How to Diminish a Superpower: Trump’s Foreign Policy After Six Months


Regardless of which candidate had won the 2016 election, the tenure of the 45th president was bound to represent a pivotal moment in the historical arc of the American superpower. Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s foremost power. Since the end of the Cold War, it has enjoyed an astounding level of geopolitical dominance. The United States has, on the whole, used that power quite constructively to create an international system that has been remarkably prosperous, stable, and liberal by any meaningful historical comparison.

But nothing—not even the remarkable degree of primacy that the United States possessed in the wake of the Soviet collapse—lasts forever.  And in recent years, both American dominance and the international system it has underpinned have come under strain. America’s military and economic primacy have been eroded by competition from a rising China. Meanwhile, challenges to the prevailing international system — from renewed great-power revisionism, to the resurgence of authoritarian models of governance, to the emergence of profound disorder in key regions such as the Middle East — have proliferated and intensified. To be sure, the prospects that these challenges might be successfully met seemed fairly good until quite recently. After all, the United States and its allies still control a clear preponderance of global economic and military power, and with some hard decisions and enlightened policies they might well mount a credible defense of their interests and values. Many informed observers — this one included — thus assumed that when Hillary Clinton was elected, adjusting American grand strategy as necessary to shore up American primacy and sustain a U.S.-centric global order would be her fundamental grand strategic task.

But Donald Trump triumphed, and as his administration passes its six-month mark, it is clear that something very different is happening. Based on his words and actions thus far, Trump appears likely to hasten the decay not just of the existing international order but of the American superpower itself. The president has, admittedly, shied away from some of his more radical campaign proposals. He has not yet withdrawn from American alliances, started trade wars, rushed headlong into a rapprochement with Russia, or otherwise pulled down the temple. And in fairness, the president has taken, or at least pledged to take, a tough line on North Korea and other threats to international stability.

Yet if Trump has been constrained by some of his more moderate advisers, by Congress, and by other factors from pursuing a pure version of his “America First” agenda, his presidency to date has still been quite damaging.  For in both his rhetoric and many of his early policies, Trump has taken dead aim at a number of the core ideas, practices, and traditions that have been central to America’s global role for decades. The president claims to be maximizing U.S. power and freedom of action in a cut-throat global environment. But in reality, he is pursuing a “present at the destruction” style of foreign policy, one that is compromising the very qualities that have made America such a successful superpower in the first place. 

The Dual Roots of the American Superpower

For the past 70 years, America’s success in both shaping and leading the international order has been rooted in two distinctive attributes — its unmatched, tangible hard power, on the one hand, and the particular ways in which that power has been wielded, on the other.

In purely material terms, the United States has been far and away the mightiest actor in the international arena since World War II. Even during the Cold War, America’s economy vastly overmatched that of the Soviet Union; Washington also enjoyed a significant advantage in overall military power, even though the conventional balance in Europe favored the Kremlin. Since the Cold War, U.S. advantages have been even more pronounced. The United States has regularly accounted for 35 to 45 percent of global military spending and possessed unrivaled power projection capabilities. It has also enjoyed a significant — if narrowing — economic lead over challengers such as China. These strengths represent the hard-power backbone of American leadership. They are the economic and military pillars of Washington’s global role.

Yet America’s effectiveness as a superpower has also depended heavily on how that power was used. The United States did not use its unmatched strengths simply to pursue its own interests, narrowly defined, but to create a broader international system that would benefit any country that agreed to honor its guiding liberal precepts. It anchored globe-straddling military alliances that fostered security and stability in key regions, and underwrote a relatively open international economy that delivered unprecedented prosperity. It provided important public goods such as freedom of the seas and leadership in addressing key global challenges. These practices were not rooted in charity, of course. They were rooted in the searing experiences of the Great Depression and World War II, which taught American leaders that the country could only be prosperous and secure in a world that was itself prosperous and secure.

Contrary to what President Trump and his supporters insist, this was a nationalistic, “America First” foreign policy. Indeed, the United States could not have sustained this approached to global affairs for over 70 years had it not benefitted so handsomely from the endeavor. But this was a broadly beneficial, positive sum form of nationalism, one that set the United States apart from its main great-power competitor  — the Soviet Union — after World War II, and one that made America’s hard power dominance more acceptable to many countries around the world. It was precisely this approach, in fact, that made the American superpower so exceptional — which ensured that the primary concern of that many of Washington’s allies and partners has not been the fear of American domination, but rather the fear of American abandonment.

U.S. leadership, moreover, hinged on a variety of other intangible but crucial factors. Because the international system ultimately rested on the credibility of American commitments, U.S. presidents across administrations worked hard to foster the perception that Washington was a reliable — even predictable — actor: one whose word was its bond and one that would serve as a source of steadiness in global affairs. American officials promoted — not always with perfect consistency — the advancement of human rights and democracy, in recognition that the United States would be more secure and influential in a world in which its political values were more widely represented, and in the belief that America’s geopolitical leadership was inextricably wound up with its moral leadership. American officials cultivated relationships of deep, embedded cooperation with like-minded nations, on the premise that shared long-term geopolitical interests and shared political values justified partnerships that transcended one-off, transactional interactions. Not least, U.S. influence stemmed not simply from America’s material prowess but from its image as an attractive if thoroughly imperfect society; unmatched soft power made the exercise of American hard power more effective. All of these qualities have long been essential to America’s career as a superpower. And based on the record of the Trump administration so far, all are under threat today.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Consider, for instance, the longstanding U.S. commitment to building a positive-sum world, one in which all countries committed to a common set of norms and principles can prosper. If there has been a single precept of U.S. foreign policy that Trump has singled out for attack, this has undoubtedly been it. Since he launched his run for the White House, Trump’s incessant refrain has been that international interactions are a zero-sum rather a positive-sum game, and that a guileless Uncle Sam is too often the sucker. “We’re being taken advantage by every nation in the world, virtually,” Trump explained in February 2017. “It’s not going to happen anymore.” Indeed, in Trump’s mind, the implication seems to be that for the United States to start “winning” again, it must cease looking out for the interests of others and get back to being the exploiter rather than the exploited.

This idea has suffused nearly all of Trump’s major addresses and pronouncements. It figured prominently in Trump’s inaugural address, in which he argued that the primary effect of American foreign policy had been to enrich rapacious foreigners while impoverishing the United States. It also characterized the key passage in a widely-read op-ed by Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, the director of his National Economic Council:

The world is not a “global community,” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

Not least, this idea has informed the president’s approach to numerous policy issues, from his insistence that the United States must — somehow — run trade surpluses with all its major trading partners to his condemnations of allied free-riding. And, of course, it has been central to his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris climate accord, international agreements that — Trump mistakenly believes — privilege others at the expense of American prosperity and freedom of action. Every U.S. president of the postwar era would have recognized that America must ultimately look out for its own interests, of course. Trump is unique in taking this idea to an antagonistic, narrowly nationalistic extreme.

The End of the Free World?

Trump has simultaneously attacked a second pillar of American leadership: the idea that there is a community of nations to which the United States is bound not simply by temporary convergence of interests, but by shared, enduring values and purposes. Self-described foreign policy “realists” commonly invoke Lord Palmerston’s comment that countries have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only eternal and perpetual interests. But for nearly four generations, the United States has had something close to eternal and perpetual allies, in the (mostly) democratic nations that make up the American alliance structure in Europe and East Asia.

These countries have been America’s partners of first resort in dealing with virtually every major international security challenge of the postwar period, from containing Soviet power to addressing the threat of jihadist terrorism. Their ties to Washington have been solidified by common liberal values, a broadly shared vision for international order, and diverse and deeply institutionalized forms of cooperation that have developed over decades. Yet Trump has advanced a view of foreign policy in which these relationships are significantly devalued.

Since he declared for the presidency in mid-2015, Trump has been far more unsparing in critiquing America’s European allies than in condemning the aggressive adversary — Russia —currently threatening them. In fact, he has often touted the idea of reaching some grand bargain with Moscow, presumably over the heads of the NATO countries. Similarly, during the transition, he said that he would start with the same level of trust for longstanding American friends, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, as for avowed American enemies, namely Vladimir Putin in Russia. He has repeatedly framed U.S. alliance relations are more antagonistic than cooperative, by fixating on the idea that those allies — Europeans especially — owe the United States “vast sums of money,” and by taking an openly abrasive posture in early diplomatic meetings. And, of course, he has rendered America’s security commitments to its allies less credible, first by suggesting during the campaign that the easternmost members of NATO might be left to defend themselves, and then by pointedly refusing to endorse NATO’s Article 5 during his first visit to Europe in May 2017. To be sure, many of Trump’s advisers have sought to reassure the allies by offering soothing messages of commitment and continuity. But at the presidential level, it is clear that — here as in so many areas —a great deal has changed.

Indeed, underlying all of this otherwise bizarre behavior are two related ideas at the core of Trump’s statecraft: that America’s alliances are fundamentally bum deals, because the United States delivers the lion’s share of the benefits, and that America should therefore prioritize transactional relationships — with any country, friend or foe, that is willing to cut a “good deal” — over more enduring partnerships in which accounts are not balanced on a one-off basis. Even some of the president’s more mainstream advisers have endorsed this latter concept. “Simply put, America will treat others as they treat us,” McMaster and Cohn wrote in May 2017. “Where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities.” The logical implication here is that no relationship is truly special — that ad hoc cooperation on the basis of temporarily aligned interests is the best America’s oldest friends can expect. It is hard to overstate just how much of a departure this is from postwar foreign policy — or how unsettling it is likely to be to relationships that have served the United States so well.

Power Without Purpose?

This departure, in turn, relates to a third way in which Trump’s statecraft is weakening the American superpower — by undermining its reputation as a force for the advancement of universal values. Throughout the Cold War and even before, U.S. presidents recognized that American power and American moral purpose were inextricably interwoven. U.S. national security, they understood, would be improved in an international environment in which human rights and democratic values were prevalent; America’s reputation as the foremost advocate of those values gave it a moral legitimacy that the Soviet Union or other authoritarian rivals could never attain. Trump has so far shown little appreciation of the relationship between power and moral purpose. He believes, as he has repeatedly said, that the United States lacks the moral authority to exert moral leadership in global affairs; he seems to calculate that a decidedly amoral approach to global affairs will best suit U.S. interests in a nasty world. Not least of all, he seems to style himself as something of a strongman, and therefore gravitates toward those leaders who actually possess dictatorial authority.

Trump has repeatedly shown that he prefers to consort with autocrats rather than democrats — his meetings with the latter are loose and relaxed in a way that his interactions with the former are not. He has promised not to “lecture” the Saudis on their internal practices, even as he has shown no compunction about lecturing Germany on its refugee policy or Europe on the failings of the European Union. He has praised Rodrigo Duterte in the midst of that leader’s murderous campaign of extrajudicial executions in the Philippines; advisers such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have downgraded human rights initiatives and cast values issues as distractions from the real business of foreign policy.

Indeed, the only occasion on which Trump has spoken at any length about the role of values in foreign policy is in the context of a supposed civilizational clash between the West and jihadist terrorism. That Trump offered these remarks in Poland, a country unmistakably backsliding toward quasi-autocracy, and yet never once mentioned the need to protect democratic institutions and civil liberties in that country, says volumes about the negligible importance he attaches to such issues. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between pursuing geopolitical interests and promoting American values, for the two things do not always go perfectly together, particularly in the short-run. What Trump seems to have decided, however, is that there is no balance worth striking at all.

The “Back-Row Kid”

Trump has also taken aim at a fourth pillar of American foreign policy — its willingness to lead in addressing key global issues. If the United States has always extracted special benefits from its global leadership position, that is because it has always born special responsibilities. Since World War II, the United States has consistently taken on the toughest global challenges. It has been the primary catalyst and coordinator of collective action to deal with pressing problems.

From rebuilding Europe after World War II, to leading the decades-long campaign against economic protectionism, to spearheading the fight against today’s transnational challenges such as piracy and terrorism, the United States has acted as though it is indeed the indispensable nation, and it has enjoyed the influence and status that come with that role.

As Derek Chollet and Julie Smith have recently written, however, Trump is now making America “a back-row kid.” Trump has signaled that the only global issues he truly cares about solving are jihadist terrorism and perhaps nuclear proliferation — those that most directly threaten the United States — and that his America is unwilling to bear the costs of leadership on other global matters. This was the universally understood message of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord — that America would abandon multilateral efforts to address the world’s most critical long-term security and economic challenge because those efforts would modestly infringe upon American sovereignty and impose some (exaggerated) near-term economic costs. A similar message was conveyed by Trump’s withdrawal from TPP — that the United States is no longer willing to head up the fight for a more open global economy, at a time when the liberal trading system is under growing strain. In Trump’s eyes, taking the lead on such issues is the opposite of what a self-interested superpower should do. It is just one more “globalist” sucker bet.

In light of this approach, it is hardly surprising that foreign leaders have begun voicing sentiments ranging from disappointment to despair at America’s absence from the international vanguard. As Merkel commented earlier this month, she “deplored” the administration’s stance on the Paris accords. It is no more surprising that China has been seizing the opportunity to portray itself as a global leader on these and other issues, because American policy has created a vacuum for ambitious actors to fill. There is deep irony, of course, in the fact that China — an illiberal, mercantilist country that for years resisted meaningful action to curb climate change, and that still employs economic coercion against its neighbors — is now posturing as the defender of the liberal international order America created. But odd things are happening to U.S. leadership and the global system in the age of Trump.

Unsteady As She Goes

Trump has thus shifted international perceptions of American purpose and leadership; his fifth contribution has been to dramatically erode America’s reputation for steadiness and reliability in foreign affairs. Notwithstanding occasional efforts to gain tactical advantage vis-à-vis adversaries by being unpredictable — the basic thrust of President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” — U.S. leaders have traditionally recognized that American foreign policy must remain broadly steady if Washington is to sustain an international order that ultimately rests on American guarantees. System leaders don’t get to be fundamentally unpredictable, for the simple reason that predictability — regarding the certainty of an American response to aggressive behavior, for instance — is what reassures allies and deters adversaries. Steadiness is what convinces foreign partners that the United States will not ask them to take political or diplomatic risks and then leave them in the lurch.

Trump, however, often argued on the stump that America was no longer winning because it had become too boring and predictable. And whether for this or other reasons, through six months he has done much to earn the United States a reputation for precisely the sort of unreliability that system leaders must strive to avoid. Most notably, of course, Trump walked away from the TPP and the Paris accords — two of the most important international agreements that the United States had signed in recent years — thereby signaling that Washington would not hesitate to abandon multilateral efforts it had previously spearheaded. “For America’s friends and partners, ratifying [TPP] is a litmus test for your credibility and seriousness of purpose,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore had said in August 2016. Trump’s summary rejection of that pact presumably conveyed the message that American credibility and seriousness of purpose were in sharp decline.

Trump also reportedly came to the brink of withdrawing the United States from NAFTA — the foundation of U.S. economic relationships with Mexico and Canada — before his advisers convinced him to pull back at the last moment. Likewise, the White House talked of aligning the Persian Gulf countries into an “Arab NATO” to confront terrorism and Iran, only for the president immediately to shift course and encourage Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to instigate a confrontation with Qatar. Trump has even managed to raise questions about whether America’s most fundamental international commitments — its defense obligations to its allies — remain sacred through his refusal, and then transparently grudging agreement, to explicitly endorse NATO’s Article 5.

Some of these departures were, in fact, campaign promises, and so they represent major U.S. policy reversals but not necessarily “surprises.” But these episodes — along with the well-documented dysfunction and chaos that have characterized the Trump White House — have nonetheless inevitably generated concerns about whether the Washington can still be counted upon to play its stabilizing role in world affairs. They have raised questions about whether American policy will henceforth be whipsawed from administration to administration, or even from day to day. And, of course, they have caused acute anxiety about whether the president can be relied upon to act calmly but decisively in a crisis. When a serving four-star general says that the U.S. government is in “unbelievable turmoil,” and when allied officials reportedly worry that “Washington, D.C. is now the epicenter of instability in the world,” one can be certain that hard-won perceptions of American steadiness and reliability are dissipating. The consequences for American influence and global stability can only be harmful.

The Incompetence Doctrine

The same could be said of another important, if generally unintended, effect of the Trump presidency — its assault on perceptions of basic American competence. The United States has committed no shortage of errors in global affairs over the years, from the Vietnam War to the invasion and mishandled occupation of Iraq. But on balance the country that executed the Marshall Plan, built enduring collective security arrangements in Europe and East Asia, and managed the end of the Cold War with relative aplomb has developed a well-earned reputation for being able to make and execute policy effectively. “For much of the postwar period,” Stephen Walt writes, “the United States benefitted greatly from an overarching aura of competence.” Even allowing for the inevitable early stumbles, Trump’s conduct so far is sowing doubt regarding just how much of that aura will remain when he leaves office.

Bungles and misfires have characterized the administration from the start. Trump committed an unforced error before his presidency even began, by threatening to hold the one-China policy at risk — and then retreating after Beijing responded by giving him the diplomatic cold shoulder. The administration’s subsequent travel ban was a case study in bad policy compounded by bad execution. It is hard to think of an initiative that would have been better designed to undermine the struggle against terrorism by alienating Muslim populations around the world. Sloppy drafting and implementation then turned the episode into a high-profile fiasco. In the Far East, the president needlessly complicated what was already an unavoidably difficult confrontation with North Korea by threatening to tear up a trade agreement and renegotiate a key missile defense agreement with South Korea in the middle of a U.S. coercive diplomacy campaign (as well as a South Korean presidential election). And more recently, the president stumbled again by giving Saudi Arabia a blank check to confront Qatar on grounds that it was supporting terrorism and cozying up to Iran. Virtually any Middle Eastern expert would have warned against that step, which helped precipitate a dangerous and unnecessary conflict between important U.S. partners in the Gulf.

This serial incompetence has become a calling card of Trump’s presidency, and responsibility rests primarily with the chief executive himself. Trump came into office with a host of unrealistic and ill-considered campaign promises to fulfill, strong beliefs but scant knowledge about foreign affairs, a tendency to take counsel from unqualified amateurs as much as from seasoned professionals, and a tangible disdain for the national security bureaucracy that serves as the repository of competence and expertise in the U.S. government. This was a bad combination, one that was bound to produce a litany of follies. International observers have taken note. A global survey taken in early 2017 revealed that only 22 percent of responders trusted Trump to do the right thing in world politics, with even the world’s leading dictators — Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin — scoring higher.

The Soft Power Deficit

All of these issues relate to a final way Trump is diminishing the American superpower — by dissipating its unparalleled soft power. As academics and policymakers have long recognized, one of the things that has made American influence so peerless is the widespread global perception that the United States offers an example of a polity and society worth emulating. Even where governments are decidedly hostile to U.S. policy, in countries such as Iran, it is not uncommon to find that the population is more positively disposed toward the larger “idea” of America. And this is where Trump’s influence may ultimately prove most pernicious.

The demonization of immigrants and outsiders, the coarse behavior and political chaos, the blithe dismissal of concerns about corruption and conflicts of interests, the general unseemliness of the entire Trump presidency: These and myriad other characteristics are conspiring to drive down international respect and admiration for the United States. The effect here has already been noteworthy. Just months into Trump’s presidency, America’s global favorability rating had dropped from 64 percent to 49 percent. “The share of the public with a positive view of the U.S. has plummeted in a diverse set of countries from Latin America, North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa,” the Pew Research Center noted. Trump’s administration has proudly emphasized its emphasis on defense and other elements of American hard power; it would do well to mind the soft power deficit it is rapidly creating.

The Unexceptional Superpower?

If there is any good news in this situation, it is that Trump’s policies and personality — abrasive and problematic as they may be — will not cause American power or leadership to crumble overnight. Many of America’s alliances are so deeply institutionalized that they can survive a dose of Trump; America’s good name may also recover once Trump departs the seen. And barring some truly catastrophic turn of events, the United States is simply too powerful to lose, in just a few years, its underlying capacity to shape the global scene. The United States has put a lot of money in the bank with respect to global leadership over the past 70 years. Not even Trump can spend down all the capital that quickly.

The bad news is that his approach, if extended over even a four-year period, can nonetheless cause plenty of damage to U.S. influence and effectiveness in international affairs. If the United States is less willing to lead in addressing issues of global consequence, other countries will be less willing to defer to American interests in fashioning solutions of their own. If Washington undercuts its own reputation for steadiness and competence in foreign policy, it seems probable that fewer countries will be willing to walk out on geopolitical limbs with the United States. The next time America tries to organize allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific for some difficult multilateral undertaking, for instance, everyone will remember what happened with the TPP.

Likewise, if the United States weakens its reputation as an attractive society and a country that stands for universal values, it will squander some of the moral prestige that has historically complemented its hard power. And, of course, if the United States alienates its allies and embraces a more transactional approach to foreign affairs, it risks weakening the community of democracies that has served as a pillar of American power in the international system — just as that community is facing grave challenges of its own. Longtime partners may seek to hedge against future American withdrawal by exploring geopolitical “Plan B’s.” Uncertain of American intentions, they may even entertain the possibility of striking deals with the revisionist powers —namely Russia and China — that American alliances are meant to constrain. Geopolitical commitment is, after all, a two-way street, and an America that seems less attached to its partners is likely to eventually see that ambivalence reciprocated.

The consequences of Trump’s zero-sum view of global affairs may well prove most corrosive of all. Given the hard-power disparities between the United States and other countries, pursuing a foreign policy that casts international affairs as a ceaseless struggle for near-term unilateral advantage, and that is premised on the idea that America must be significantly less solicitous of other countries’ interests, will surely undercut perceptions of Washington as a broadly benevolent global power and give it the image of a more narrowly self-interested and acquisitive hegemon. That alone will undercut the multi-decade American effort to shape an international order characterized by a degree of restraint and stability as opposed to unmitigated competition. And given that U.S. leadership has long rested on the consent of allies and partners who see that leadership as more benign than the likely alternatives, this shift is likely to end up generating more resistance to the exercise of American power — and thus making American objectives harder, not easier, to attain.

This touches on the greatest danger of Trump’s foreign policy: It will ultimately make the United States a less exceptional superpower. Since World War II, what has set America apart from other great powers is not that it has behaved in altruistic fashion. What has set America apart is something subtler but more important: its willingness to set aside short-term calculations of unilateral advantage from time to time, in order to realize the higher self-interest of creating a world in which so many countries — America included — could flourish. Under Trump, however, the United States appears to be discarding that calculus, as it is also walking back from so many of the qualities and practices that have characterized America’s four-generation run as a remarkably successful superpower. The result, one fears, will be to make the American superpower appear more ordinary and frightening in the eyes of the world — and less successful in achieving core U.S. purposes. Perhaps the primary takeaway from the first six months of Trump’s presidency, then, is that his successor will have a lot of work to do in getting the superpower back on the right track again.


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.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mariah Haddenham