Donald Trump made many statements about foreign policy during his campaign, some dangerous, some promising. The latter, if he acts on them, could bring about the most profound change in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: a U.S. reluctance to use force to topple governments, influence the outcome of civil wars, and promote democracy and human rights. The appointments he makes, because they risk producing the same foreign-policy disasters previous presidents have experienced, could easily sidetrack these inclinations. The members of the foreign-policy establishment will be certain to try.
Nearly thirty years ago, in testimony before Congress, then secretary of state George Shultz offered a rare window into the inner workings of the Washington foreign-policy establishment. He told members of Congress , “Nothing ever gets settled in this town. It’s not like running a company or even a university. It’s a seething debating society in which the debate never stops, in which people never give up, including me, and that’s the atmosphere in which you administer.”
President Obama called the foreign-policy establishment “ the Blob .” He was critical of the playbook it wanted to use, which invariably advocated the use of U.S. military force to effect regime change, interfere in other countries’ civil wars, and promote democracy and human rights, as well as a hyperactive and muscular approach to dealing with the world’s problems. Obama had a mixed record in taming the Blob; he succumbed to its preferences in Libya, but has kept it largely at bay in Syria. By the time of the election, many old hands in both the Democratic and Republican foreign-policy establishment were salivating over the prospect of Hillary Clinton, a charter member of that club, welcoming back the Blob’s members as mandarins of American foreign policy.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump challenged many of the cardinal tenets of the foreign-policy establishment’s view of America’s role and responsibilities in the world. The president-elect needs to beware the Blob. It is down but not out—and if vigilance is not maintained, it will infiltrate the national-security bureaucracy at senior levels and seek to staff lower-level positions with its loyal followers to counter his insurgency against the country’s foreign-policy elites. Trump’s challenge will be to maintain a focus on restraint in American engagement and uses of military power, while finding competent and experienced foreign-policy and national-security professionals who share his instincts. His White House staff will be critical to maintaining this focus.
Trump’s appeal was largely domestic, but rooted in part in a call to come home and focus on America’s problems. While foreign policy did not play a significant role in the campaign, he did give voice to a number of extremely dangerous ideas : shredding the nuclear agreement with Iran, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, pulling out of NAFTA and killing the TPP, slapping stiff tariffs on China and Mexico, banning Muslim immigrants from entering America, deporting millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants, reinstituting torture and punishing the families of terrorist suspects, pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change, accommodating Russian revanchism against Ukraine, withdrawing from NATO, forcing U.S. allies like Japan and Korea to pay more for their own defense or give up U.S. protection, and saying it might not be such a bad thing if both countries decided to acquire nuclear weapons to protect their security.
If Trump delivered on any of these proposals, the world would be a much wilder place; America would be far less secure and prosperous; and the global order and alliance relationships the United States has constructed and sustained since the end of World War II, which have helped to generate enormous global wealth and security while facilitating the projection of American influence, would crumble. None of these ideas would make America—already the most secure and prosperous nation on earth—great again.
And yet, Trump has touched on something that resonates with a large segment of the American public’s views on foreign policy. A Clinton presidency would likely have brought, in its wake, more interventionist efforts, more “global cop” responsibilities, more efforts to find American solutions to all the world’s problems and, conceivably, more disastrous outcomes for American security. The public does not want that. According to recent survey data , the majority of the American public want the United States to mind its own business and stop trying to be a global cop and solving all the world’s problems; in addition, they want our allies to do more, they are tired of war, and they are weary (and wary) of expanding foreign commitments and entanglements. They also believe that the activist promotion of democracy and human rights abroad should not be at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. These views fly in the face of the Blob’s preferences, as expressed to each other in a never-ending flow of reports and media appearances during the campaign.