The Skeptics

The World Is Reacting to Trump's Words—Not His Actions

In short, Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he is willing to abandon primacy—America’s de facto foreign policy for the past several decades—but his actions largely affirm the status quo, which makes him indistinguishable from his predecessors in a number of critical respects.

If you are skeptical, ask yourself: would Hillary Clinton have withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, wound down the drone war, or blocked NATO expansion or the Ukrainian arms sale?

I doubt it. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

To be sure, Donald Trump has pushed through a number of changes to U.S. foreign policy that neither Obama nor Clinton would have (e.g. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; reversal on better relations with Cuba; threats to undo the Iran nuclear deal; calls for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital). Indeed, if there is a single theme connecting his disparate actions it seems to be “If Obama did it, it must be wrong.” But, on matters of substance, and particularly with respect to the U.S. global military posture, Donald Trump hasn’t changed that much.

So, why all the fuss? Because Trump is different. Words matter, and Trump’s Twitter rants and ill-considered off-hand comments have not made us, or the world, safer.

Unsurprisingly, U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have questioned, and at times openly defied, Washington’s dictates. “We’re beginning to see countries take matters into their own hands,” observes Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re hedging against America’s unreliability.”

We might ask, “What took so long?” The U.S. liberal global order was never as liberal as advertised (consider Washington’s support for illiberal dictators and perilous partners during the Cold War and since). It was mostly focused on a few favored allies, and excluded those we didn’t like (so, not exactly global). And it wasn’t even that orderly (the disastrous Iraq War, after all, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and destabilized an entire region). The rules, meanwhile, applied to others, not to us. It was unrealistic to think that it could last indefinitely, especially when the American people are desperate for something different.

We should be disappointed, therefore, that concerns about Trump and Trumpism haven’t prompted a more serious debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy. Instead we get lamentations that all is lost, followed by a forlorn hope to go back to the way it was before.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

Image: Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; President Donald Trump walks onto the field before the 2018 CFP national championship college football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports​