that Washington regards their security as integral to its own. What’s more, a second exorcism cannot possibly be as effective as a first one. After two Republican presidents have treated allies and multilateral institutions with contempt, despite otherwise holding radically different worldviews, how can a successor convincingly argue that the United States is returning to its postwar norms? Why, that is, should foreign capitals believe that the United States is committed to the security of those allies or the efficacy of those institutions? Japan and South Korea would be wise to hedge their alliance with Washington by enhancing relations with Beijing, while Baltic nations may conclude that they have little choice but to relax their fierce vigilance against Moscow.

The limits on what the next president can do, or undo, may have less to do with the damage Trump has done abroad than with the changes he has wrought at home. Here, too, Obama’s experience is illuminating. He plainly overestimated the effect that his appeal to citizens abroad would have on their leaders, whether on nuclear nonproliferation or on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But, more critically, Obama needed to have the American people with him in order to strengthen his hand at important moments, and he didn’t. Whatever Obama’s views of the Blob, he knew that he had little public support for robust action in Syria, or even Libya. Eight years of George W. Bush banging the drum for intervention abroad had wound up sapping their faith in America’s capacity to shape a better world. Obama was much more successful in changing the way foreigners thought about the United States than he was in changing the way Americans thought about themselves.

And what about our dime-store Hobbes who decants a Twitter stream of dark suspicions into Americans’ ears, insisting that even their closest allies are out to eat our lunch, that trade deals are a zero-sum game, that human rights are for softies—that Americans have to look out for themselves in an implacably hostile world? I would like to think that Trump’s worldview will be repudiated along with the man himself. Logic would seem to dictate that, just as Bush’s misbegotten Freedom Agenda showed Americans the virtues of prudence, so might a snarling isolationism show them the virtues of engagement—of mutual respect for mutual interests.

In some regards this is bound to be true. Any Democratic president would let Europe know that the United States still cares, treat Russian President Vladimir Putin like the adversary he is, downgrade relations with Saudi Arabia if Riyadh continues to behave brutally and recklessly, rejoin the Paris accords on climate change, reassert the importance of democracy and human rights in America’s foreign relations, and so on. These are the norms that remain normal.

But if Trump withdraws troops not only from Syria and Afghanistan but also from Europe and Asia, will Americans applaud the candidate who demands their return? Will voters insist that the United States take its share of refugees and restore spending on development and humanitarian aid? Maybe not. My impression is that the traditional American gap between an internationalist elite and an inward-looking electorate is growing. The Republican base began to peel off from foreign-policy activism the moment Obama became president; Trump has both exploited and exacerbated that mood. Among Democrats, the muscular internationalism of Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton feels increasingly anachronistic.

The public may find a lot to like in a candidate on the left who tells U.S. allies that the time has come to defend themselves by themselves—whether they’re able to or not. In recent speeches and articles laying out their foreign-policy views, both Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren have pledged to fight corruption, authoritarianism, and inequality abroad as well as at home, but they have been more reticent (especially in Sanders’s case) about the relations with allies and the deterrent value of America’s military presence abroad.

The next president, if not Donald Trump, may have to start from scratch explaining to the American people why the world matters, and why it offers opportunities as well as threats. That is precisely the task Barack Obama set himself in 2009. The precedent is not encouraging.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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