“America Alone”: Trump’s Unilateralist Foreign Policy


As we enter the general portion of the 2016 presidential election, the foreign policies of the two presumptive nominees — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — will come under even more scrutiny. So far the alleged “dove vs. hawk” dichotomy between them has made headlines. Prominent pundits like David Ignatius believe Trump’s worldview, however incoherent, will pose a challenge for Clinton, as she will need to defend “why continued international engagement is in Americans’ interest and the world’s.”

The assumption underlying such assessments is that if you want the United States to pull back from the world, you should choose Trump. The problem with these discussions is that they miss a critical paradox: because Trump is an avid unilateralist, the way he wants to wield American power actually lends itself to hawkish decision-making.

What is the thread that ties these seemingly disparate policies together? Unilateralism. Not only should America be first, in Trump’s mind, it should act alone in the world. As Brookings’s Thomas Wright noted, “Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order.” Now he wants the United States to singularly act and change the status quo.

This is not a foreign policy of retrenchment. Quite to the contrary. Trump would get the United States involved in changing a set of “deals” with many actors around the world, ostensibly in order to strengthen America’s global strategic position. Of course, this will be hard to do without the support of partners and allies. Yet, at no point has Trump shown any desire to work with other actors. He repeatedly derides them, claiming they have somehow duped American leaders into “bad deals.”

In essence, Trump’s unilateral approach, with his mix of isolationism and belligerent nationalism, will not give his supporters what they crave. After all, throughout U.S. history presidents with unilateralist instincts have gotten the United States involved in military adventures abroad because of the lack of constraints on an unchained America. Trump’s desire to reap natural resources for America’s benefit, added to his desire to drop ordnance on terrorists, might encourage him to escalate wars in the Middle East or start new skirmishes elsewhere. The United States would take these actions by itself, eschewing and degrading support from our allies and friends whose patience will run very thin. Still, Trump would purposefully keep other important global players at bay, condemning the United States to a world of solitude.

In the end, solitude would make it harder for the United States to achieve its goals of improving its economy, ensuring its security, and having friends on which to call if events prove dire. Other countries’ strategy would first be to try to get the United States engaged once more, but then revert to some form of solitary confinement.

So why does the “Donald Trump dove myth” persist? Part of it has to do with our outdated discussion of what constitutes a hawk and a dove. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted, “hawkishness became equated with neoconservatism. You’re a hawk if you support sending in ground troops to fight terrorism or bombing Iran’s nuclear program; you’re a dove if you oppose those things.” This narrowing of the debate has neglected all the middle ground. You can still be a dove and believe in using the military tool when appropriate, and you can be a hawk and believe in keeping America disengaged — until it needs to be engaged.

Trump is not a neoconservative, and so the assumption that this means he is somehow less militaristic has permeated the debate about his foreign policy. He surely does not want to go around the world and remake it in America’s image. But he does want to go around the in world in search of monsters to destroy, including ISIL, China, and Libya, and capture resources like oil for America’s benefit. It’s an old-school model of foreign relations that would ultimately undermine U.S. standing and influence in the world.

Ultimately, it’s hard to see how Americans who are “wary of global involvement” will come to like Trump’s foreign policy, if ever enacted. Both Trump and Clinton want the United States to go beyond its borders and tackle challenges. The difference, though, is that Clinton is a multilateralist and prefers to work with allies and partners to solve global problems. The foreign policy and national security choice in this election, then, is not one of dove vs. hawk, but rather “solve global problems alone” vs. “solve global problems with allies and partners.” Or, more simply, unilateralism vs. multilateralism. To satisfy Americans’ desires to stop ISIL, halt the spread of disease, deal with climate change, and curb Russian and Chinese aggression, it would be hard to see why unilateralism is more appealing. If you believe the United States cannot be the world’s policeman and do everything on its own, why wouldn’t you want friends to help out?

It’s time to stop letting Trump have a free ride when it comes to his foreign policy and national security prescriptions. He wants to alter the liberal international order that has benefitted the United States and its allies since the end of World War II. He wants to defeat terrorists wherever they are. He wants to forcibly wrest natural resources from other states and bring them to America. And, he wants America to do all this by itself, mostly with military force. Perhaps instead of “America First,” his doctrine should really be “America Alone.”


Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense policy, strategy, and now focuses primarily on the presidential election and foreign policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.

Image: Michael Vadon, CC

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