The Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy

My Comments: This may be far too long to read in one sitting. But if, like me, you are willing to absorb some rather heavy reading, you may find yourself somewhat relieved by the message.

Stephen Sestanovich | May 2017

Every 20 years or so—the regularity is a little astonishing—Americans hold a serious debate about their place in the world. What, they ask, is going wrong? And how can it be fixed? The discussion, moreover, almost always starts the same way. Having extricated itself with some success from a costly war, the United States then embraces a scaled-down foreign policy, the better to avoid over commitment. But when unexpected challenges arise, people start asking whether the new, more limited strategy is robust enough. Politicians and policy makers, scholars and experts, journalists and pundits, the public at large, even representatives of other governments (both friendly and less friendly) all take part in the back-and-forth. They want to know whether America, despite its decision to do less, should go back to doing more—and whether it can.

The reasons for doubt are remarkably similar from one period of discussion to the next. Some argue that the U.S. economy is no longer big enough to sustain a global role of the old kind, or that domestic problems should take priority. Others ask whether the public is ready for new exertions. The foreign-policy establishment may seem too divided, and a viable consensus too hard to reestablish. Many insist that big international problems no longer lend themselves to Washington’s solutions, least of all to military ones. American “leadership,” it is said, won’t work so well in our brave new world.

With minor variations, this is the foreign-policy debate that the country conducted in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. And it’s the same one that we have been having for the past few years. The rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia jolted the discussion back to life in 2014. Presidential debates in 2015 and 2016 added issues (from Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to his Asian trade pact) and sharpened the controversy.

Those of us in the foreign-policy business are always glad to have our concerns get this kind of prominence. Down the decades, these debates have tended to produce a consensus in favor of renewed American activism. Yet each version unfolds in its own way. The global turmoil of 2016 meant that nobody could be completely sure how this one was going to turn out.

We still don’t know. The advent of Donald Trump—his candidacy, his election, and the start of his presidency—has given our once-every-two-decades conversation extra drama and significance. Some commentators claim that Trump wants to cast aside the entire post–Cold War order. To others, he is repudiating everything that America has tried to achieve since 1945. Still others say he represents a break with all we have stood for since 1776 (or maybe even since 1630, when John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony “a city upon a hill”).

That we talk this way is but one measure of the shock Trump’s victory has administered. The new president is raising questions about the foreign policy of the United States—about its external purposes, its internal cohesion, and its chances of success—that may not be fully answered for years. Yet to understand a moment as strange as this, we need to untangle what has happened. In this cycle, America has actually had two rounds of debate about its global role. The first one was driven by the 2016 campaign, and Trump won it. The second round has gone differently. Since taking office, the new president has made one wrong move after another.

Though it’s too soon to say that he has lost this round, he is certainly losing control of it. In each case, we need to understand the dynamics of the discussion better than we do.

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