The Struggle for the Soul of American Foreign Policy Has Begun


What was that brutal indictment offered by French President Jacques Chirac in response to American inaction in addressing the Bosnia crisis in the mid-1990s? “The position of leader of the free world is vacant.” A great many people around the world probably felt that way on January 20, 2017. The title “leader of the free world” is normally bestowed upon the American president. Yet the newest person to hold that office, Donald Trump, ushered in his administration by invoking the plausible-sounding but poisonous message of “America first,” and thereby rejecting — implicitly but unmistakably — the notion that America has any stake in defending the liberally oriented international order it has led for the past 70 years.

It was, no doubt, an alarming message for many U.S. and foreign observers, precisely because it was delivered so stridently and unapologetically. But years from now, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we will recognize that by stating his position so vociferously and so early in his presidency, Trump actually did those of us who support America’s longstanding global leadership role a favor. For he has shown with stark clarity precisely how fully he intends to upend three generations’ worth of U.S. foreign policy. And he has thus summoned the many and diverse groups of American internationalists to join the battle for the soul of U.S. statecraft now under way.

This would not, of course, be the first time that an inaugural has served as a clarifying moment. In January 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his immortal pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That promise crystallized Kennedy’s desire to reenergize American statecraft after the (alleged and exaggerated) torpor of the Eisenhower years. It prefigured both the ethos and many of the errors of his presidency. Twenty years later, amid a severe economic downturn and a years-long crisis of national self-confidence, Ronald Reagan reminded Americans that “we have every right to dream heroic dreams.” That message presaged the high ambitions — and, in foreign affairs, many of the great accomplishments — of Reagan’s tenure.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address was also remarkably clarifying, but in all the wrong ways. It has been reported that Trump and his speechwriters mined the inaugural speeches given by Reagan and Kennedy for ideas in the run-up to this inauguration. If so, the irony is endless, for Trump’s inaugural turned the basic messages of both Kennedy and Reagan on their heads. Trump’s America has no right to dream heroic dreams. It is, according to him, a dystopian hellscape only he can redeem. Trump’s America need not heed the opinions or promote the freedom and wellbeing of others around the world. In his accounting, the country has no mission beyond the pursuit of its own naked, narrowly defined, and misconstrued self-interest.

With respect to foreign policy, Trump’s inaugural threw down the gauntlet in what is shaping up to be a presidential assault on the ideas and policies that have underpinned American leadership of a relatively stable and prosperous international system. He evinced a fierce hostility to the alliances that protected U.S. interests and international security throughout the postwar era, building on the disparaging comments he had made toward key U.S. allies such as Germany. He threw nary a bone to those who care about American values and even promised that an activist approach to democracy and human rights would find no quarter in his White House. Most jarring of all, Trump pledged to pursue an unabashedly protectionist economic agenda, featuring policies that represent the very antithesis of the positive-sum ethos that characterized U.S. policy for so long. Since World War II, American foreign economic policy — and much of U.S. global strategy more broadly — has been based on enlightened self-interest, or the idea that the United States can do best for itself by helping others succeed. Trump, by contrast, depicted a zero-sum world in which gains for any other nation — friend or foe — automatically represent a loss for the United States. His agenda, therefore, is designed to immiserate our neighbors and partners. In the end, history and basic economic theory tell us, it will immiserate us, as well.

The bad news — and it is awful — is thus that we now have a president whose foreign policy agenda essentially amounts to burning the U.S.-led international order to the ground and hoping that America can collect the lion’s share of the ashes. The good news, such as it is, is that in unveiling this agenda so brazenly and early, Trump has also fully dispelled any illusions about his presidency and the dangers it poses.

It is clear, for instance, that the normal rules of presidential moderation once in office will not apply here. Trump will try to govern in the same incendiary and dishonest manner that defined his campaign. It is clear that his more sober and honorable advisers are so far losing the battle for influence within the administration. There were no traces of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in the inaugural, but Steve Bannon had his xenophobic fingerprints all over it. And most of all, it is clear that there is no deeper or more complex version of Trump. There is just a man who appears actually to believe that the discredited nostrums and shibboleths of the 1930s can be resurrected without inviting disaster today. Trump is still Trump — a man every bit as noxious and corrosive to international security and prosperity as the Never Trumpers warned us nearly a year ago.

But perhaps by making all of this so unmistakable, Trump has given those who oppose his dark vision a gift. For it is now impossible to deny the profundity of the changes Trump seeks to wreak upon U.S. foreign policy or to evade the fact that a fateful struggle over the direction of American strategy is underway. And so Trump’s inaugural address must serve as a call to action on the part of those groups and people who are well-positioned to push back.

It is too easy to be demoralized after Trump’s address and to forget that such actors are legion. There is, for example, a bipartisan internationalist contingent in the Congress that understands the dangers of helping Trump wreck American alliances and the global economy. There are, particularly, those Republican leaders — Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio — who will find common cause with the administration on issues such as military spending, but are well-placed to make Trump’s life miserable should he seek to weaken American alliances or appease Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There are also the more serious advisers within the administration, as well as the body of decent, hard-working civil servants who over years have helped craft the policies that Trump now aims to deconstruct. Mattis, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson, and Mike Pompeo have already publicly disagreed with Trump’s views on a wide range of foreign policy issues. They will, one hopes, be fighting the good fight from the inside in the coming years.

And that’s just within the government. Looking beyond that government, there is a powerful business community that knows many of its members will have reasons to rue Trump’s economic agenda. There are the individuals and organizations that make up the human rights and democracy-promotion community. These actors have historically proven quite effective in working with Congress to stymie efforts to sideline human rights and democracy in American foreign policy. One presumes they are girding for another such fight today. There is also the broader, bipartisan policy wonk community. Those who know the history, theory, and practice of U.S. foreign relations understand just how disastrous some of Trump’s proposed departures would be.

Finally, there are ordinary Americans who are no doubt weary of the burdens of global leadership, but are not clamoring to pull up the drawbridge and retreat to Fortress America. According to some recent public opinion polling, Americans remain fairly well disposed toward NATO, other U.S. alliances, and even international trade and globalization. Trump, for his part, is already a historically unpopular president who caters to his base because he knows he cannot achieve a broader appeal.

All of these groups and many others will have an essential role to play in the Trump era. It will be incumbent upon them to strongly and repeatedly point out the geopolitical and geoeconomic illiteracy of Trump’s more dangerous schemes, even as they applaud should the administration do something constructive on defense spending or other issues. They must aggressively use what levers they possess to affect policy, whether those levers are the National Defense Authorization Act, the sharp questioning of a congressman at a town hall meeting, or the well-timed op-ed, open letter, or article. Not least, they must avoid the internecine struggles that would allow a President Trump to divide and conquer. Arguments about the Iraq War or the Syria red line incident are trivial compared to the fundamental, first-order questions we now confront. Former political foes must prioritize the national interest over schadenfreude or partisan point-scoring.

Years from now, Americans and people around the world may look back on Trump’s inaugural as the prelude to withdrawal and catastrophe — the moment when the United States indeed vacated the position of leader of the free world. But there is another possibility. Perhaps they instead remember it as the clarion call that rallied defenders of an engaged and principled America to stand up and collectively fight to maintain a proud foreign policy tradition. The role of a fierce and loyal opposition, one whose very loyalty to America compels it to fiercely oppose dangerous ideas, has never been more vital. Raise your voices and wield your pens. The stakes could hardly be higher.


Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.  His most recent books are Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (2016), and What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (2014).

Image: Caleb Smith, Office of the Speaker of the House