Trump even evinces some aspects of a conservative internationalist approach, defending the option of freedom in places like Ukraine and the Korean peninsula while not expecting authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, China and Russia to become free any time soon. He clearly rejects multilateralism and the liberal internationalist tradition: “I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down, and will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.” That’s why liberal internationalists who champion centralized institutions accuse him of undermining the Western liberal order.
Trump defines America’s security interests nationally and regionally. He rejects the global war on terrorism and would like to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and he firmly resists new troop commitments in Syria or Yemen. He prefers a nationalist strategy of offshore interventions to combat terrorism, now supported by many realists as well. Intervene if necessary to defeat or keep terrorists from controlling territory, but do not nation-build or promote democracy. Encourage local nations to provide the necessary boots on the ground. The quick military defeat of isis by offshore capabilities and Trump’s diplomacy to rally Saudi Arabia and other local nations to counterbalance Iran epitomize this localized approach.
President Trump is clearly committed to defend democracy where it exists in Europe and Asia (and Israel). The idea that he is undermining NATO and coddling Russia is a media fantasy. Here is what Trump has done in the relationship with Russia: approved the deployment of NATO forces, including two U.S. battalions, on the border of Russia for the first time since 1991 (the real trigger for Article V); delivered lethal weapons, including anti-tank weapons, to the Kiev government to raise the cost of further Russian aggression in Ukraine; pressured allies to spend more for NATO while the United States does not spend less; expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle; maintained sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Crimea, including on many of Putin’s cronies; and killed over a hundred Russian mercenaries in Syria to push back against Russian-backed terrorist threats to Israel. At the same time, as a realist interested in stabilizing the status quo, he looks for opportunities to cooperate with Russia where interests overlap, as in Syria or possibly Iran.
Alliance policies in Asia reveal similar intent. Trump has not only enthusiastically embraced the U.S.-Japan alliance, he deftly managed the alliance with South Korea through a transition from a hawkish to a dovish government. And he deployed both alliances aggressively to persuade Pyongyang and Beijing that they will gain no advantage from nuclear bluster outside negotiations and therefore should get serious about denuclearization inside negotiations. On that basis he opened discussions with North Korea—a result that eluded previous U.S. presidents for more than ten years.
Trump is not purely transactional, making deals with no purpose. In Poland in 2017, he sounded much like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher:
And above all we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. This is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.
He is at least as internationalist as Theodore Roosevelt, who also talked about American values in terms of Western civilization.
Yes, but isn’t liberal democracy weakening? Freedom in the world has tailed off since 2006 and there is good reason to worry about right- (Hungary, Turkey) and left- (Venezuela, Cuba) wing governments that foreclose political competition and flaunt authoritarian systems. There is a backlash to liberalism, but this is in effect an affirmation of the strength of liberalism. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping resist it because it is strong, not because it is weak. The liberal order in most nations is not so fragile that every decision to tack back toward nationalism is equated with isolationism, and global elites are too glib when they compare conservative movements in liberal democracies with fascism and radicalism in authoritarian societies. America has never had a fascist or communist tradition. And the violent groups in America today are not only small, they are equally distributed on the left and right.
Trump’s behavior (not his tweets) also suggests that he accepts the existing world trading system. He is not advocating an Amerexit, taking America out of the world economy. He repudiates new agreements—the TransPacific Partnership, the Paris Accords on climate change—but negotiates intensely to revise and improve existing agreements: NAFTA, U.S.-EU, U.S.-South Korea and U.S.-China. He deploys tariffs as leverage but makes clear in recent G-7 and EU discussions that his goal is zero tariffs. It’s a risky strategy; reminiscent of Reagan’s strategy to deploy new INF missiles (tariffs) not to increase arms to higher levels (higher tariffs) but to reduce INF systems to zero levels (zero tariffs). Nevertheless, Trump must close trade deals soon, or tariff wars will acquire a life of their own.
A better balance in trade is long overdue. U.S. allies have benefited disproportionately from both domestic and trade policies that shielded their societies relatively from trade dislocations. American workers, on the other hand, accepted unprecedented dislocation. To accommodate the Cold War strategy of building up the economies of other countries, American labor moved relentlessly across the United States to vacate lower technology jobs for the imports of other countries. True, American labor ultimately benefited as well. But can you imagine the labor force in Europe or Japan being that flexible and making that kind of contribution to the general welfare?
Trump is also looking for a better balance between globalism and nationalism on the immigration front. A nation’s first obligation is to its citizens not its immigrants. At the same time, America is unique, a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants. In the past sixty years, America admitted 59 million new immigrants, legal and illegal. As in trade, the nation benefited but individual communities were disrupted. Regularizing and slowing that flow may be the only way to sustain continued immigration.
GLOBALISM TODAY constitutes a better world than any since 1914. That world needs to be preserved. At the same time, it does not need to be aggressively expanded, either by military commitments, trade expansion or unlimited immigration. Liberal nationalism is calling globalism back to its democratic roots. Respect the people. Give them time to absorb unprecedented political, economic and social change. Don’t lose the liberal nationalism that built globalism, or globalism will simply become another form of authoritarianism. But, also, don’t lose the liberal globalism gained by the Cold War, or nationalism will become virulent again, as it was in the era of authoritarian nationalism.
Henry R. Nau is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His latest book, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy Under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan was published in August 2015 (paperback with new preface) by Princeton University Press. From January 1981 to July 1983, he served on President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council as a senior staff member for international economic affairs.