What Trump’s Near-Victory Means for Republican Foreign Policy

This was no repudiation of Trumpism, making it harder for the party to heal and return to its strengths.

U.S. President Donald Trump exits the White House in Washington, DC, on June 5.
U.S. President Donald Trump exits the White House in Washington, DC, on June 5.
U.S. President Donald Trump exits the White House in Washington, DC, on June 5. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If trends hold and U.S. President Donald Trump loses his chance at a second term by a margin roughly as narrow as that by which he won his first, what are the implications for Republican foreign and national security policy, and those Republicans who favor a return to the approach that successful Republican administrations have followed in the past? In the short run, very bleak. In the medium term, mixed. In the long term, hopeful.

In the short run—measured from now until Inauguration Day in January—Trump will have all the power to cause mischief and few fetters to restrain him. If he and his allies in the party had lost decisively, perhaps the rebuke might have had a chastening effect. But in the current scenario, he will be angry and likely keen to wield the considerable powers of his office to the max, settling scores at home and abroad and doing nothing to advance genuine U.S. interests. Should his efforts to challenge the election’s outcome succeed in securing him a second term, this bleak picture could last another four years.

In the medium run—from the inauguration until about the 2022 midterm elections—the effects will probably be mixed. A more decisive defeat would have created more political space for Republicans who see their future in a party no longer dominated by Trump. A clear repudiation of Trump and his allies would have hastened the healing process, allowing for more freedom to jettison what was bad about Trumpism while seeking to keep what positive things the Trump administration was able to accomplish. With victory having been so close, the Trumpist faction in the party will be empowered and in no mood to compromise or reform.

If trends hold and U.S. President Donald Trump loses his chance at a second term by a margin roughly as narrow as that by which he won his first, what are the implications for Republican foreign and national security policy, and those Republicans who favor a return to the approach that successful Republican administrations have followed in the past? In the short run, very bleak. In the medium term, mixed. In the long term, hopeful.

In the short run—measured from now until Inauguration Day in January—Trump will have all the power to cause mischief and few fetters to restrain him. If he and his allies in the party had lost decisively, perhaps the rebuke might have had a chastening effect. But in the current scenario, he will be angry and likely keen to wield the considerable powers of his office to the max, settling scores at home and abroad and doing nothing to advance genuine U.S. interests. Should his efforts to challenge the election’s outcome succeed in securing him a second term, this bleak picture could last another four years.

In the medium run—from the inauguration until about the 2022 midterm elections—the effects will probably be mixed. A more decisive defeat would have created more political space for Republicans who see their future in a party no longer dominated by Trump. A clear repudiation of Trump and his allies would have hastened the healing process, allowing for more freedom to jettison what was bad about Trumpism while seeking to keep what positive things the Trump administration was able to accomplish. With victory having been so close, the Trumpist faction in the party will be empowered and in no mood to compromise or reform.

But in the long run—after 2022, with the 2024 presidential campaign in sight—there are reasons to be hopeful. A President Joe Biden will not be able to claim a strong mandate for pushing the most radical parts of the Democrats’ agenda at home or abroad. Instead, he will have the excuse to follow his more moderate foreign-policy instincts. Debates about foreign policy could well return to more reasonable terrain, and Trump’s bogus strawman—you either have to embrace his hyper-transactionalist “America first” agenda or you are an effete globalist selling out the United States—will lose its traction.

That kind of terrain favors the sensible strategies that successful Republican administrations—those that succeeded in serving a second term—pursued to the United States’ benefit in the past. With any hope, they will do so again.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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