Why Trumpism Worries Foreign-Policy Wonks
U.S. allies would be wise to ignore Trump's outbursts.
President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric raised hopes that he might pursue a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Trump was the only truth-teller on the Iraq War in the Republican primary. He mainstreamed the issue of low contributions by allies to the American defense network, which hitherto was mostly a debate among foreign-policy wonks. He talked of avoiding foolish wars. He intuitively grasped the disconnect between the insouciant belligerence of neoconservative and Washington-based U.S. foreign-policy elites, and the working-class voters who filled out the ranks and fought the country’s wars. More broadly, he demonstrated that even within the “national security party,” there is a constituency seeking a less arrogant, high-handed and meddlesome foreign policy.
The verdict is still out on whether Trump means this. His cabinet and staff picks include superhawks like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon. But his belligerence toward allies—cancelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the haranguing tone, the dismissal of international organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and so on—is not a requirement of a more cautious foreign policy. Restraint need not mean isolationism, and alienating the United States from much of the world—barring Russia, of course—is the likely outcome of Trumpism if the president and Bannon do not slow down.
It is important to make these distinctions, because the long-standing retort to restraint is that it is retrenchment, abandonment of U.S. leadership, withdrawing from the world and so on. This was captured most famously in the relentless repetition of the Republican talking point that Barack Obama was “leading from behind.” But much of that is false. Nothing in a restrained foreign policy says the United States should antagonize friends, practice protectionism or practice mercantilism. Mature diplomacy and liberal, trade-friendly economics do not require a parallel commitment to U.S. global dominance.
Restrain seeks greater care in choosing when and where to use U.S. force, greater concern for the violence and destabilization the use of force unleashes, greater awareness of the spiraling financial costs of conflict, anxiety over possible American “imperial overstretch,” and humility regarding the horrific human toll when the United States unleashes its powerful military on others. None of that requires breaking U.S. alliances. As I have argued before in these pages, the point of restraint is to incentivize U.S. allies to spend more, build better, more interoperable forces, and strategize and plan more.
But for reasons only he and Bannon know, Trump has cast many U.S. alliance relationships into doubt. Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to run to Japan and South Korea last week, and will go to Europe next week, just to quell anxieties. In just two weeks in office, Trump has managed to inflame U.S. relationships with its closest partners, including Britain, Mexico and Australia. If countries so culturally close to the United States are targets of Trump’s wrath, then how will he deal with alliance friction and disagreements with more culturally distant states like Japan or South Korea?
Similarly, his cancellation of the TPP adds nothing to a more disciplined foreign policy. Free trade is entirely commensurate with a U.S. pullback from overstretch. Restraint is not autarky, mercantilism, protection, the denial of visas to legitimate foreign business operators and so on. Restraint is not isolationism, which increasingly appears to be Trump’s impulse. Indeed, any serious strategist will see the obvious military threat of autarkic economic strategies. Militarily powerful states must be able to capture any and all technological gains generated by economic development, even by foreigners, lest they qualitatively fall behind. Communist states constantly suffered from this problem. Committed to closed, internal-only development, they quickly fell behind open economies in developing and deploying new technologies. While lost consumer pleasures—such as washing machines or televisions—could be ignored, the military applications of breakthrough technologies, such as computers, could not. Communist militaries were constantly forced to rely on quantity, because their quality was always a decade or two behind that of their opponents. When Bannon speaks of restoring America’s “shipyards and ironworks,” he is invoking a long gone coal-and-steel U.S. economy impossible to revive without a genuine autarkic turn.
The internationalist retort, of course, is to blend this all together: U.S. participation in the global economy necessitates U.S. global leadership, and a consequent willingness to regularly use force. But the relationship is not as tight as neoconservatives would have you believe. The central pillars of the world economy outside North America are Europe and East Asia. The United States can maintain a middling commitment in these places without sprawling elsewhere, most obviously the Middle East. U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf carbon is diminishing rapidly due to fracking and renewables, and carbon needs to be significantly more expensive globally anyway due to its alarming global warming externalities. In short, U.S. participation in the global economy need not mean hegemony outside a few core areas—and certainly not in the Middle East, given the high cost of U.S. dominance there and the declining value of its one serious export.
For U.S. allies, this is a weird time. The next American elections, for the legislature, occur in 2018. Traditionally, the president’s party loses. A large anti-Trump wave could stop much of this. Conversely, a moderate legislative defeat, followed by Trump’s reelection in 2020, would lock in these grand strategic shifts. The wisest course for allies now is likely to ignore Trump’s outbursts whenever possible, smile gamely, make a few face-saving concessions, such as Shinzo Abe’s American jobs program, and hold tight for 2018. If the orange storm does not subside by then, it may be time to consider more autonomous national strategies.
Robert Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing may be found at his website.
Image: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates talks to soldiers in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Flickr/U.S. Army