Elephants in the Room
The Trumpists’ Answer to His Republican Foreign-Policy Critics? More Culture Wars.
Trump’s friends have opted for their usual grievance politics.
On Aug. 21, I was among the more than 70 former Republican national security officials who publicly rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump and endorsed Democratic candidate Joe Biden in an open letter published in a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. The previous day, I joined Victor Cha, another signatory of the open letter, in laying out our argument here in Foreign Policy as to why a second Trump term would be dangerous to U.S. security interests around the world, but especially in Asia. What’s more, in terms of character and views on foreign policy, Biden has far more in common with the other Republican presidents and presidential candidates I have worked for. That is why so many national security and foreign-policy practitioners who worked for Republican presidents over the past four decades are supporting Biden in this election.
The response from the Trumpist rump of the Republican Party and their friends on the right? Deafening silence—at least at first. This week, finally, pro-Trump columnists fired back on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, coinciding with the Republican National Convention. The Journal’s former editor in chief, Gerard Baker, cast the group of us who signed the letter as pampered in “comfortable stints in consulting firms and think tanks” and unwilling to accept Trump’s radical reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. Holman Jenkins, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, wrote that Republican critics of Trump are stuck in “histrionic disdain” for the president. In earlier times, these columnists would have championed the same ideals as the conservative internationalists who signed the open letter, but in Trump’s America we find ourselves on different sides of the debate. On Fox, other commentators dismissed the former Republican national security officials as out-of-touch elitists and advocates of “forever wars.”
What is striking about this counterattack is that—just like the Republican National Convention narrative that unfolded this week—it is primarily based on culture-war arguments about a supposedly out-of-touch elite and other mainstays of Trumpist grievance politics, rather than on any actual foreign-policy strategy.
But is it really the advocates of global engagement, alliances, trade, and international institutions who are out of touch with the American people—or is it the Trumpists who are out of touch? According to the most recent poll on these issues by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in 2019: 69 percent of Americans want the nation to have an active role in international affairs, 74 percent said that alliances make the United States safer (more than those who chose conventional military spending, nuclear weapons, or any other answer), 78 percent said they wanted to maintain or increase support for NATO, and 87 percent said international trade is good for the United States. Former President Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy strategy understood the basic goodness, courage, and internationalism of the American people; today, polls show that this is still the national character—Trumpist culture wars notwithstanding.
To the extent that there is an actual foreign-policy strategy behind the counterattack on Trump’s conservative internationalist critics, it centers on the idea that only Trump was bold enough to break the orthodoxy in Washington and take on China and other real and imagined rivals. The problem with this assertion is that everybody has hardened on China, and by no means in response to Trump. Legislation in the U.S. Congress to punish China for the Hong Kong crackdown, technology theft, and repression in Xinjiang enjoys overwhelmingly bipartisan support. The Biden foreign-policy team has clearly identified China as a strategic competitor and would continue to press for change in Chinese behavior and protect the United States’ allies and values. Trump cannot credibly claim to own the issue—and as Democrats are gleefully pointing out, he praised Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism for years until suddenly changing his story to make China an anvil for his election-year hammer.
More to the point, Trump’s version of competition with China often suits Beijing just fine. The targets of Chinese revisionism are the sources of U.S. strength and influence around the world—particularly the United States’ alliances and its leadership in international institutions and economic rule-making. These also happen to be the targets of Trump’s own revisionism. His strategy for dealing with China is like that of a sheriff who yells loudly at the thieves down the street, but then starts shooting at the posse that has gathered to catch them. There was an awful lot of yelling loudly at the Republican National Convention this week as well. But just as loud yelling is not a foreign-policy strategy, neither is making foreign policy nothing but an extension of the culture wars at home.