The Skeptics

Status and Prestige Are Driving Trump's Foreign Policy

The last few weeks have been witness to a dramatic transformation in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. But perhaps not for the reason you think.

In early April, the president authorized a pinprick bombing of a Syrian military base alleged to be the source of the recent chemical weapons attack. This starkly contrasted with Trump’s insistence in 2013, following a similar chemical attack in Syria, that Obama keep America out of the bloody civil war. In fact, nonintervention against Syria was one of the few issues the habitually inconsistent candidate managed to keep to during the 2016 campaign.

In an even more flagrant change of heart, Trump met last week with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and announced that NATO “is no longer obsolete,” reversing one of his most fervid lines in the campaign that the European military alliance is purposeless. This newfound unity with our European allies coincided with Trump’s apparent conversion from an obsequious Russophile eager for an amiable relationship with Vladimir Putin to a critic determined to show Moscow who is boss.

Finally, Trump’s outsider take on North Korea seems to have dissolved into a much more conventional view. As a candidate, Trump’s solution was as ignorant as it was fresh: if we threaten China with a trade war, we can bully it into using its leverage over Pyongyang to solve the peninsular stalemate once and for all. After meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping and listening to ten minutes of history on Chinese-Korean relations, our unschooled commander in chief learned that things were much more complicated than he thought. Now Trump’s view appears to emphasize a harsh economic sanctions regime, ostentatious shows of force and explicit threats of preventive war should North Korea move forward with its nuclear weapons program.

What explains these drastic changes in Trump’s approach to foreign policy? One explanation says that he is simply making his way along the steep learning curve that all presidents experience. Another account puts it down to personnel. In the early weeks of Trump’s presidency, the prominence of capricious mavericks like Michael Flynn and radical nationalists like Steve Bannon produced an approach that was hostile to the experts within the national-security bureaucracy and amplified Trump’s policy illiteracy. Now, with Flynn ousted and Bannon marginalized, the ascendency of mainstream Republican foreign-policy views held by people like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have come to dominate the White House’s approach to the world.

There is no reason to doubt either explanation. Both certainly have played a role in recent weeks. But there is another, more fundamental explanation that goes to the root of what motivates state behavior, and especially leaders like Trump: the drive for status and prestige. In assuming the presidency, the most powerful and esteemed office in the world, Trump now sees things much differently.

Status and prestige motivations are pervasive in international politics. Hans Morgenthau wrote early on of “the policy of prestige.” Robert Gilpin defined it as “the reputation for power.” According to David Markey, the prestige motive is “the individual or collective desire for public recognition of eminence,” and “one of the central causes of conflict in international relations.”

It has often led to war, and frequently at the expense of more material interests. Richard Ned Lebow, in his book Why Nations Fight, found that of ninety-four interstate wars fought between 1648 and 2008, 58 percent were fought for status and prestige, and another 10 percent for revenge. He found only 25 percent were motivated purely for security or economic interests.