By Evan N. Resnick
All of U.S. President Donald Trump’s predecessors shrewdly attempted to balance their foreign policy between idealism and realism. Trump is the first president to eschew both idealism and realism, with deleterious consequences.
Idealpolitik Plus Realpolitik Equals Success
On the one hand, presidents from Washington to Obama subscribed to the doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” This widely held belief among U.S. elites and the general public holds that the United States has a special mission to project abroad its core domestic values of democracy, individual freedom, and the rule of law, a process that will eventually culminate in global peace and prosperity. On the other hand, however, to one degree or another, those leaders recognized the need to protect America’s national security in an anarchic international system that stubbornly resists conversion into a liberal utopia. This necessitated resort to the cynical Old-World tactics of balance of power politics that contravene the exceptionalist doctrine.
The most successful administrations have skillfully conjoined both imperatives to enhance America’s international image in the eyes of the world as a selfless proponent of liberal values, while zealously protecting the country’s vital interests. For example, during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt joined British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in signing the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which articulated a series of selfless allied war aims, including self-determination, open trade, freedom of the seas, and nonaggression. At the same time, however, FDR and Churchill enthusiastically linked arms with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Although Stalin’s ideology, behavior, and ambitions defied the lofty principles for which the United States was waging the war, his formidable Red Army did the lion’s share of the fighting and dying that was necessary to win the war in Europe.
Trump’s Illiberal Exceptionalism
Trump is the first president that has eschewed both idealism and realism, pursuing a simultaneously illiberal and unrealistic statecraft that has tarnished America’s allure in the eyes of the world even while compromising its national security.
Trump has consistently evinced disdain for the pillars of American exceptionalism. Most egregiously, he has relentlessly criticized and insulted allied democratic leaders, while expressing unabashed admiration and even affection towards repressive autocratic ones. Whereas his predecessors engaged autocratic adversaries and allies of convenience while at least rhetorically condemning their human rights violations, Trump has actually praised such behavior. To take only the most outrageous of a litany of examples, Trump’s ex-national security advisor, John Bolton, recently revealed that the president told Chinese strongman Xi Jingping in a 2019 meeting that he should “go ahead with” building concentration camps for China’s Muslim minority Uighur population in Xinjiang, because it was “exactly the right thing to do.”
Trump has also abandoned the nearly century-long commitment of all administrations since FDR to the liberalization of international trade, abandoning the incipient Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, imposing various punitive tariffs against a wide range of countries and initiating a counterproductive trade war with China. In addition to the TPP, he has withdrawn the United States from an array of international regimes, including the Paris Climate Accord, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UN Human Rights Council, and, most recently, the World Health Organization at the height of a global pandemic.
Trump’s illiberal exceptionalism has unsurprisingly alienated the United States from its traditional allies and partners, diminishing its soft power. Last September, a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 13 allied nations, including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, indicated that the percentage of their publics harboring a favorable image of the United States had reached the lowest point since the poll’s inauguration almost twenty years ago. Even more depressingly, the poll also revealed that President Trump is held in lower regard than his Russian and Chinese counterparts.
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Trump’s illiberalism has been accompanied by unrealism, as he has flouted the timeworn precepts of realpolitik. Most importantly, Trump has abjectly failed to implement a coherent grand strategy that carefully calibrates ends with means by prioritizing among external threats. The most realistic leaders have clearly demarcated vital from peripheral interests, focusing scarce attention and resources on dangers to the former. They have also maximized their international diplomatic influence by following arch-realist Teddy Roosevelt’s pragmatic advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Military force should only be threatened when such threats are highly credible, and it should be unleashed when it is most likely to succeed.
Trump has observed none of these prescriptions. Although his administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy identified great power competition against a rising China, and to a lesser degree, against a recalcitrant Russia as the highest national security priority, the administration’s day-to-day foreign policy has not reflected this reorientation. Contrary to his promise to end “crazy endless wars” in the Middle East, Trump has continued to wage the two-decade long U.S. war in Afghanistan and has kept troops in Iraq and Syria to battle Islamic State militants.
The White House has also dramatically escalated tensions with Iran. Its policy of “maximum pressure” has entailed abandoning the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement that had kept Tehran’s nuclear program under wraps, imposing draconian economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and assassinating one of its military leaders, Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike. In response, Iran has aggressively resumed uranium enrichment and has ramped up its aggressive and destabilizing provocations against U.S. interests and strategic partners in the Gulf region.
The administration’s continued preoccupation with low-stakes conflicts in the Middle East has undermined its capacity to meet the exponentially greater geopolitical challenge posed by China, the only other country on the planet that holds the potential to eclipse the wealth and military power held by the United States. On this score, Trump has weakened America’s strategic hand in East Asia by scuttling the TPP, lambasting the United States’ most powerful regional allies of Japan and South Korea for running trade surpluses with the United States and allowed key alliances and strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia to atrophy.
The White House has also badly fumbled relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Even as Trump has conciliated Putin by refusing to take a tough stand on Russian intervention in U.S. domestic politics, his administration has also irritated the Kremlin by dispatching lethal arms to Ukraine and withdrawing form the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty. This incoherence has allowed Putin to drift increasingly into China’s orbit, even though Russia and China are neighbors and natural geopolitical competitors.
Most broadly, Trump has played the game of international diplomacy badly in managing relations with foreign foes and friends alike. In contrast to Roosevelt’s prescription, he has spoken loudly while carrying a small twig. His personal style is to bluff his adversaries by initially levelling grandiose but minimally credible threats, only to subsequently capitulate, especially if his interlocutor feeds his insatiable ego by effusively praising him.
This cycle was most evident in Trump’s schizophrenic North Korea policy: the U.S. president began his administration by insulting Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man” and threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on the North if it threatened the United States. This reckless bellicosity was soon supplanted by embarrassing groveling as a series of “love letters” from Kim induced Trump to acquiesce to two personal summit meetings with the North Korean dictator. The Singapore (2018) and Hanoi (2019) summits accomplished nothing of substance, while exposing the U.S. leader’s extreme credulity. other than to make Trump look foolish and credulous.
Amidst all the sound, fury, bread, and circuses, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has continued to grow ominously, and in a recent parade in Pyongyang, the North unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of overwhelming U.S. missile defenses. In sum, Trump’s lack of geopolitical acumen has resulted in the across-the-board growth in the threats posed to U.S. security by both peer competitors and regional adversaries over the course of his four years in office.
Damaging, But Not (Yet) Fatal
Although Trump’s illiberal unrealism has damaged America’s world standing and national security, the United States remains the world’s wealthiest and most powerful state. As economic philosopher Adam Smith observed, there is “a great deal of ruin in a nation” and there is a towering amount of ruin still left in the United States. If former Vice President Biden wins the election in November, as many expect, even a minimally competent reversion to a more traditional U.S. foreign policy will largely or even fully repair the damage. Another four-year dose of Trump’s foreign policy exceptionalism, however, may paradoxically result in America’s hegemonic collapse not at the hands of a foreign adversary, but as a result of its own misguided and inept leadership.
*Evan N. Resnick is an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author, most recently, of Allies of Convenience: A Theory of Bargaining in U.S. Foreign Policy (Columbia University Press, 2019).