Is American Internationalism Dead? Reading the National Mood in the Age of Trump

Long-Form | May 16, 2017 |

“A world is collapsing before our eyes,” wrote Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, upon learning of Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016. Many American internationalists probably felt just the same way. For roughly four generations prior to Trump’s victory, the United States had pursued a robust and engaged internationalism supported by a bipartisan political consensus. In November 2016, however, American voters elected a candidate who condemned many aspects of that internationalist tradition in harsh and unapologetic tones. The country that had spent decades erecting an international order based on free trade, multilateral cooperation, a global alliance network, and the promotion of democratic values had now chosen as its leader a man who voiced skepticism — if not outright hostility — toward nearly all the key components of this ambitious American project. In the wake of the election, there was thus a pervasive sense of despair among many foreign leaders—and no less, among members of the American foreign policy establishment. “The U.S. is, for now, out of the world order business,” Robert Kagan wrote. After more than 70 years, American internationalism was pronounced politically dead.

True understanding often comes only with time, of course, and it will be years before we know what Trump’s rise ultimately means for the arc of American engagement with the world. Indeed, Trump’s statecraft itself remains a work in progress. How closely his policies hew to the radical critiques he offered during the campaign remains to be seen. Yet it is not too soon to begin placing Trump’s ascent in historical perspective and to start grappling, on the basis of the evidence at hand, with what his victory tells us about the state of American internationalism today. This question is, after all, of profound geopolitical importance. Given the central role the United States has played in building and sustaining the postwar international order, the political collapse of American internationalism would be an epochal, globe-shaking event.

As it turns out, though, the answer to that question is more complicated than it may initially seem. On the one hand, there is evidence to suggest that — Trump’s rise notwithstanding — the political fundamentals of American internationalism actually remain fairly strong. On the other hand, there are also good reasons to believe that American internationalism may indeed be in deep political trouble — that the 2016 campaign simply revealed previously undiagnosed cancers that have now begun to metastasize. In other words, American internationalism is not yet politically flat-lining and many of its individual elements still appear quite popular with the domestic audience. But it nonetheless faces deeper structural challenges that facilitated Trump’s ascendancy — and that could ultimately, if left unaddressed, pose a serious threat to that tradition’s survival.

The Internationalist Tradition

For more than 70 years, American internationalism has been rooted in an enduring two-fold logic of interdependence and indispensability. After World War II, American policymakers concluded that the global arena had become fundamentally interdependent: The United States could not be secure in a world dominated by aggressive dictators or stalked by instability and war, just as it could not be prosperous in a world plagued by protectionism and depression. They also concluded that the United States, by dint of its unequaled power, was uniquely and indispensably suited to creating a broader global order that would protect American interests and values in an interdependent world. As Gen. George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, commented in 1945, Washington could no longer pursue a narrow conception of national interest or limit its strategic horizons to the Western Hemisphere: “We are now concerned with the peace of the entire world.”

During the postwar decades, American officials thus sought to fashion an open international economy that would foster positive-sum relationships and prevent another slide into depression and war. They worked to preserve geopolitical stability in key regions from Western Europe to East Asia, and to prevent aggressive authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union from dominating those regions or disrupting international peace. They sought to sustain a global balance of power that favored America and its democratic allies, and to advance liberal concepts such as democracy and human rights. They created a global institutional architecture that emphasized international cooperation and multilateralism. And to attain these ends, U.S. policymakers embraced a historically unprecedented degree of activism and engagement in the form of military alliances and overseas troop deployments, leadership of international institutions and the global economy, and myriad other initiatives. America’s postwar internationalism, as Henry Kissinger once remarked, was based on

the notion of a predominant United States, as the only stable country, the richest country, the country without whose leadership and physical contribution nothing was possible, and which had to make all the difference for defense and progress everywhere in the world.

American activism abroad, in turn, was supported by a bipartisan political consensus at home. To be sure, the old bromide that politics stop at the water’s edge was always more aspiration than reality. The internationalist consensus emerged only after significant congressional and public debate in the 1940s. Postwar America has seen fierce political disputes over issues ranging from the “loss” of China to the Iraq War. The degree of support for an ambitious global agenda has waxed and waned over the years, and from time to time — from Vietnam to Iran-Contra and beyond — there have been recurring crises in public resolve and confidence regarding America’s global mission. But broadly speaking, America’s two major political parties and majorities of their supporters nonetheless consistently accepted the basic logic of American internationalism — and so the U.S. political system consistently provided the wherewithal to pursue that strategy.

Over a period of decades, the American people and their elected representatives funded defense expenditures far greater than what would have been necessary simply to protect the continental United States. They faced up to the idea that American troops might fight and die to defend faraway frontiers. And they accepted — often reluctantly — the notion that Washington should take primary responsibility for leading the global economy, U.S. alliances, and international institutions, despite the myriad costs and frustrations involved.

Americans accepted these costs not out of any special altruism, of course, but because they believed the benefits of living in — and leading — a stable, prosperous, and liberal world order were ultimately greater. But if the postwar era was thus characterized, as G. John Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney write, by a “bipartisan consensus … on the paramount importance of American leadership,” then the 2016 presidential election and its results surely called into question whether that consensus still exists.

The Trump Disruption

In foreign policy, as in so many things, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign represented a frontal assault on the established order. If a commitment to internationalism has represented the soul of American statecraft since World War II, Trump often seemed determined to violate every shibboleth of the faith en route to the White House.

Trump repeatedly derided U.S. alliances as “obsolete,” and he suggested that Washington might not honor its defense commitments in Eastern Europe. He questioned decades of U.S. non-proliferation policy, saying that Japan and South Korea should perhaps get nuclear weapons to enable American retrenchment. He lambasted free trade agreements ranging from NAFTA (“the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country”) to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a rape of our country”) and advocated a return to high tariffs and economic protectionism. He sharply condemned international institutions from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, and proposed measures — such as a ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees, and the construction of a great wall on the Mexican border — to fortify America against the insecurities of the outside world. He scorned the idea that the United States had either a moral or practical calling to promote democracy and human rights abroad, and he advocated a partnership with the international leader — Vladimir Putin — whose country often seemed to pose the greatest near-term danger to the global order. Across an array of issues, Trump thus rejected key initiatives and accomplishments of postwar U.S. statecraft.

Trump also rejected the postwar consensus in more fundamental ways, by attacking its underlying geopolitical logic. Both during the campaign and after, Trump ridiculed the core intellectual pillar of American internationalism: the idea that U.S. foreign policy should be a positive-sum endeavor in which the American people thrive by helping others thrive. Instead, Trump cast international relations as an inherently zero-sum endeavor, one in which gains for other nations represent losses for the United States — and in which a gullible Washington is all too frequently taken to the cleaners. “We’re taken advantage of by virtually every nation in the world,” he claimed.

Similarly, Trump cast doubt on the value of the multilateralism that had generally guided postwar U.S. leadership, arguing — on issues from trade to counter-terrorism — that the world’s sole superpower would do better with a unilateral approach that freed it from the strictures of international law and global opinion. He questioned whether events in faraway parts of the world — Eastern Europe or East Asia, for instance — really mattered to American well-being, thereby contradicting the interdependence logic at the heart of postwar foreign policy. He contended that the pursuit of global openness left the United States weaker and more vulnerable rather than stronger and more prosperous. And he harkened back to the more coercive, mercantilist ethos of an earlier era, arguing that the United States should use its military dominance not for nation-building but for plundering the resource wealth of weaker countries.

Indeed, although Trump’s critics sometimes claimed that his policy proposals were unmoored from any discernable philosophy, the reality was rather different. Consciously or not, Trump was often advocating a return to the foreign policy doctrines — protectionism, unilateralism, continentalism, mercantilism — that had predated the rise of American internationalism. In doing so, he willingly courted and reciprocated the enmity of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that had shaped America’s approach to the world for generations, arguing that this group was not a select priesthood to be heeded but a corrupt cabal that had led the nation from disaster to disaster. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt famously welcomed the hatred of his political enemies. Trump took a similar tack in dismissing the establishment as “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”

To be clear, Trump did not campaign on a platform of classical isolationism, his critiques of alliances, globalization, and international institutions notwithstanding. He argued, for instance, that the United States must build unrivaled military strength to get its way in global affairs. He called for a more ruthless and aggressive campaign against terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. He promised to take a more confrontational posture toward adversaries such as Iran. In all this, Trump had much in common with the Jacksonian school of American foreign policy — a tradition that does not advocate wholesale withdrawal from the world, but rather emphasizes narrowing U.S. interests while also pursuing those interests more unilaterally and assertively. Yet whatever the label, Trump unmistakably argued for a significant departure from the ambitious, globally oriented internationalism that had long characterized U.S. policy, calling for a return to the more parochial nationalism abandoned by Washington after World War II.

And whereas every other presidential candidate who had challenged the postwar tradition failed at the ballot box, Trump triumphed. Dwight Eisenhower stepped in to defeat the quasi-isolationist Robert Taft for the Republican nomination in 1952. Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern and his “Come home, America” platform in 1972. Neither Pat Buchanan nor Ross Perot broke through in 1992 or 1996. Yet Trump — despite espousing views that most foreign policy experts, including hundreds of GOP wonks, considered to be dangerous and disqualifying — rolled through 16 challengers for the Republican nomination and bested a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment for the presidency. Add in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ success in attracting strong support in the Democratic primaries by harshly critiquing globalization and other tenets of U.S. policy, and it seems all the more evident that the foreign policy mainstream took a beating.

So, was the 2016 election merely an aberration within the long history of American internationalism? Or does Trump’s victory indicate deeper and perhaps more irrevocable changes in American attitudes on foreign affairs? As it turns out, there are two plausible interpretations of this issue, and they point in very different directions.

Not Dead Yet

Start with the optimistic interpretation. It is always dangerous to read too much into the outcome of any single election, and it may be particularly dangerous to read too much into what happened in 2016. For one thing, the 2016 campaign was not fought primarily over philosophical first principles. It did not feature particularly probing debates about America’s place in the world. Rather, it was defined largely by the historic unpopularity of both candidates and featured comparatively little substantive discussion of most foreign policy issues. Moreover, Trump might have been decisively defeated — some polls showed him trailing by double digits in mid-October — were it not for a series of remarkably lucky breaks late in the campaign, particularly then-FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that he had reopened the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Finally, although Trump won the election, he did decisively lose the popular vote to a candidate who distanced herself from TPP in the heat of the Democratic primaries but whose views were nonetheless just as reliably internationalist as any of her recent Democratic predecessors. In light of these issues, it is tempting to see 2016 as a political fluke — a sui generis event that tells us little about public support for U.S. foreign policy.

This is not simply wishful thinking, for there is a good deal of evidence to bolster this interpretation. If political support for American internationalism was plummeting, one would expect to see unambiguous downturns in public opinion toward U.S. alliances, international trade, and other key initiatives. Yet while there certainly are signs of public alienation from American internationalism — as discussed subsequently — most recent polling data tells a different story.

According to public opinion surveys taken in the heat of the 2016 campaign, for instance, 65 percent of Americans saw globalization as “mostly good” for the United States, and 64 percent saw international trade as “good for their own standard of living.” Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Clinton disowned under pressure from Sanders, and which Trump used as a political punching bag — enjoyed 60 percent support. Reaching back slightly further to 2013, an overwhelming majority — 77 percent — of Americans believed that trade and business ties to other countries were either “somewhat good” or “very good” for the United States. In other words, if Americans are in wholesale revolt against globalization, most public opinion polls are not capturing that discontent.

Nor are they registering a broad popular backlash against other aspects of American internationalism. Although Trump delighted in disparaging U.S. alliances during the campaign, some 77 percent of Americans still saw being a member of NATO as a good thing. A remarkable 89 percent believed that maintaining U.S. alliances was “very or somewhat effective at achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.”

Similarly, recent opinion polls have revealed little evidence that the American public is demanding significant military retrenchment. In 2016, three-quarters of respondents believed that defense spending should rise or stay the same. The proposition favoring more defense spending had actually increased significantly (from 23 percent to 35 percent) since 2013. Support for maintaining overseas bases and forward deployments of U.S. troops was also strong. And regarding military intervention, recent polls have indeed shown a widespread belief that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the cost, but these sentiments do not seem to have translated into a broader skepticism regarding the utility of military force. In 2016, for instance, 62 percent of Americans approved of the military campaign against the Islamic State, demonstrating broad agreement that the United States should be willing to use the sword — even in faraway places — when threats emerge.

Polling on other issues reveals still more of the same. For all of Trump’s critiques of international institutions, international law, and multilateralism, nearly two-third of Americans (64 percent) viewed the United Nations favorably in 2016 and 71 percent supported U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on combating climate change. And, although polls indicating that over 50 percent of Americans now prefer to let other countries “get along as best they can” on their own are far more troubling, here too the overall picture painted by recent survey data is somewhat brighter. As of 2016, more than half — 55 percent — of Americans believed that the United States either did too little or the right amount in confronting global problems. When asked if the United States should continue playing an active role in world affairs, nearly two-thirds answered affirmatively.

As one comprehensive analysis of the survey data thus concluded, at present there is just not overwhelming evidence — in the polls, at least — to suggest a broad-gauged public rejection of internationalism:

The American public as a whole still thinks that the United States is the greatest and most influential country in the world, and bipartisan support remains strong for the country to take an active part in world affairs.

On some issues, in fact, Trump’s behavior since becoming president has actually affirmed the continued resilience of American internationalism. Early indications that the administration was considering imposing a high border tax on imports from Mexico, or perhaps even withdrawing from NAFTA, were met with a sharply negative political response — including from many Republican senators and congressman otherwise supportive of Trump. As Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina eloquently tweeted, “Any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila, or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.” Likewise, when Trump harangued Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an early phone conversation, internationalist senators, led by Sen. John McCain, leapt to the defense of the alliance. And when Trump demanded that South Korea pay a greater share of the costs for a missile defense system, in contravention of an earlier agreement, other Republican legislators urged the president to focus on pressuring Pyongyang rather than Seoul.

What all of this quickly made clear was that although Trump’s rhetoric might have appealed to some portion of his electoral base, there was simply no winning political coalition for tearing up NAFTA, undermining American alliances, or fundamentally deconstructing American internationalism. Indeed, as Trump subsequently moderated his conduct on these issues — by proclaiming his support for NATO and other U.S. alliances, and by pledging to revise rather than terminate NAFTA — and as his administration backed away from other campaign pledges such as launching an early trade war with China, it increasingly appeared as though the president was simply adjusting to this reality.

Finally, even if American internationalism is under pressure today, it is worth bearing in mind that we have been here before. Trade has always been a contested issue because it creates losers as well as winners. Grumbling about free-loading allies dates back to the birth of NATO. Indeed, the idea that American internationalism was ever an easy sell would come as news to the spirits of Dean Acheson or Dwight Eisenhower. And although predictions of the political demise of American internationalism have been made many times before, they have just as often been proven wrong.

In the final throes and aftermath of the Vietnam War, for instance, the United States was gripped by desires for geopolitical retrenchment, which carried George McGovern to the Democratic presidential nomination, led to major cuts in defense spending, and even spurred efforts within Congress to withdraw large numbers of U.S. forces from Europe. There was a strong sense of dissatisfaction with the burdens imposed by U.S. leadership of the international economic order — not just in the body politic, but within the Nixon administration itself.  “Foreigners are out to screw us,” Treasury Secretary John Connally remarked. “Our job is to screw them first.” It often seemed like political support for American international leadership was evaporating: Following the withdrawal from Vietnam, only 36 percent of Americans felt that “it was important for the United States to make and keep commitments to other nations.”  And yet within just a few years’ time, the United States was undertaking a renewed Cold War offensive against the Soviet Union, pursuing democracy- and human rights-promotion with unprecedented fervor, and serving as the foremost evangelist of the intensified economic and financial globalization unleashed in the 1970s. The logic of American internationalism has been tested before, and it has repeatedly proven resilient.

One can thus make a good case for optimism in assessing the prospects of internationalism. At the very least, it is far too early to pronounce that tradition politically dead. But if there nonetheless seems to be a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality to this interpretation, in light of the simple fact that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, that’s because there is also a far more pessimistic — and equally plausible — way of reading the national mood. From this perspective, Trump’s rise is not an aberration or a glitch. It is, rather, the culmination of a quiet crisis that has gradually but unmistakably been weakening the political foundations of American internationalism. That crisis may not yet be manifesting in dramatic, across-the-board changes in how Americans view particular foreign policy issues. But as Trump’s election indicates, its political effects are nonetheless becoming profound.

Going, Going...

This glass-half-empty interpretation starts from the premise that America’s postwar internationalist project was not just extraordinary in scope. It was also the product of extraordinary circumstances. For most of its history, the United States pursued what might be thought of as a pre-internationalist foreign policy. Only the triple whammy of the Great Depression, World War II, and then the Cold War led to the rise of the internationalist tradition.  These events provided a vivid reminder, for those Americans who experienced them, of what the costs and dangers of not sustaining an open, secure international order could be, and thus impelled Americans to make the sacrifices necessary to forge the postwar system. These events also provided another crucial inducement to heroic exertions: the looming presence of dangerous, morally abhorrent enemies whose very existence helped foster a degree of national unity and rally Americans to the cause.

As these circumstances — and even memories thereof — gradually faded, however, the benefits of Washington’s global role became less tangible for many Americans because it was harder to identify precisely what catastrophe U.S. engagement is meant to avert. As America lost its most powerful enemies, the cohesion and purpose they provided also dissipated. “Without the Cold War,” John Updike’s title character famously asked in the novel, Rabbit at Rest, “What’s the point of being an American?” In the early 2000s, the patriotic fervor that followed 9/11 temporarily masked these dynamics. But as some of the highest profile policy initiatives of the post-9/11 era — namely the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — produced deeply disappointing results, and as the 2007 to 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath reminded Americans that their resources were finite indeed, it was only natural that the political stars would eventually align for someone willing to challenge the established orthodoxy. Donald Trump, then, was not some political black swan. He was Pat Buchanan — who ran on a remarkably similar platform of geopolitical retrenchment and economic nationalism in the 1990s — with better timing.

Meanwhile, the political defenses of American internationalism were also being softened up in other ways. By almost any standard, American internationalism has been broadly successful in creating a remarkably advantageous world order. But aspects of that tradition have undoubtedly been misfiring of late.

Burden-sharing within America’s alliances has, in fact, become increasingly unbalanced since the Cold War. Whatever the polls may say, ally-bashing has become bipartisan sport in Washington. “The blunt reality,” warned Robert Gates — no America Firster — in 2011

is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.

Similarly, it is undeniable that U.S. nation-building missions over the past 15 years have often proven costly and unrewarding. After all, it was not Trump but Obama who first called for the country to shift from nation-building abroad to nation-building at home. Whatever their views on other parts of American internationalism, many Americans apparently agreed. Whereas 29 percent of Americans believed that promoting democracy abroad should be a key diplomatic priority in 2001, by 2013 the number was only 18 percent. When Trump slammed these aspects of American internationalism, he was pushing on an open door.

He was also pushing on an open door in attacking a foreign policy establishment that almost unanimously opposed his candidacy. That bipartisan establishment had served as the stewards of American internationalism for decades, and in different circumstances its opposition might have proven fatal to a candidate with no foreign policy experience or expertise. What Trump intuitively understood, however, was that the credibility of the experts had been badly tarnished in recent years.

As Tom Nichols has observed, the deference that experts command from the U.S. public has been declining for some time, and this is certainly the case in foreign policy. After all, under George W. Bush one group of experts led the country into a war in Iraq that a majority of Americans have long since come to see as a mistake. Under Barack Obama, a second group of experts then oversaw a precipitous withdrawal from that country, resulting in the security vacuum that enabled the rise of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization even more terrifying than al-Qaeda. When Trump — who had, of course, supported the invasion of Iraq before he opposed it — dismissed establishment criticism by repeatedly pointing out that this was the very establishment that had brought the United States such costly fiascos, his rejoinder probably resonated with many voters who had grown skeptical of just how smart the experts really were.

These issues related to another, more fundamental contributor to the crisis of American internationalism: the rupturing of the basic political-economic bargain that had long undergirded that tradition. From its inception, internationalism entailed significant and tangible costs, both financial and otherwise, and the pursuit of free trade in particular inevitably disadvantaged workers and industries that suffered from greater global competition. As a result, the rise of American internationalism during and after World War II went hand-in-hand with measures designed to offset these costs by ensuring upward social mobility and rising economic fortunes for the voters — particularly working- and middle-class voters — being asked to bear them. Domestic policies such as progressive taxation, Keynesian full employment initiatives, support for unionization, and social safety net programs were thus just as critical to American internationalism as were overseas endeavors such as alliances, trade deals, and forward military deployments. Political elites also assured voters that, over time, the rising economic tide that came with open markets would lift all boats, even if freer trade created dislocations in the short term. This bargain has gradually been fraying since as far back as the late 1970s, however, and in recent years it increasingly seems to have broken.

For the fact is that many Americans — particularly less-educated Americans — are not seeing their economic fortunes and mobility improve over time. Rather, their prospects have worsened significantly in recent decades. As a recent article by Jeff Colgan and Robert Keohane notes, the real median household income for Americans without high school diplomas dropped by 20 percent from 1974 to 2015, while real median household income for Americans with high school diplomas but no college education fell by 24 percent. Likewise, as Nicholas Eberstadt has written, members of these groups often face crippling economic insecurity, from sharply declining work rates among American men to sharply rising levels of household debt.

“Even though the American economy still remains the world’s unrivaled engine of wealth creation,” Eberstadt writes, “those outside the bubble may have less of a shot at the American Dream than has been the case for decades, maybe generations.” This economic insecurity reflects a variety of deep structural causes, from automation to the shift to a post-industrial economy that has left many industrial workers behind. Yet it has been exacerbated by the weakening of the social safety net, the regressive tax reforms, and the generally anti-union ethos that have characterized government policy since the late 1970s — and also by core aspects of U.S. statecraft.

The pursuit of globalization and free trade, for example, has been broadly beneficial to U.S. economic and financial power, and it has greatly improved the economic fortunes of the American population writ large. But as Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik warned 20 years ago, globalization has also exposed “a deep fault line between groups who have the skills and mobility to flourish in global markets and those who…don’t.” Sure enough, the economic gains from globalization have been pocketed largely by well-educated Americans in the upper deciles of the income distribution. Meanwhile, globalization has resulted in declining economic prospects for working-class Americans whose jobs can be outsourced or whose industries have been rocked by intensifying foreign competition from lower-wage economies.

To give just the most prominent example, expanding trade with China has been a bipartisan goal of U.S. policy for decades, meant to enhance American prosperity and draw China deeper into the existing international system. But that policy — which culminated in the granting of permanent normal trade status and WTO membership to China — also led to the loss of over 2 million U.S. jobs in manufacturing and related industries between 1999 and 2011. It bears restating, when discussing such issues, that most U.S. manufacturing job losses over the past several decades are the result of automation rather than trade, and that globalization gets blamed for far more evils than it deserves. But China-related job losses have constituted an economic bloodbath by any measure, one that has surely led many of the affected to question whether U.S. policy truly reflects their interests. The result was a brewing political backlash that Trump, with his strident condemnations of trade in general and China in particular, was able to channel and exploit.

Indeed, although there is plenty of public opinion polling that paints a reassuring picture of American views on trade and globalization, there are also clear indications that such a backlash is occurring. In 2016, a plurality of Americans (49 percent) argued that “U.S. involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs,” a sentiment perfectly tailored to Trump’s protectionist message. During the GOP primaries, an even larger proportion (65 percent) of Trump’s voters argued that U.S. involvement in the international economy was a bad thing. During the general election, Trump performed particularly well in areas where competition from trade was most intense. And while this shift in GOP views on free trade is striking, given that party’s traditional support for free trade, Bernie Sanders clearly tapped into similar sentiments in the Democratic primaries.

More broadly, it is hard not to see concerns about economic insecurity looming large in the growing proportion of Americans who believe that the United States is overinvested internationally — and who therefore prefer for the “U.S. to deal with its own problems, while letting other countries get along as best they can.” In 2013, 52 percent of Americans — the highest number in decades — agreed with a version of this statement. In 2016, the number was even higher at 57 percent.

In sum, American voters may still express fairly strong support for free trade and other longstanding policies in public opinion surveys. But it is simply impossible to ignore the fact that, among significant swaths of the population, there is nonetheless an unmistakable and politically potent sense that American foreign policy has become decoupled from the interests of those it is meant to serve.

And this point, in turn, illuminates a final strain that Trump’s rise so clearly highlighted: the growing sense that American internationalism has become unmoored from American nationalism. American internationalism was always conceived as an enlightened expression of American nationalism, an approach premised on the idea that the wellbeing of the United States was inextricably interwoven with that of the outside world. But the inequities of globalization have promoted a tangible feeling among many voters that American elites are now privileging an internationalist agenda (one that may suit cosmopolitan elites just fine) at the expense of the wellbeing of “ordinary Americans.” Likewise, insofar as immigration from Mexico and Central America has depressed wages for low-skilled workers and fueled concerns that the white working class is being displaced by other demographic groups, it has fostered beliefs that the openness at the heart of the internationalist project is benefitting the wrong people. “Many Jacksonians,” writes Walter Russell Mead of the coalition that brought Trump to power, “came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic.”

This belief, of course, is hard to measure with any certainty. But it can presumably be seen in the 92 percent of Trump’s supporters who favored building a wall on the Mexican border, in the 57 percent of Americans who believed that the United States had focused too much on other people’s problems and not enough on its own, and in the continuing erosion of Americans’ confidence in government. It can be seen in the nearly half (48 percent) of white working-class Americans who said in early 2017 that “I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” and the 68 percent who believed that “the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.” Viewed from this perspective, Trump’s rise was no fluke at all. An anti-internationalist candidate was primed to burst through the growing cracks in that foreign policy tradition.

The Fate of American Internationalism

What does all this tell us about the future of American internationalism? The answer involves elements of both interpretations offered here. It is premature to say that a “new isolationism” is taking hold, or that Americans are systematically turning away from internationalism, in light of the idiosyncrasies of Trump’s victory and the fact that so many key aspects of internationalism still poll fairly well. Yet no serious observer can contend that American internationalism is truly healthy given Trump’s triumph, and the 2016 election clearly revealed the assorted maladies that had been quietly eroding its political vitality. American internationalism may not be slipping into history just yet, but its long-term trajectory seems problematic indeed.

So, is it just a matter of time before American internationalism does collapse politically — before its political fortunes catch up to the drearier assessments that accompanied Trump’s rise? Not necessarily. After all, the fact that internationalism has survived for over seven decades, and has weathered setbacks as severe as Vietnam and Watergate, reminds us that it is fundamentally a robust and resilient paradigm. And the fact that it retains some political currency today, underlying difficulties notwithstanding, reminds us not to discount the possibility that predictions of its demise may again prove exaggerated.

For the future of American internationalism ultimately hinges on powerful factors that have yet to fully take shape, some of which U.S. officials cannot really control and some of which they can. In the former category, the cold truth is that political support for a robust internationalism has historically waxed when the level of external threat is high — as in the early Cold War, the early 1980s, or after 9/11 — and waned when it seems lower. Clear and present dangers provide a persuasive argument for why the costs of global engagement are worth bearing; they remind Americans how bad things can get in the absence of a steadying U.S. hand. This is the central irony of American internationalism: It is designed to keep the world safe and congenial, but works best politically when that world seems full of peril.

Bad news may thus be good news insofar as internationalism is concerned. It was no coincidence that American support for increased defense spending rose significantly after the Islamic State exploded onto the scene in 2014. If, as seems likely, the world grows more threatening in the coming years, and especially if the United States faces sharpening challenges from rival great powers such as Russia and China, then the logic of American internationalism may once again reassert itself. Nations need enemies, as Charles Krauthammer once wrote, and American internationalism could surely use some enemies right now.

Yet the fate of American internationalism will also hinge on things that U.S. leaders can more readily control — namely, how Washington responds to the various strains that Trump’s rise has revealed. It would be a historic mistake to adopt the drastic departures that Trump often proposed during his campaign. A pure version of “America First” would be the epitome of a cure far worse than the disease. But it would be equally a mistake to think that no adjustment is necessary. From time to time, U.S. political leaders have confronted the challenge of updating American internationalism in light of pressing political and geopolitical problems. A similar task presents itself today.

American leaders will need to aggressively defend U.S. interests and the global order while avoiding the costly quagmires that have left so many Americans disillusioned. They will need to drive harder bargains on burden-sharing and trade. They will need to ensure that the pursuit of an open and profitable trading system does not come at the expense of vulnerable populations at home. They will need to devise ways of better protecting the country’s borders and ensuring homeland security without losing the dynamism and societal rejuvenation that immigration provides. They will need to strengthen the social safety net for those who need it most while also pursuing the reforms necessary to keep those programs — and the U.S. government — solvent over time. They will need to get back to first principles in explaining why America’s global engagement really matters — and what would happen if Washington ceased to play such a role — while also giving more Americans a sense that their foreign policy truly does put them first.

What is needed, in other words, is an internationalism that puts American nationalism front and center — a calibrated and reasonable version of an “America First” agenda, not the cartoonish, pre-1941 version that Trump often touted on the road to the White House. Given the inherent difficulty of the task, and the alarmingly erratic nature of Trump himself, it is not at all clear that America will get such a sophisticated approach from this president, even if his policies do ultimately prove less radical than his rhetoric. Whether his successors can summon the creativity and courage necessary to chart this course will thus go far in determining whether American internationalism will ultimately endure.


Hal Brands is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Strategic Planning from 2015-2106. His most recent book is Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order.