war on the rocks

Mapping Ideology in the Age of Trump

February 5, 2018

During the 2016 presidential campaign and the first months of Trump’s administration, critics sometimes accused Donald Trump of being an isolationist. He had denigrated the war in Iraq, foreswore nation-building, called NATO obsolete, and promised to put “America First.” Calling him an isolationist was a convenient, if inaccurate, way for the foreign policy establishment to label Trump as being outside the parameters of the normal foreign policy consensus.

After Trump’s first year in office — which included bombing Syria, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and authorizing weapons transfers to Ukraine — no one calls Trump an isolationist, yet he still isn’t entirely conventional. Trump’s comfort with military force and the range of threats he sees around the world bears some similarity to past hawkish presidents, yet the way he talks about the United States and its role in the world bears more similarity to advocates of restraint. Trump does not fit neatly into our old categories of realists, liberals, and isolationists. How do we map the terrain of America’s foreign policy ideologies in the age of Trump?

I suggest we map the terrain by asking two foundational questions. The first and most important concerns the ontological status of liberalism and America’s role in the world. Is liberalism universal and America its champion? Or is liberalism just another tribal practice, in whose spread America has no particular interest? Second, how dangerous is the world? The answers to these questions correlates with one’s belief about the costs of foreign policy initiatives, beliefs about the relative utility of hard versus soft power, and beliefs about the viability of cooperation. At one end of the spectrum are those who think the world is very dangerous, action is difficult, military power is more dependable than civilian, and cooperation is rare. At the other are those who think otherwise. These two axes yield four grand strategic options.

A framework like this clarifies and simplifies the debate over American grand strategy. It also helps show what foreign policy ideology the Trump administration most closely embodies. Trump’s distinctiveness lies neither in his hawkishness nor his attitude towards American ideals, but in the combination of both. This should help critics identify the roots of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, the ways in which it parallels or overlaps with more conventional approaches, and the distinctive things he gets wrong.


Traditionally, most American statesmen (and probably most Americans) believed that liberal values, like democracy, human rights, and free markets, were universal — or, at least, could become universal, in principle. The founders appealed to self-evident truths and talked about what made legitimate government in the abstract universal, not in the Western particular. Self-government was, in an important sense, not an American idea. Consequently, America had a special role or mission to be the champion and vindicator of liberal values at home and abroad. America was to be a “city on a hill,” an example of liberalism for the world to see, and, when necessary, the defender of liberal allies abroad. America did not invent republicanism, but it did build a world in which such ideas are astonishingly common.

Those who believe that liberal norms are, in principle, universalizable are internationalists. They think that American national security is inextricably entwined with the fate of other states in the world. Internationalists think that the wax or wane of liberalism in other parts of the world directly helps or hurts American security. A world shaped and dominated by liberal values is better for Americans — and, by the way, for everyone else too. The American foreign policy establishment — the “Blob” — has been instinctively internationalist since at least World War II, with clear precedent stretching back to the War of 1898 and further.

There are differences among internationalists. The best-known types are liberal internationalists, like Woodrow Wilson, who believed the world was, or could be made, fundamentally harmonious and welcoming to liberal ideals. Scholars like G. John Ikenberry argued that the spread of institutions facilitated cooperation and entrenched liberal norms. To some liberals, it seemed the goodness of American ideals is so evident that all but the most blinkered would adopt them if given the chance. People rarely choose, consciously, not to be liberals. They never vote for their own oppression. The United States’ role is to help the rest of the world discover and unleash its natural liberalism. Cooperation through the United Nations and reliance on diplomacy and development ought to be enough. Unfortunately, when this attitude encounters reality, it leads to a penchant for impatiently using military force to hasten history along when the locals cling too fervently to their false consciousness. Liberal internationalists betray moral authoritarianism about their own ideology and naiveté about what military force can accomplish. As the Colonel tells Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, “Inside every [Vietnamese] there is an American trying to get out.” Such endeavors do not end well.

Other internationalists, like Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan, still held to the goodness and universality of American ideals but thought that the world was generally inhospitable to them — in the form of other great powers, hostile ideologies, terrorists, crime lords, and drug smugglers. Scholars like Henry Nau (and me) argue that there are further obstacles in the nature of political and military phenomenon. It is tremendously difficult to effect policy change given the limits of human knowledge and government bureaucracy. Trying to orchestrate events is virtually impossible given the complexity — the unknowability — of causal laws in human societies. These conservative internationalists thus thought internationalist goals were best pursued with caution and pragmatism. They thought international institutions were perhaps necessary but, by themselves, not sufficient; that diplomacy was best backed with military force; and that expectations should be kept low all around. Again, they agree that liberal values should be the polestar guiding America’s understanding of itself and its sense of mission in the world, but they were temperamentally inclined to pursue it differently than their liberal brethren.

Nationalism and Advocates of Restraint

On the other side of this axis are those who think that liberal values are not universal; that they cannot find root elsewhere in the world (or, if they can, it is anyway irrelevant); and that the United States should not make their spread part of its foreign policy. As Samuel Huntington argued, the West is “unique, not universal.” Its ideals are not shared or even admired much elsewhere in the world — and it is foolish, dangerous utopianism to think otherwise. The effort to foster, champion, or encourage liberalism goes against the tide of history, culture, identity, and civilization, and it is doomed to founder, as proven by wasteful adventures in Vietnam and Iraq. Trump gave voice to this when he claimed in his foreign policy campaign speech in 2016 that American foreign policy began to go wrong “with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.”

This line of thinking is solidly in the tradition of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and even Hegel, insofar as they stressed the cultural and especially religious underpinnings of a regime’s characteristics. Hegel especially was keen on divining the national spirits that animated and defined different peoples and suited them to particular forms of government and society. Liberalism is the tribal habit of western peoples, the received practice of Western history. We value it because it is ours, not because it possesses intrinsic, transcultural merit. Trump said in his Warsaw speech last year that, “Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.” Trump argued that Western values depend on Western heritage and that liberalism is better understood as a cultural outgrowth of European history, not universalizable ideals that can be adopted by non-Western nations.

As with internationalists, there are differences among those who reject the universality of liberal ideals, differences rooted in beliefs about how dangerous the world is and how social and political phenomena work. Nationalists, like conservative internationalists, believe the world is highly dangerous, that military force is more effective than diplomacy, and that the chances for cooperation are low. Trump sees danger everywhere, from lax immigration to unfair trade, jihadists at the border, and the rise of Chinese power. That is why Trump is not an isolationist: The nature of the world demands that he engage with the world energetically and often. But his style of engagement is the opposite of what liberal internationalists would prefer. He bombed Syria to make a point and claimed he had restored the credibility of American threats. He opened the door to escalation in Afghanistan, turned up the heat against Russia in Ukraine, cut off aid to Pakistan, and engaged in a war of words with North Korea that, sooner or later, risks flaring up into an actual war. He also sees little point to international cooperation. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership and UNESCO and has taken steps to weaken or abrogate the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and even NAFTA — not to withdraw from the world, but to free up the United States to engage with greater autonomy.

Trump’s energetic nationalism sets him apart from the other quadrant in this column: the advocates of restraint, retrenchment, or quasi-isolationism. Oddly, “realism” in the academic sense has come to be nearly synonymous with this approach because of thinkers like Barry Posen, Christopher Layne, and Stephen Walt (though this is not the “realism” of popular discourse). They agree with nationalists that American values have little role to play in U.S. foreign policy. But they also have an oddly similar tendency as liberal internationalists to underrate threats in the world. Liberal internationalists tend to think the world is relatively safe because American ideals are appealing. Advocates of restraint, by contrast, believe that the distribution of ideas simply doesn’t matter one way or the other for American security. But they agree, for very different reasons, that the international environment is relatively benign for the United States.


Advocates of restraint observe that since the end of the Cold War the United States faces no hostile great power. The Atlantic and Pacific remain America’s best defense. The United States has the luxury of not having to care about the ups and downs of power politics on the other side of the world. There is no other power that, even today, comes close to parity with American military power. And despite China’s economic clout, it remains far behind in defense technology and it is, in any case, unlikely to launch a bid for Eurasian hegemony. Many advocates of restraint agree with nationalists that NATO is obsolete, that the United States is wastefully underwriting its allies’ security for no appreciable benefit, and that nation-building is a fools’ errand. They do worry about rogue states armed with nuclear weapons, and thus might agree that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a threat worth worrying about. Aside from that they counsel a dramatic cutback to America’s defense posture, alliance structure, and engagement abroad.

So What?

This schematic helps shed light on how Trump’s foreign policy fits in with other schools of thought. It explains why conservative internationalists, otherwise appalled by Trump rhetoric and temperament, have found a few things to applaud in his foreign policy. Whatever their differences, Trump and conservative internationalists share a threat perception and an understanding of what tools are required to effect meaningful policy change. His policies on Ukraine and Afghanistan are generally on target in the eyes of conservative internationalists, though much remains to be seen in the details of implementation.

This map also helps explain the occasional similarity between Trump and advocates of restraint. Trump is no isolationist, but his understanding of the American experiment and America’s role in the world echoes theirs. He differs from them because he thinks the world is more dangerous than they do, and thus the United States should take a more active role forestalling and combatting those threats; but philosophically, nationalism and restraint flow from the same headwaters. Finally, this explains why, in the eyes of liberal internationalists, Trump can do no good. Every utterance and every decision is appalling in their eyes because, to them, Trump’s view of the world is as mistaken as his understanding of America. Liberal internationalists, however, are not best positioned to criticize Trump because their own record does not give them much to stand on.

There are academic proponents of conservative internationalism, liberal internationalism, and restraint. Nationalists are more well-represented in the conservative media (probably better labeled the nationalist media) and pop culture. Walter Russell Mead has done the best job of any scholar in trying to explain the “Jacksonian” nationalism of Middle America. More work along those lines would contribute to the debate about American grand strategy. And more debate is needed. As a loyal member of the Blob and a devoted conservative internationalist, I think the foreign policy establishment would benefit from a bit more intellectual diversity and self-examination. We can be insufferable in our comfortable orthodoxy.

In particular, it would be helpful to have the debate about liberal ideals out in the open. The American Affairs Journal is doing its best to give voice to the nationalist viewpoint. Trump’s scripted speeches in Warsaw and to the United Nations last year serve the same purpose at the level of public rhetoric. But the response from Trump’s critics has too often focused on his character, temperament, and Tweets. There actually is a governing philosophy behind Trumpism, and internationalists have yet to mount much of a principled critique of it, or a defense of the alternative.


Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book, American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy, was published by Georgetown University Press in 2016.

Image: Robbie Dale/Flickr