Presidential elections seldom bring major change to American foreign policy. Historically, even when control of the White House has passed from one of the two major political parties to the other—no matter how severely the incoming President has criticized the foreign policies of his predecessor—initially there has been considerable continuity in the nation’s relations with the rest of the world. Instead, cataclysmic events have altered the American role in the world: the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later; the terrorist assaults on New York and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001.
The election of Donald Trump, however, may prove to be just such a transformational event. It has the potential to overturn the role that the United States has played in international affairs since World War II.
That role has had two parts. The United States has served as the mainstay of the open international economic order that has flourished and expanded since 1945. It has also served as the mainstay of a global security order that, if it has not brought unbroken peace, has at least made the world more peaceful than it would have been without America’s global presence, policies, and commitments. The United States has, that is, furnished to the world some of the services that individuals rely on their governments to provide.
The United States has used one particular instrument of policy for its economic role and a different one in security affairs. The American policy of free trade has underpinned the economic order, and the American system of alliances has supported global security. Now both are in jeopardy.
President-elect Trump made his opposition to both of them prominent in his campaign. He denounced the trade agreements that previous Presidents have negotiated, and he threatened stiff tariffs on Chinese-made goods entering the United States. As for alliances, he gave the impression that he regards them as akin to real estate deals, which are not worth having unless the United States comes out ahead financially, and that the existing alliances do not pass that test.
There is another reason for skepticism that the next Administration will continue the basic foreign policies of the past 12—and this reason is unrelated to Trump’s presidential campaign. For seven decades the United States has functioned as the world’s de facto government, but the American public has never explicitly authorized this global role. Indeed, when polls have asked Americans whether this is what their country should be doing in the world, the responses have generally ranged from dubious to hostile.
The country initially assumed this responsibility in the form of policies that, while providing a large measure of global governance, were adopted for the explicit purpose of waging the Cold War and thus protecting the United States itself. Americans supported alliances for this purpose, and they supported freeing trade on the grounds that it strengthened those alliances. When the Cold War ended, the original rationale disappeared, but the policies, and the institutions that carried them out, continued—through the force of inertia, and because they cost the public very little. Now, however, a large slice of the American electorate has made it clear, through its presidential vote, that it regards the nation’s trade policies as wrong-headed and injurious; and now Russia, China, and Iran are devoting themselves to raising the cost of America’s security commitments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In these circumstances, it is reasonable to question whether the seven-decades-old foreign policy of the United States will survive.
At this point, caveats are in order: the end of the post-1945 version of American internationalism is not foreordained. The status quo in foreign policy, as in other areas of public policy, is deeply entrenched and therefore difficult to uproot. The departments and agencies responsible for the country’s now-traditional role in the world are filled with people who have devoted their professional lives to it and will certainly oppose abandoning it. Republican Members of Congress, with whom Mr. Trump will have to work, tend to favor more robust international engagement than his rhetoric suggests that he does. As the new Chief Executive becomes better acquainted with the realities of the world and what the United States does in and for it, he may change his mind about which policies serve the national interest: He would not be the first President to do so.
Moreover, the question of whether the United States should continue to provide governmental services to the world did not figure as a central issue in the campaign. It would be an exaggeration to say that the President-elect has a strong mandate to jettison the course that his 12 immediate predecessors steered. Still, to the not-very-great extent that the American public voted on foreign policy at all on November 8, they voted against this course.
If President Donald Trump adopts a staunchly protectionist trade policy, the world, and the United States, will become poorer. If he abandons the post-World II system of American alliances, the world, and the United States, will become less secure. And if those unhappy eventualities come to pass, many people—not only the American foreign policy establishment, which is wedded to the seventy-year-old policies, but also the governments of other countries, some harshly critical of the United States and, eventually, even Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters—will be sorry.