The Year Ahead
The Coming Republican Reckoning With Trump’s Legacy
Rebuilding Republican credibility in national security will require an honest look at Trumpism—and a return to our party’s foreign-policy principles.
What does this mean for the future of Republican foreign policy? We believe the election offers a promising start for renewal and rebuilding. Trump’s exit on Jan. 20 will liberate Republicans from his corrosive stranglehold on the executive branch’s national security system, while the resilience of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere demonstrates broad public support for our party. Now the question is whether Republicans can seize this opportunity to recover a coherent foreign-policy vision and repair the strong credibility on national security that the party enjoyed for many decades before Trump took an ax to U.S. global leadership.
To rebuild Republican credibility, there will be many tasks ahead across the full spectrum of national security—including values, policies, institutions, and personnel. We do not pretend to offer a comprehensive accounting of the past four years or a detailed road map for the future. What we would like to propose are some initial reflections that may be useful to Republican foreign-policy hands as they debate the party’s future during the weeks and months ahead.
Rebuilding credibility will require an honest reckoning with Trump’s foreign-policy legacy. Both his supporters and detractors agree that he broke sharply with traditional Republican foreign policy. Any reckoning requires recognizing that while Trumpism was a disaster in practice, it does have some merits in theory.
In practice, Trumpist foreign policy was hypertransactional with no understanding that geopolitics, and the advancement of U.S. interests, is a long game—that betrayals in early rounds will matter in later rounds. Trump was narcissistic to a cultic degree, demanding obsequious fealty from subordinates and foreign interlocutors alike. He was corrupt and self-dealing, disregarding conflicts of interest involving his own and his family’s businesses.
Every seasoned national security policy professional we know inside and outside the Trump administration has a personal story—“Can you believe this?”—of how Trumpism compromised U.S. interests in big or small ways. And the entire world has watched Trump and his legal team attempt to steal an election with ever more desperate and absurd charges. To say the least, it has not made the United States look great.
Trumpism in theory, however, is a more mixed affair. Trumpism’s efforts to identify deeper principles and to sketch a foreign-policy framework around them are not as ridiculous as Trumpism in practice—and contain elements worth salvaging.
That said, every serious effort at defending Trumpism in theory suffers from a fatal flaw: It makes no credible attempt to reconcile these principles with the actual behavior of the Trump administration, especially in those areas where Trump himself was most actively and personally involved. A good example is the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, released in December 2017. This document is, in the main, a serious statement of traditional Republican perspectives. It played a useful role in guiding those parts of defense and foreign policy that Trump did not care about and left the national security apparatus to handle, but it did not keep him from wreaking havoc with U.S. interests in many other areas.
Compare Trumpism in theory to its implementation in practice, and the conclusion is clear: Any vision he might have had has demonstrably failed in practice. His foreign-policy record mirrors the worst mistakes of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama—and exceeds them.
Like Carter, Trump weakened the United States by failing to handle a historic crisis. Carter mishandled the Iran hostage crisis, Trump the COVID-19 pandemic—a failure several orders of magnitude more consequential. And there were many parallels to Obama’s tenure in Trump’s disdain for U.S. allies, denial of American exceptionalism, belief in the country’s decline, attempts to withdraw from the Middle East without a strategy for mitigating the consequences, skepticism of free trade, downplaying of support for human rights and democracy, engendering of distrust and resentment from the military, premature claims of victory over terrorism, attempts at deal-making with China that undercut efforts to confront Beijing’s aggression, and appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin instead of pushing back strongly against Russian aggression—both toward Russia’s neighbors and against the U.S. political process.
But Trump’s narcissistic style went far beyond Carter’s and Obama’s shortcomings. Trump’s contempt for the rule of law and electoral fair play led him to attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into smearing Biden—which in turn led to his impeachment and besmirched him with a historical stain far beyond Carter’s and Obama’s blemishes. His post-election effort to stay in power by subverting the electorate’s will goes beyond anything any U.S. president has ever done.
Trump leaves the United States weaker, more divided, less safe, less loved, less respected, and less feared since he took office. This is not a legacy Republicans should embrace.
But that does not mean that Republicans or the Biden administration should reject everything Trump did or attempted. On the contrary, Republicans should encourage the Biden administration to continue those policies that the Trump administration got right—or that created a new reality that can be used to the United States’ advantage. These include:
In the Middle East: the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between several key Arab states and Israel; the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; growing pressure on a weakened Iran; and the disruption of the Islamic State. These are all genuine achievements, even if some of them came at a high cost of harmed relations with allies or the needless sacrifice of basic U.S. commitments to human rights.
In Asia: Trump’s conviction that China is the United States’ main adversary, creating a new bipartisan consensus; moves to confront China’s economic predation; regularized arms sales to Taiwan; a financial and diplomatic squeeze of Huawei and other Chinese enterprises acting at the Chinese Communist Party’s behest; sanctions against other malevolent Chinese actors; increased resistance to Chinese espionage and information operations in the United States; and the revitalized “Quad” quasi-alliance for Indo-Pacific security with Australia, India, and Japan.
In North America: the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which updated the North American Free Trade Agreement and provides a template for other new or updated trade agreements.
Worldwide: increased diplomatic advocacy for religious freedom that has enlisted new countries in a multilateral coalition protecting this vital but endangered human right.
In security policy: reversing the imprudent defense cuts of the Obama era.
Congressional Republicans, especially in the U.S. Senate, now have an opportunity to put these gains on a bipartisan footing—through the confirmation process for Biden nominees as well as through legislation and appropriation.
To begin the healing and restoring within the Republican Party, there are two things its leaders must do—and one they must resist doing.
The first thing Republican leaders must do is advocate for national security policies that align with timeless and tested Republican principles. In particular, there are four basic principles that guided the party from 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination, until the 2016 nomination of Trump. These principles remain as valid as ever. In fact, they are especially timely in the post-Trump era.
The first great Republican foreign-policy principle is peace through strength, achieved by building and supporting the institutions of national security such as the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence community.
The second Republicans principle is that adversaries should be challenged abroad so they do not need to be faced at home. Then-President Ronald Reagan’s words at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day invasion in Normandy in 1984 remain just as true today: “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” One of the United States’ great advantages has been its attractiveness as a partner, giving it a web of alliances spanning the globe. Republicans should seize back that high ground and be known once again as the party that upholds these U.S. strengths.
The third Republican principle is to be clear-eyed about the geopolitical challenges posed by renewed great-power competition. This clarity is especially needed given the Democrats’ tendency to shy away from this fact, as demonstrated during the 2012 presidential election campaign, when Obama mocked Republican candidate Mitt Romney for raising the alarm about a revanchist Russia and the growing threat from China. Republicans presciently warned about the geopolitical shifts that are now widely accepted on both sides of the aisle.
The fourth great Republican principle was embodied by Reagan: Advancing U.S. interests involves upholding U.S. values both at home and abroad. This is why freedom activists in tyrannical regimes have for so many decades looked to the United States for inspiration and support. Trump abandoned this principle with his fawning embrace of autocrats, craven transactionalism even toward democratic allies, and post-election attempt to deny Biden’s victory. This principle should never have been abandoned, and it is now time to restore it.
The second lesson Republican leaders must learn from the Trump experience concerns popular support for their policies. Trump proved that the pre-2016 Republican narrative that connected the party’s foreign policy to the American voter had lost much of its persuasive power.
Republican leaders need to recommit themselves to building and sustaining public support for their foreign policy. In part, this will require fresh ways of articulating time-tested policies. For instance, even if polls show that the public understands that trade is good for the United States, it does not make sense for Republicans to promote trade by emphasizing economic efficiency and comparative advantage. Rather, Republican leaders should be talking about liberty—tariffs are effectively taxes on Americans—and insisting on greater reciprocity—you treat me as I treat you—in trade with other countries. Republicans should also distinguish between hostile powers, such as China, that may require tough trade measures and a different category of trade relations with U.S. allies, where closer economic ties can also bring national security benefits. Similarly, Republican leaders should not excuse U.S. allies’ failures to spend enough on defense and should continue to press them to increase their military budgets. But the party should remind voters that U.S. allies nonetheless contribute in other meaningful ways—such as their treaty commitments to fight alongside the United States in case of an attack, the U.S. bases they host and finance, the intelligence they share, and especially the more than 1,000 soldiers from countries allied with the United States who have died in Afghanistan.
That brings us to what Republicans must avoid or at least minimize: Stalinist purges. Those Trump appointees who served the country honorably under exceptionally difficult circumstances should be welcomed in the effort to renew the Republican Party. Politics is a craft of addition and inclusion: Every Republican who is committed to rebuilding the party into a winning coalition—both to win elections and to win support for Republican foreign-policy principles that advance the country’s interests—should have a seat at the table.
The Republican Party that was reborn on Nov. 3 owes Trump nothing. Let him bleat and tweet as his audience dissipates. The voters have rejected him, even if he intends to hold on to power within the Republican Party. Yes, he is still a powerful force today, as shown by the many prominent Republicans who publicly support his efforts to undermine the democratic election process or are too cowed to speak up. But Trump’s post-election behavior strikingly underscores the fact that his interests diverge sharply from those of the party. Trump and his immediate family cannot see it, but the Republicans left to govern after Jan. 20 see it all too well.
Let the dwindling number of die-hard Trumpists cling to their nostalgia for “Make America Great Again,” make their pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago, and marginalize themselves. They have made it abundantly clear that they do not have the interests of the party in mind. The bankruptcy of their approach becomes more obvious with each passing day—witness how their conspiracy-mongering and refusal to concede Trump’s election loss are hamstringing Republican prospects in the all-important runoff elections for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats.
In the meantime, we hope all Republicans will join us in serving the country as the loyal opposition to the Biden administration. That means supporting Biden when he advances wise policies, compromising where necessary, and making substantive, fair critiques when Biden is erring—or when his own far-left flank is pressing him into unwise ventures. Above all, it means abandoning a destructively personalized and hyperpolarized style of politics. The past four years provided enough of that to last us the rest of our lives.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.