So Donald Trump is going to put the axe to the liberal international order the United States has built, nourished, and defended for seventy years?
The President-elect has certainly promised a new era of “deconstructionism”—not à la Derrida and Lacan, but in the way of Andrew Jackson: America first, and damn those foreigners. Or in the manner of Leon Trotsky.
Upon becoming Foreign Commissar of the nascent Soviet Union, Trotsky famously asked: “What diplomatic work are we apt to have?” His own answer: “I will issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world, and then shut up shop.” Not for him the jejune procedures of international intercourse. “The principal task,” Trotsky orated, is “to develop the October revolution further, extend it to the entire country.”
To “extend” and anchor his own revolution across the United States must also be at the top of Donald Trump’s to-do list. No, he won’t close up shop, but neither will he put on the striped pants. If America’s competitors don’t deliver, he’ll walk away, as he pontificated in his Art of the Deal. He has told America’s allies of seventy years: Shape up, or we ship out; pay us tribute, or you are on your own. Nor would he quiver if Japan went for a nuclear deterrent, relieving the U.S. of commitments carrying the risk of self-incineration.
As candidate, Mr. Trump has pledged to build a wall along the United States’ southern border—and make the Mexicans pay for it. He would hit the Chinese with punitive tariffs. If they take their complaint to the World Trade Organization, and the WTO rules against the United States, then we’ll pull out—never mind that we designed this free-trade system back in 1947. While we are at it, let’s ditch the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantics trade pacts. For good measure, let’s also put NAFTA on the block, the single market joining the U.S. to Mexico and Canada.
We may also, Mr. Trump has intimated, deconstruct a pillar of U.S. grand strategy that has stood since 1946. Instead of containing Moscow, we will sidle up to Vladimir Putin to go after ISIS together. Barack Obama’s misbegotten nuclear deal with Iran must not stand. If the theocrats of Tehran don’t give up the loopholes, the JCPA goes to the shredder. So does Mr. Obama’s climate convention, which constrains us from exploiting coal, gas, and oil.
To sum up the campaign rhetoric, it is economic and strategic isolationism. But recall that the flip side of isolationism is spasmodic interventionism: chasten the bad guys and go back home again, which is what the candidate may have in mind for ISIS. Bomb them to hell, and cut out—no police force to guard the peace. Behind the ramparts of “Fortress America” has always lurked the U.S. cavalry—from day one.
It was that ur-isolationist Thomas Jefferson who launched the infant Republic’s first war by dispatching the Marines “to the shores of Tripoli” in the Barbary War. Jefferson, in fact, provides us with a good starting point as we peer into America’s Trumpist future. He had written the book on isolationism, pledging “honest friendship with all, and entangling alliances with none.” Railing against Europe’s corrupt princes and potentates, he had no qualms masterminding with France to save the American Revolution.
The Founding Fathers played diplomatic hardball with the worst of them, pitting one against the other to wrest victory from the Redcoats. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was a masterpiece of realpolitik, coldly parlaying Napoleon’s strained finances in his war against Europe into a third of today’s United States.
The point of this ancient tale is an enduring one. Throughout history, the fanciful rhetoric of American leaders has regularly bumped up against reality. “Reality Bites,” as the fabled movie of the Nineties had it, where the dreams of the young foundered against the world as it was.
Take Woodrow Wilson, an epitome of “America first.” His campaign slogans in 1916 ran: “War in Europe—Peace in America” and “He Has Kept Us Out of the War.” Half a year later, after the Reich had launched an unlimited submarine campaign in the Atlantic, the United States went to war against the Kaiser. Power politics got the better of the “true spirit of neutrality.”
At Yalta, Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Joseph Stalin that American troops would be out of Europe within two years. He did not live long enough to reconsider. His successor Harry S. Truman did in short order, reversing demobilization and disarmament. Then Truman went off to erect an American-led global order that Donald Trump has inherited and apparently wants to dismantle.
Drifting back into isolationism, the Eisenhower Republicans in the end resolved to permanently station six U.S. divisions in Western Europe as a first line of defense against the Russia of Joseph Stalin. John F. Kennedy dispatched additional troops once he had realized that his overtures to Moscow, especially on the pesky Berlin issue, were misinterpreted as weakness.1
A more recent case point was Jimmy Carter, who had been elected in a bout of post-Vietnam fatigue. Upon assuming office, Carter counseled the nation to come “free of that inordinate fear of communism” and to embrace idealism: arms control and human rights. At the end of his term, he confessed that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate aims are than anything they have done in the previous time….” The “Reagan Rearmament” actually commenced under Carter.
Most recently, Barack Obama has learned how lofty intentions pave the way to geopolitical hell. His grand strategy was “self-containment,” the retraction of American power from around the world, “reset” and all. Think again. The withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 yielded to the reinsertion of American troops four years later. Having whittled down U.S. forces in Europe to 30,000 (one-tenth of their top Cold War strength), Obama re-deployed heavy materiel and troops by 2016. America’s old alliances in the Far East were re-tightened, while the U.S. Air Force intensified its air war against ISIS, previously pooh-poohed as a “jayvee team” by Obama.
How do these flip-flops from retrenchment to reassertion help us fathom what Donald Trump will do?
Within days of his triumph, reality did bite. Take the Mexican Wall. Estimated to cost $25 billion, it has shrunk to “part wall, part fence,” he averred in an interview with CBS. According to the estimate of a conservative Washington think tank, getting rid of 11 million illegals might run up a tab of $600 billion. This is what it would cost to recruit 90,000 new enforcement agents, build detention camps, and assemble thousands of buses to dispatch the multitudes southward. Add in myriad court challenges, which will tie up the judiciary for years on end. A few days after victory, 11 million deportees had dwindled to maybe “two or three” million, criminals and those with criminal records, the rest being “terrific people.”
Hit the Chinese with punitive tariffs? The United States slapped one on Chinese tires in 2009. Imports, as the doctor prescribed, declined by 30 percent. But the number of U.S.-made tires did not go up. In fact, 30 percent more tires came in from Canada, 110 percent more from South Korea, 152 percent more from Indonesia as well as Thailand, and slightly fewer from Mexico. And tire prices in the United States shot up, hurting precisely those folks who voted for Trump. Trump’s advisors might want to retell that tale in the Oval Office.
What about telling NATO to go fly a kite? After his first meeting with Trump, President Obama reported that he “expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships,” including “strong and robust NATO” partnership. Obama added: “Those aspects of his…predispositions that don’t match up with reality, he will find shaken up pretty quick because reality has a way of asserting itself.” And “this office has a way of waking you up.” To put it all into a nutshell, Obama stressed: “There is enormous continuity…that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order around the world.”
Reality bites, and so does continuity—that is, if Donald Trump’s America wants to remain great. There is no need to “make America great again,” and there won’t be unless the 45th President does in the end make good on his campaign slogans. If so—if he abandons allies, dismantles NAFTA, launches trade wars, dismantles the liberal order the United States has built, and cozies up to Vladimir Putin—then the 46th President will indeed be called upon to “make America great again.” For he or she will inherit a nation made small by self-isolation and self-demotion.
1Kennedy thought that he could relieve pressure on the Western-held part of Berlin, encircled as it was by Soviet armies, by granting Moscow limited oversight over the access routes to the west.