You Can’t Go Home Again: Foreign Policy Edition


Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership (Hachette, 2018)

With no apparent sense of irony, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay’s new book on American leadership opens with a quote from George W. Bush, extolling the virtue of responsibility in international relations. That choice is perhaps par for the course in a book which spends little time defending or defining its own central argument — that American leadership is critical to global security — while focusing almost entirely on the leadership shortcomings of Donald J. Trump.

That is, of course, also one of the book’s strengths. If journalism is a rough first draft of history, this book is a strong second draft, describing in-depth the past 18 months, a period perhaps unlike any other in American history. For those who haven’t been paying attention during Donald Trump’s time as president, the book presents a meticulous and horrifying account of his foreign policy, unrolling one mistake after another in what seems like a never-ending series of faux pas. For those who have been paying attention, it’s every bit as bad as you remember.

Indeed, the narrative highlights the extent to which Donald Trump has simply bounced from blunder to blunder. Some blunders are insignificant while others are deadly serious, from backing the Saudi blockade of Qatar to tweeting angrily at Kim Jong Un. The Empty Throne recounts so many foreign policy mistakes that the authors organize them by type, rather than chronologically: Here, a chapter about Trump’s rejection of free trade, and there an overview of his chronic distaste for democratic allies.

Amid the mesmerizing litany of foreign policy gaffes, however, it’s not hard to notice that the authors offer no new alternative to the Trumpian worldview. Certainly, as most experts do, they clearly understand that American foreign policy has become problematic. But their diagnosis — that Trump has abandoned the century-old mantle of American leadership, causing a breakdown in global order — smacks less of analysis and more of a desire to simply return to the way things were before Trump descended his golden escalator and declared his candidacy for the presidency.

This is perhaps best exemplified by how they treat prior administrations. Daalder and Lindsay, both veterans of the Clinton administration, are predictably laudatory about that president’s choices to expand America’s global engagement and alliances in the aftermath of the Cold War. Iraq aside, they praise George W. Bush’s foreign policy choices too, notably his embrace of the idea that “the United States should use its primacy ‘to turn these years of influence into decades of peace.’” In doing so, they largely ignore Bush’s true legacy: falling popular support for America around the world and a series of military quagmires that continue to squander American lives and treasure.

Meanwhile, they reject the pragmatism of Barack Obama, criticizing him for “failing to rebuild American leadership,” and repeating again the idea that Obama actually pursued a foreign policy of restraint. Obama’s policies were undoubtedly better in this regard than his predecessors, notably his realistic and hard-headed approach to Iran. But as others have pointed out here at War on the Rocks, it’s impossible to make the argument that regime change in Libya, support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or increased deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan qualify as foreign policy restraint.

In short, the authors accept hook, line, and sinker the idea of America as the indispensable nation, the leader of a magnanimous order in which “countries willing to follow America’s lead would prosper.” Their chapter on the birth of the liberal international order cites none of the recent scholarly research on its origins and realities, work which shows that conceptualizing international relations and American foreign policy in this way is profoundly ahistorical.

Perhaps because of this, Daalder and Lindsay extol three key pillars of the postwar order — alliances, trade, and the promotion of democracy and human rights — as if a simple return to these principles could somehow cover deep and ongoing changes in global politics. They only address deeper problems in American foreign policy with offhand comments, although they correctly diagnose the appeal of Trump’s America First approach: a public seeking “relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-expression.”

Sadly, the authors do not seem to take the lesson to heart. They do not attempt to grapple with these ideas, failing to question how the public came to tire of global leadership, and failing to engage with the now widespread debates over America’s future strategic approach. The result is a strangely contradictory text. The authors hint at failures: the rise of China, the 2008 financial crisis, and growing global disenchantment with the Bush administration’s foreign policy. They admit that the expansive primacy of the Clinton and Bush years failed to produce the expected results:

Clinton and the younger Bush both promised that their vigorous exercise of American leadership in the unipolar moment would make America and its friends safer and more prosperous. By the end of Bush’s second term in office, however, their confidence in the transformative power of American primacy looked more like hubris.

But at the same time, they argue strongly in favor of returning to that same Clinton- and Bush-style primacy. The unstated question is obvious: If it didn’t work last time at the peak of American power and influence, why will it work this time? We won’t find an answer in this book.

Broadly, then, The Empty Throne feels like a missed opportunity. There are indeed unique elements to American foreign policy under Trump, but it is too simplistic to attribute them to a lack of “leadership.” Trump’s militarism and unilateralism merely build on existing trends. He has not rejected primacy, he has instead put it on steroids. The only area where the president’s foreign policy has truly shifted from the existing consensus is his retrograde ideas about trade.

Meanwhile, many of the changes the authors describe are the natural and expected products of China’s rise, and of the world’s increasing multipolarity. Trump may be accelerating the pace of these challenges to an American-led institutional order, but he did not create them. Indeed, he is himself as much a symptom as a cause of the rot within America’s foreign policy orthodoxy.

In this context, what is global leadership? For as often as Daalder and Lindsay evoke the term, they don’t define it, leaving the reader with only a vague notion that it includes military preeminence, evocative rhetoric about human rights and democracy, and a willingness to take the lead on global challenges like climate change. Certainly, that is one option for America, though it is an option that will prove unsustainable in the long-term.

Yet there are other options. Could America lead by example, acting as a beacon of democracy and human rights, rather than an interventionist meddler? Could we seek — instead of simply shedding the “burdens of global leadership” — to share those burdens more equitably with other capable and like-minded states?

This question — on global leadership, America’s future role in the world, and how we will pursue it — is perhaps the most interesting and pressing facing today’s foreign policy scholars and practitioners. It is unfortunate that The Empty Throne doesn’t choose to engage with it, or with the other fascinating questions underlying today’s foreign policy debates. After all, when Trump is gone and his foreign policy comedy of errors is mercifully over, these questions will still remain.


Emma Ashford is a Research Fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute. She is currently writing a book on the links between oil, foreign policy and war, focusing on the peculiar politics of petrostates, from Russia to Saudi Arabia, and Iran to Venezuela.

Image: U.S. Air Force