How Trump’s Foreign Policy Fits Within the American Tradition

The crises of 2020 have amplified the debate over the direction of U.S. foreign policy at a chaotic time. Critics who are uneasy with President Trump’s focus on trade, defense commitments, and multilateralism warn of the demise of America’s global leadership role. Supporters, meanwhile, applaud a shift in priorities towards a more self-interested and reciprocal approach that, in their view, can serve to rebalance the post-war legacy of one-sided trade deals and security commitments. 

As Americans prepare for another presidential election, it’s worth reviewing how U.S. foreign and commercial policies have evolved over the past 244 years. How do the Trump Administration’s current efforts on security, trade, multilateralism, state sovereignty, and the containment of hegemonic threats conform with the American tradition? 

The Founding Concerns: Security, Commerce, and Values

Throughout U.S. history, the core concern of American national security has been to ensure security within our borders, to engage in foreign trade on an equal basis, and, occasionally, to promote American values even where self-interest is not evident. 

The British Crown’s failure to respect the core concerns of the 13 colonies were among the “injuries and usurpations” listed in the Declaration of Independence. In practice, the United States has sought to achieve territorial security and freedom of navigation with as little expense as possible. With few exceptions, most of the actions undertaken to address threats to these interests were reactive—events drove U.S. interventions rather than grand policy initiatives. 

Where the United States adopted a more interventionist policy, it was most often in response to a perceived failure to act swiftly or decisively enough. Where the United States reverted to a more isolationist approach, it was due to a sense that overexertion had worked to America’s detriment.

Mead’s Four Schools 

Walter Russell Mead, in his 2001 book Special Providence, identified four schools or “tendencies” of U.S. foreign policy, which he names for the statesmen that most typify the types: 

1) The Hamiltonian school has regarded the promotion of U.S. commercial interests as paramount and has shaped U.S. foreign engagement to this end. 

2) The Jeffersonian school has generally feared the corrupting influence of foreign entanglements and sought to minimize the U.S. role in foreign conflicts.

3) The Jacksonian school, like the Jeffersonian, has preferred to direct its focus inward, but has also been prepared to react decisively when challenged by an external foe.

4) The Wilsonian school has perceived value in exporting the American way of life abroad and has been willing to intervene or create multilateral bodies to further this goal over the long term.

Mead has described President Trump as a Jacksonian and observed convincingly that Jacksonians comprise his most enthusiastic supporters. One also recognizes, however, strong elements of the Hamiltonian (leaning toward the protectionist wing of that school) and Jeffersonian, as demonstrated by President Trump’s decision to pull punches in response to North Korean and Iranian provocations. 

Territorial Security

After the War of Independence, the federal government disbanded the Continental Army in the hope and anticipation that internal and external security could be entrusted to state militias. Disputes with Native American tribes on the frontier, exacerbated by British machinations, convinced Congress in 1797 to fund a standing army, which spent much of the ensuing half-century addressing conflicts with Native American forces and deterring interference by European forces, both on U.S. territory and in the hemisphere, as outlined under the Monroe Doctrine (1821). 

While the primary goal of the Mexican War in 1846-1847 was U.S. territorial expansion at the expense of a neighboring country, some observers expressed concerns that a U.S. failure to secure the relatively unpopulated upper California territory could result in British control. The French intervention in Mexico (1861-1867) prompted the United States to provide monetary support to opposition liberal forces, while the prospect of German acquisition of the Danish Virgin Islands prompted the U.S. purchase of the archipelago in 1917. 

Pancho Villa’s cross-border raids during the Mexican Civil War (1910-1920) provoked a U.S. army incursion into Mexico, while the prospect of German aid to a Mexican reconquest of the Southwest (as proposed by the German Zimmerman telegram) was a major factor in the U.S. entry into World War I. The federal government launched several massive infrastructure projects with continental security in mind, including the Panama Canal, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the Alaska-Canada Highway, and the Interstate Highway System.

While the early years of U.S. history saw a permissive federal approach towards immigration, popular attitudes began to change in the 1890s due both to the sheer volume of immigrants and the perceived presence of radical elements among them. The Russian Bolshevik revolution and a campaign of anarchist bombings between 1919-1920 at home fueled the Red Scare, which in turn led to the introduction of a (pro-northern European) national quota system included in the Immigration Act of 1924. 

The relaxation of immigration procedures in 1965 increased both the numbers and the diversity of immigrants to the United States and revived immigration as an election issue. The urgency for immigration skeptics, however, stemmed from Islamist terrorist attacks, immigrant gangs engaged in narcotics trafficking, and lawlessness along the unsecured U.S.-Mexican border. Such transnational threats as Islamic terrorism and cybercrime demanded a nationwide and increasingly international approach. 

Donald Trump was among the few candidates in 2016 to address widespread voter concern about unrestricted immigration. He has pursued a generally fraught campaign against domestic opponents to fortify border structures and proposed changes to immigration laws that would reduce human trafficking and drug smuggling. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump instituted flight bans and border restrictions early to suppress or delay the spread of the disease. Exceeding the measures of past administrations, the United States expelled Chinese Communist Party-influenced media outlets and academic programs and closed the Chinese Consulate in Houston due to concerns over intellectual property theft and internet hacking. Russian and other perceived foreign efforts to influence U.S. electoral policy prompted foreign sanctions and increased internal vigilance, although domestic infighting over the significance of this interference remains a contentious issue. 

On the eve of the November elections, the U.S. domestic political environment remains divided over the nature of the threat to the homeland and measures required to address the threat.

Commerce and the Freedom of Navigation 

As with the Army, Congress dismantled the U.S. Navy for lack of funds in 1785, but reversed course 10 years later due to piracy against U.S. vessels in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, and naval harassment by French and British rivals during the long series of wars following the French Revolution. Military successes against British forces in the War of 1812 and the Barbary Pirates in 1815 finally earned the young republic international respect. 

A symbiotic relationship with the Royal Navy throughout much of the 19th century enabled the U.S. merchant fleet to become among the world’s largest, with relatively little investment in a navy, aside from the period of the U.S. Civil War. By century’s end, however, U.S. policymakers elected to pursue a maritime empire to secure access to the Panama Canal, provision coaling stations on Pacific islands to serve its growing merchant fleet, and keep pace with other great powers—some of which were then weighing the prospective subdivision of China on the model of Africa, 1878-1885.

In contrast to the colonial powers seeking exclusive access to raw materials, the U.S. goal from its founding generally was to achieve equal access to markets abroad. With the Open Door Policy of 1900, the United States succeeded in convincing economic competitors (Japan and the European powers) to keep the Chinese market whole and accessible, albeit on terms not necessarily embraced by the Chinese Empress. 

Among the primary reasons for U.S. entry into World War I was the German attacks on U.S. merchant shipping supplying Britain and France. The American commercial and materiel lifeline to Britain during World War II led Germany to declare war on the United States immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which itself grew out of Japanese resentment of economic embargoes on oil and scrap metal levied in response to Japan’s occupation of China and Indochina. 

Chastened by the failure of its restrictive tariff policies during the Great Depression, post-war U.S. policymakers pivoted to promote a transparent and open trading system that encouraged multilateral interdependency. Historically protective of its industries, U.S. officials elected to offer advantageous deals to war-ravaged partners hoping their long-term prosperity and stability would benefit the United States, both economically and strategically. 

As the Communist threat expanded during the Cold War, so were “special and differential treatment” trade provisions extended to vulnerable developing countries. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rising prosperity of Europe and East Asia, the United States continued to maintain these objectively unfavorable trade agreements, not only with allies, who supported the U.S. leadership role, but also with peer competitors and rising economic powerhouses like China, which decidedly did not. The resulting shift of American manufacturing capabilities abroad led to the growing frustration of many U.S. workers and some consumers.

Nearly alone among the 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump recognized the widespread frustration with globalization and envisioned an alternative future in which manufacturing jobs would return. 

As president, he renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdrew from a Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) agreement that appeared to accord favorable treatment to partners, dropped negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that was already rejected by the European public, and challenged the European Union to recognize reciprocity in its own tariff and non-tariff barriers. 

On the high seas, the U.S. Navy continued to assert freedom of navigation operations in international waters and, most recently, the Trump Administration reversed its non-committal policy on the South China Sea by declaring its opposition to China’s expansive territorial claims. 

U.S. officials also began to highlight concerns about the rising number of port and airport facilities coming under the control of Chinese and Russian-affiliated entities, including in the Mediterranean and Arctic regions.

MPI/Getty Images

American Values 

While early U.S. leaders staked their claim for independence on natural law and unalienable rights, they did not set out to design foreign policy to further these aims for other nations or peoples. As then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821 famously said concerning America’s approach to the anti-colonial movements in South America: 

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benediction, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.  

Values, however, have frequently been a motivation for U.S. action abroad—beyond its interests in security and commerce. 

Indeed, already in 1819, the U.S. government, with abolitionist support, authorized the U.S. Navy to deploy the Africa Squadron to suppress the slave trade along the coast of West Africa. This mission echoed more extensive and successful efforts by the British Royal Navy. That this policy coincided with the continued practice of slavery in the southern states reflects a recurrent characteristic of U.S. values promotion—the ideals advocated abroad often exceeded those practiced at home. 

When values serve as motivation, they are frequently accompanied by more concrete interests as well. 

Several examples: Southern obstinance in response to Northern opposition to the westward expansion of slavery was the primary issue of contention in the 1860 election, but it was the decision by 11 Southern states to secede that led to the Civil War. Spanish treatment of the restive Cuban population in the 1890s inspired disapproval in the American press, but the explosion of the USS Maine, a fear of continued regional instability, and a desire for improved sea lines of communication in the Caribbean and Pacific led to the Spanish-American War. 

President Wilson justified the U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity “to make the world safe for democracy,” but German attacks on U.S. merchant trade and machinations in Mexico drove the decision to declare war. American missionary sentiment in favor of Chinese Christians influenced a U.S. military response during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s, but commercial and diplomatic interests and broad opposition to regional hegemony tipped the scales toward intervention. 

The Cold War further tested the role of American values in U.S. foreign policy, as the American leaders had to decide how best to counter totalitarianism in a world where most U.N. member states had only the trappings of democracy. 

While the United States could encourage greater democratization—successfully in Europe and Japan; less successfully in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America—it often faced the difficult choice of whether to prefer those authoritarian governments that opposed Communism over semi-democracies that too closely aligned with the Soviet Union or Communist China. 

There were ambitious attempts to cement certain values into the global consciousness: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; the updated Geneva Conventions in 1949; the Refugee Convention of 1951; the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. These, in turn, led to the creation of several U.N. agencies, of varying effectiveness, and the Conference on (later Organization of) Security and Cooperation in Europe. Initiatives to address humanitarian crises, economic development, environmental challenges, and cultural matters also proliferated.

The instruments to cultivate democratic values saw slow progress until the 1980s, when the rising prosperity of East Asia and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in Europe produced broad-based indigenous support for democratic reform. 

Human rights assumed a more central place in U.S. foreign policy. The focus proved beneficial not only for the populations themselves but also for the long-term political and social stability of nations and the ability of Western democracies to influence developments and diminish the attractiveness of Communist movements. Progress slowed after 2000 as much of the Middle East proved impervious to democracy and various states in Africa and Latin America reversed course. Nevertheless, trends arguably continue to favor some form of representative government. 

Under the Trump Administration, pro-democracy and human rights efforts have continued, though with less emphasis on international organizations as the vehicle to achieve these results. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set up the Commission on Unalienable Rights to redirect the U.S. focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” At least two arguments shaped the report released in July 2020 by this body. First, rights are best ensured by individual sovereign nations, rather than multilateral bodies; second, governments will be far more likely to observe and respect those rights to which they already ascribed as U.N. member states, rather than those “unmoored” from international consensus. 

Neutrality, Alliances, Containment

Having discussed the “founding concerns” of the United States, it is worthwhile to address how U.S. leaders have sought to pursue these concerns—individually or in conjunction with others. 

The initial preference was neutrality. Well-known are the admonitions of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to avoid permanent or “entangling” alliances. Less well-known is that the vital French assistance to the victorious Continental Army was undertaken under the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, and that Washington and Congress abrogated this treaty in 1793 as revolutionary France descended into terror and battled a coalition of European states. 

North America’s relative insularity assisted the United States in maintaining its neutrality into the 20th century. The Wilson Administration chose to participate in World War I as an “associate power” or “cobelligerent,” rather than as a member of the Triple Alliance. The Senate’s refusal to join the League of Nations stemmed in large measure from a reluctance to adopt binding defense commitments that would supersede its own authority to declare war. Neutrality, with few exceptions, remained U.S. policy until World War II was well underway.

The shift in U.S. policy towards a multilateral approach occurred for the obvious reason that unilateralism was insufficient to achieve the goal, first, of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and, second, containing Soviet expansionism following the war. “By, with, and through” is the modern military parlance for the practical conclusion that economy of force can be achieved by joining in a joint effort with like-minded partners. 

For centuries, the British Empire had used a balance-of-power approach to keep in check potential or real hegemonic powers on the European continent. As the predominant maritime power, Britain was seldom the strongest land power, thus strategists sought to join forces with alliances of secondary powers to counter the strongest continental power—be it Habsburg Spain or Austria, Bourbon or Napoleonic France, or Imperial Germany. Eventually, as the British ability to contain Nazi German or Soviet Russian expansionism waned, the United States began to share the role of insular, flanking power to contain hegemonic domination of Europe. 

As with the British, this goal could only be accomplished “by, with, and through” allies and partners who, in exchange for military and economic support, could serve as force multipliers by providing additional forces, forward bases, transit rights, and local familiarity. For Britain, this was as true during the Spanish Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon’s Grande Army as it was with French partisans after the D-Day invasion.

Strategies of Containment 

The looming power of the Soviet Union and the Communist movements it fostered put an end to U.S. hopes of full redeployment of forces back home at war’s end. Assessing that the Soviet Union was both subject to its own cost-benefit analysis and sensitive to the logic of force, American diplomat George Kennan proposed that the United States maintain just enough of a military presence in Europe to forestall further Soviet expansionism while devoting the bulk of its resources to nurture its foreign centers of interest (Central Europe, Britain, Japan) to recover economically and politically. 

This “asymmetric” approach, as described by historian John Lewis Gaddis, implied that the United States would confront the Soviet Union at a time and place of its own choosing. The communist system, Kennan assessed, would eventually collapse of its own internal contradictions. The Truman Administration adopted this approach—best exemplified by the Marshall Plan in Europe, reliance on nuclear deterrence rather than conventional forces, and benign neglect over “peripheral” areas like China. 

For other policymakers, however, the fall of China and the specter of communist-inspired subversion in Greece, Turkey, and the Korean Peninsula triggered a more expansive containment policy that entailed countering Soviet or communist threats in peripheral regions as well. This “symmetric” approach was outlined by Truman’s National Security Advisor Paul Nitze in NSC-68 in 1951 during the Korean War. 

Over subsequent U.S. administrations, the pendulum swung back and forth between these approaches, in Gaddis’ view. An asymmetric approach of Eisenhower, Nixon, or Ford would conserve forces by focusing only on selected challenges from the Soviet Union, at the risk of temporarily losing ground. The symmetric approach of Kennedy and Johnson would expend resources to counter Soviet activity even in such peripheral areas as Southeast Asia or Latin America, with the potential consequence of overextension. 

In Gaddis’ view, the Reagan Administration achieved a successful balance of both approaches, thus contributing to the end of the Cold War. The “unilateral moment” again presented the United States with an unrealized option to redeploy forces home. The hoped-for peace dividend was only partially realized, however, as unrest in the Balkans, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, anarchy in Central Africa, and the rise of Islamic extremist terrorism all enticed some form of U.S. response. 

For the United States, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, led to a decades-long war in Afghanistan, followed by a major intervention in Iraq and smaller operations in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. While the United States and its partners have sought to use asymmetric tools of international sanctions, special operations, and the deployment of proxy forces, the engagements conducted under the war on terrorism have been symmetric in that the United States was drawn to areas of the enemy’s choosing—most of which are in what Kennan might have called the periphery.

President Trump’s approach thus far can be placed within the asymmetric camp. Critical of inconclusive interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Trump ran on a non-interventionist platform. Once in office, however, he allowed the military to broaden its rules of engagement and authorized more decisive use of force, resulting in the defeat of the so-called Islamic Caliphate in 2018. In asymmetric fashion, however, he ordered the reduction of the U.S. force presence in Syria to avoid placing troops in harm’s way between the Turkish military and Kurdish forces. 

Otherwise, the Trump Administration’s focus has been on the global centers of power—East Asia, Europe, and North America—and less on Latin America and Africa.

 In East Asia, President Trump more than his predecessors has confronted the Chinese threat directly through tough trade negotiations and accelerated regional naval activity. Meanwhile, he encouraged global and regional partners to halt the massive infrastructure acquisition China launched under its Belt and Road Initiative. On the Korean Peninsula, President Trump sought to deploy a mixture of escalation and de-escalation to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat, while pressing South Korea to increase its military contribution to the U.S. presence there. 

In Europe, President Trump’s initial skepticism towards the utility of NATO gave way to a more appreciative stance, albeit with continued strong admonitions towards major allies to meet their defense contribution commitments. Notwithstanding the spurious charges of Russian collusion that accompanied his inauguration, President Trump sanctioned Russian entities and expanded U.S. military assistance to frontline allies and partners, including Ukraine. 

Multilateralism—Pro and Con 

U.S. administrations have varied in the level of confidence accorded to international organizations, but all have expressed some frustration with various bodies. Set up to galvanize mutual action on important goals, too many multilateral bodies have devolved into ineffectual talk shops. Frequently, member states join the governing councils of UN organizations to thwart, rather than further, the organizations’ founding purpose, as with the current UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The United States is by far the largest contributor to the United Nations. Yet it has periodically withdrawn its participation in various bodies—most recently, the UNHRC and World Health Organization (WHO)—in protest of perceived partiality to totalitarian member states or engagement in activities contrary to their founding purposes. 

Likewise, Congress declined to ratify or endorse U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the Kyoto and Paris climate change agreements that had been signed by the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

Even the most successful organizations require periodic reinvigoration. NATO is recognized as the most effective military alliance in history—as evident not only in the fulfillment of its collective defense objective, but also in its usefulness as a platform for bilateral and multilateral defense capacity building and combined, out-of-area operations in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Yet, much of the organization’s credibility rests on the U.S. commitment, as several key allies decline to meet their own pledges to increase defense expenditures. 

Recent Pew Research Center polls suggest that most Germans, for example, would not support coming to the aid of an ally attacked by Russia, although a majority on both sides of the Atlantic expect that the United States would. The inconsistency of allied commitment and capability—evident in Kosovo in 1999—led to a U.S. preference for coalitions of the willing for its initial kinetic operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

The critical determinant regarding the value of a multilateral organization is whether the ends achieved would be possible unilaterally or within a coalition of the willing. The U.N., NATO, and other organizations can facilitate burden-sharing and common purpose while lessening the chance of countries working at cross purposes. Multilateral organizations can win the permissions necessary to access certain regions or use certain powers. Likewise, some member states can only participate in such efforts as peacekeeping or law enforcement cooperation under the umbrella of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The question for the policymaker is whether the benefits of a multilateral approach outweigh the costs in treasure and in time.

The Trump Administration notably has been less enthusiastic towards multilateral organizations than its predecessors, as demonstrated through its withdrawal from the UNHRC, WHO, the Paris Climate Treaty, and measures to deter an ICC investigation into U.S. military activities in Afghanistan. Regarding NATO, the U.S. force disposition in Europe has improved since 2016, with the return of rotational mechanized brigades and a more forward-leaning posture along NATO’s eastern flank. 

U.S. military aid to the Baltic States and Ukraine expanded during the first Trump term. Notwithstanding the increase in U.S. resources to Europe, the media has generally focused on President Trump’s verbal criticism to portray him as anti-NATO—a charge never levied against the Obama Administration even when it announced the withdrawal of two out of four brigade combat teams from Europe in 2012. The lack of U.S. awareness of or response to the Russian invasion of Crimea or the Donbas during the Obama Administration was relatively muted compared with the outcry directed at President Trump’s less momentous decision to tolerate a Turkish security zone along the Syrian border. 

Some foreign policy professionals have also criticized President Trump for withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, although this disenchantment over Russia’s lack of adherence to the treaties preceded the administration. Where previous administrations have groused while keeping these agreements intact, the Trump Administration has withdrawn, heedless of the critics.

State Sovereignty 

Since the United States assumed its global security role, it has embraced the national sovereignty of smaller states as an essential lever to deter the hegemonic impulses of continental powers. For a maritime (and nuclear) power like the United States, the calculation was that alliance guarantees to weaker states are generally less costly than a belated response to military adventurism by, for example the Soviet Union. Likewise, efforts to bolster the stability and resilience of these front-line states can serve as an added deterrent to threats from larger, aggressive powers. This approach enjoys the advantage of support among the diverse nation-states wishing to preserve their unique cultures. As a distant power, the United States itself was not viewed as a threat to national sovereignty—at least outside of the Western Hemisphere. 

In his July 2017 speech in Warsaw, President Trump declared that “the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition” underlay this sovereignty, and that “a strong alliance of free, sovereign, and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests . . . ” The speech was anchored in the Westphalian tradition, which at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648 promised to each sovereign state the ability to shape its own internal policies. The speech likewise drew on a Wilsonian embrace of national determination, while setting itself off from the equally Wilsonian aspirations of global governance.

Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Supranational Governance and the European Union 

Another proposed constraint on expansionist powers would be multinational governing structures. The European Union comes closest to the status of supranational state with such ambitions. Midwifed by the Marshall Plan to spur post-war economic recovery and foster common cause against communist inroads, the Common Market helped Europe to achieve impressive levels of stability and prosperity. In the security sphere, the EU thus far has complemented NATO in fostering cooperative security. 

As European leaders pursue “an ever closer union,” however, it is questionable whether the diverse member states are willing to further set aside national sovereignty to align behind a central core (presumably Germany or France) that wishes to fashion a European state. The prospect exists that a central bureaucracy acting on behalf of a few member states might pose as much of a risk of domination as an external adversary like Russia, particularly given repeated historic instances of Russian and German partition of Poland and the Baltic States. Granted, today’s democratic Germany should not be tarred with the character of its Prussian or Nazi predecessors, nor France with the legacy of Napoleon. But the question remains just how democratic a multinational EU would be under an even more centralizing and dominant Brussels.

President Trump has not disguised his dissatisfaction with the EU as a trade partner, nor his general skepticism of supranational bodies that seek to supplant national sovereignty. In comments prior to his inauguration, Donald Trump strongly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy and described the EU as “basically a vehicle for Germany.” As with his dealings with NATO, he has adopted a tough-love approach in negotiations over tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade. In contrast to President Obama—who warned the UK that it would be the “back of the queue” for trade deals, should it leave the EU—President Trump diplomatically supported the United Kingdom in its Brexit process, prompting the enmity of Europeanists and Internationalists on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Trumpism and American Tradition

Notwithstanding the claims of critics, the Trump Administration’s approach to foreign and commercial policy are well within the American tradition. 

President Trump is not the first to have balanced unilateral and multilateral approaches to secure domestic security and ensure commercial access abroad. While the contrast to the Obama Administration might appear stark—particularly on such issues as immigration, trade, nuclear disarmament, and climate—the pendulum swing is well within historical norm. As discussed, President Trump displays the characteristics of a Jacksonian, with elements of a “Hamiltonian” pursuit of commercial interests, in Mead’s rubric, with a preference for asymmetric response, as outlined by Gaddis.

Perhaps the most profound contrast between President Trump and his recent predecessors is his diminished willingness to assume disproportionate burdens or to accord generous benefits to countries that are no longer faced with the challenges of the Cold War era. This newfound reluctance to shoulder disproportionally the burden of maintaining the global order is even more pronounced with respect to adversaries like China, whose actions in the region undermine the core principles of freedom of navigation and state sovereignty. 

Should President Trump secure reelection, his focus almost certainly will remain security of the homeland and the prosperity of the U.S. economy. Those new trade agreements achieved will emphasize reciprocity and likely provide more protections for U.S. manufacturing. Freedom of navigation will remain essential to both security and commercial interests in the face of aggression from China, Russia, Iran, and transnational threats. Participation in alliances and multilateral organizations will be based on their usefulness and the willingness of other prominent members to share in the burden. Unilateralism will remain an option. 

The United States will continue to seek the containment of regional hegemons—currently China, Russia, and Iran—but with an asymmetric approach that emphasizes the role of regional partners. Efforts to foster regional stability will favor an emphasis on national sovereignty over such supranational institutions as the United Nations or European Union. 

Finally, the willingness of international partners to cooperate with the United States will reflect their own perceived national interest, rather than the personalities of individual leaders. This latter point is vital, given media emphasis on style over substance. The criticism targeting the Trump Administration during the first term has always focused excessively on rhetoric instead of concrete actions. A review of actual foreign policy actions in the context of the American tradition allows a more balanced perspective.

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About Eric K. Lundberg

Eric K. Lundberg is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer with 30 years of experience. His most recent position was foreign policy advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto

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