After nine months of Donald Trump, let’s try a first-cut explication of his foreign policy. Where is he coming from? What drives him? And where will be take country? The short answer is: He will make America small again.
Where does Trump fit into the American tradition? He is not an isolationist like Washington, who would have “as little connection with other nations as possible.” Nor is Trump a doppelganger of John Quincy Adams, who would “not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Nor is Trump an interventionist in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. TR improved on the Monroe Doctrine by asserting America’s right to intervene anywhere in Latin America, and Wilson kept going into Mexico to “teach them to elect good men.” After World War II, U.S. interventionism went global. Harry S. Truman would support all “free people resisting…subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Eisenhower would commit U.S. forces anywhere to combat “overt armed aggression” by communism. John F. Kennedy famously declaimed: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden…”
Onward and upward. LBJ stood ready intervene in the Western Hemisphere to prevent “Communist dictatorship.” Nixon wanted to shield all “whose survival we consider vital to our security.” Jimmy Carter pledged to “repel by any means” any “attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf.” Ronald Reagan told the Soviets that he would rout them from “Afghanistan to Nicaragua.”
First prize for interventionism goes to George W. during America’s “unipolar moment.” He would launch preventive war “before threats materialized.” He would go after any country harboring terrorists. And he preached regime change: “The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”
This trip down memory lane is to show that Trump does not fit into the classic isolationism-interventionism mold. Then what is he? Ironically, there is more kinship between Trump and Barack Obama than we like to admit. A key Obama line reads: “We will engage, but we will preserve our capabilities.” Hence, no more costly ambition. Like John Quincy Adams, Obama was “not seeking new dragons to slay,” he confided to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a series of interviews. Trump must nod.
As paraphrased by Goldberg, Obama was loath to “place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless they pose a direct security threat to the United States.” There goes moralism, and Trump would applaud. He himself has orated: “We will seek gradual reform, not sudden intervention.”
Obama rejected “the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that.” Trump refuses “radical disruption.” Then what? “Come home America,” George McGovern famously cried out in his 1972 campaign. Obama’s mantra ran: “It’s time for a little nation-building at home.” Over to Trump, who wants to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure while railing against “globalism” as a mortal enemy of American jobs.
Obama scolded UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “You have to pay your fair share.” He also growled that “free riders aggravate me.” Trump told a NATO summit in the same words “members must finally contribute their fair share.“ Or else.
So where do we place No. 45? We may have to go back to No. 7, Andrew Jackson. Trump just loves to compare himself to Old Hickory, and there are indeed plenty of parallels.
Like Jackson, Trump does not believe in an American mission that would redeem the world by example as the Founding Fathers did, celebrating the country as a “city upon a hill “ and “light unto the nations.“ Nor do/did both believe in idealist interventionism à la Woodrow Wilson and George W. For Jackson and Trump, it is “America first” in the sense that its wealth and power must not be squandered on lofty global designs that benefit foreigners, be they unwanted immigrants, free-traders, or free-riding nations.1
But note: Though Trumpism, like Jacksonianism, is inward-bound, it is not isolationist. It is not about retraction, as in Obama’s case, but assertion. It is about the lavish use of power, not to reform the world, but to recast it in America’s favor. It is zero sum—more for us and less for you. We want to cash in, not invest.
Trumpism is Jacksonianism 180 years later. It is not about the institution-building that inspired American policy after World War II. Trump’s approach is transactional, as we would expect from the author of The Art of the Deal. The game is about wielding leverage to increase profits. Flex your muscles to skew the terms of trade in America’s favor.
Andrew Jackson set the example with respect to Europe. The issue after the Napoleonic Wars was America’s spoliation claims against France for the capture of American ships and sailors. As the French hemmed and hawed, Jackson huffed and puffed, threatening trade reprisals. Sounds familiar.
Intimidated, the French coughed up $5 million, worth about $200 million today, a prize that had eluded the U.S. for 30 years. Similarly, Jackson gouged reparations out of Denmark, Portugal and Spain. He concluded bilateral trade deals with Russia, Spain, Turkey, and Britain. For both Trump and Jackson, it is mano-a-mano bilateralism rather than multilateralism
To go back 180 years is to make a basic point: Whether old or new, Jacksonianism is the very opposite of American grand strategy since World War II. Of course, the United States was no pussycat in those days. This global giant did throw his weight around. Recall the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, plus a slew of lesser forays around the globe. This is what hegemonial powers do. But what really made “America great” has been unique in the history of world politics. The name of the game was institutions rather than imposition, architecture rather than the arrogance of power.
The United States served up an alphabet soup of institutions: UN, IMF, GATT (later: WTO), OECD, World Bank, NATO, and a slew of subsidiary alliances like ANZUS with Australia and New Zealand. The acronyms all designate international public goods. A public good delivers benefits everybody can enjoy once it exists—like a park or public school. International public goods are security systems, free trade, freedom of navigation, or monetary stability. Any nation that joins up can profit from them. America became great as a producer of international public goods, rising to No. 1 as an obsessive institution-builder.
Trump thinks the United States is a sucker for safeguarding this order. Think again. Naturally, No. 1 always invests more in public goods. He sets up the assembly lines and keeps them humming. Hence, everybody else is to some extent a free rider. Tiny Belgium gets more out of NATO than it pays in.
Yet for Mr. Big, gains vastly exceed costs as well. First, recall Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner builds a baseball park in the middle of nowhere, a typical public good. The motto is: “If you build it, they will come.” Unlike previous greats, who exploited the system, the United States engaged in supply-side international politics. It offered stuff that lured others into the American ballpark. That is the essence of convening and agenda-setting power, hence global influence.
Point two is about leadership, the most economic form of power. Empires from Rome to Soviet Russia had to use force to keep in line those they ruled. The United States, by contrast, is an “empire by invitation,” not by imposition. It rests on consent, which breeds legitimacy and authority. Instead of satrapies, the United States gained stakeholders who want to be with you. Such leadership is cheaper than coercion.
Three: All these club members amplified American power, which Trump ignores while staring at the bill only. Take Europe. In exchange for its security guarantee, the United States got a million allied soldiers in the contest with the Soviet Union. Today, allied armies hold the line against Putin’s expansionism.
The fourth point is about the peculiar genius of American diplomacy post-1945. Donald Trump thinks that the United States is a patsy, claiming: “We’re being taken advantage by every nation in the world.” But savor the elegance of the U.S.-made order. By serving the interests of others, the United States served its own.
Start with stability, which is good for the caretaker of the global house because it keeps trouble away. Free trade is a boon for the largest economy on the planet. So is freedom of navigation for an island nation whose arteries stretch across two oceans. Institutionalized conflict resolution spells profit, too, for rules are better than rumbles.
International security is a winner, too. As in the Cold War, the United States can rely on allies in Europe while Vladimir Putin is changing borders by force. It helps to have Japan and South Korea in the American orbit while China, which has no allies, is expanding into the Pacific. Allies are partners of the first resort, and so the United States does not have to assemble new coalitions every time a fresh threat arises.
By way of metaphor, the United States is like the conductor of a symphony orchestra with four score solo players, an onerous task. What does he get for his labors? Harmony instead of cacophony, leadership instead of sullen obedience. And he gets to keep his baton.
Trump would rather wield the crowbar to “make America great again.” He told the UN General Assembly: “I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always…put your countries first.” That is a truism. All governments put their country first, and so does the United States. With a critical difference: In the glory days, Presidents maximized American interests by turning the classic zero-sum game of nations into a non-zero game where all can win. They embedded the national interest in the common interest, reaping both synergy and leadership.
How did this work? Europe was down and out in 1945. So the United States provided capital under the Marshall Plan to restart the economy, but not out of sheer altruism. Once the Europeans were up and running, they earned enough to buy American. Clients became customers, and both sides scored. There were not enough dollars to fuel international trade. So the United States set up the IMF to provide global liquidity. Instead of playing a tit-for-tat protectionist game, the United States opened its borders while building institutions like GATT/WTO, where conflicts were resolved under common rules. Killing NAFTA would hurt not just Mexico and Canada, but also U.S. workers and consumers.
By inserting the national into the common interest, Truman and his heirs made America great—and not by coercion in the ways of Andrew Jackson. Schoolyard bullies can go a long way on force and intimidation, but they will never be elected class president. To be anointed, they can’t steal the other kids’ lunches. They have to look out for them to make power legitimate.
So as Trump is putting the axe to the U.S.-made global order, he will make America small again. China just loves Trumpism, which allows this expansionist to posture as guardian of global goodness. Trump has killed the Pacific Trade Partnership. So China offers a home in its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Putin smiles when Trump alienates his European allies, which increases his opportunities. Moscow and Beijing are the two most egotistical players on the world stage. Yet with the United States slinking off, America’s rivals will shape a post-American world. As old alliances succumb, new ones will arise that exclude the United States.
Is there an upside? Trump’s learning curve is not quite as flat as a pancake. Suddenly, NATO is no longer “obsolete,” but a bunch of reliable friends. Trump is deploying troops and heavy equipment to Eastern Europe to boost deterrence against Russia. He has not yet killed NAFTA; he is just trying to frighten Mexico and Canada into concessions. He is reassuring Japan and South Korea by dispatching naval units and anti-missile systems. And no, he will not push the UN out of New York to free up acres for new Trump Towers.
This is where the Old Hickory analogy falters. No. 45 is not quite pulling a Jackson, perhaps realizing between tweets that No. 7 could afford the antics while the United States was only a regional power, not the linchpin of the system. He may also realize that the cost of securing the global order is actually quite low. The United States now spends 3.6 percent of GDP on defense. In World War II, it was almost one-half.
What if Trump won’t do his arithmetic? Then let’s appeal to his craving for attention and glory by addressing him thus: “Mr. President, even if they play us for a sucker, it is a lot more fun to stand on the bridge than to hunker down in the hold. Do you really want Putin and Xi Jinping to get all the photo ops?”
That should clinch it, and the American empire might be saved.
1See also Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2017).