When Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency, he declared that he would follow an “America First” foreign policy. This policy was supposed to represent a radical break with what Trump presented as a failed establishment that had led America into perpetual and costly wars abroad, most notoriously in Iraq. Instead, it was high time to focus on rebuilding America at home.
How does it look almost a year into the Trump presidency? Two pieces, both appearing in the Wall Street Journal , offer dramatically different verdicts. The first was by Walter Russell Mead, who writes a weekly column for the Journal. It was entitled “ Trump Brings Foreign Policy Back To Earth .” Mead acknowledged that Trump is “not the second coming of Bismarck,” but saw some grounds for optimism. In his view, Trump has indeed broken with old globalist establishment verities that no longer obtain in a sea of new world disorder. According to Mead, “In steering American foreign policy away from the inflated expectations and unrealistic objectives produced by the end of history mirage, the Trump administration is performing a much-needed service. But it is not enough to demolish the old. Ultimately Mr. Trump will be judged on his ability—or failure—to build something better.”
A very different and far more different judgment was delivered by Robert B. Zoellick in a piece called “ The Peril of Trump’s Populist Foreign Policy .” Zoellick was having none of Mead’s optimism. Instead, Zoellick, a distinguished foreign-policy practitioner who has served as World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state, issued a stinging indictment of Trump’s record over the past year. Zoellick identified Trump as a populist who has endorsed policies that “serve his political purposes, not the nation’s interests.” He notes that, in classic populist fashion, Trump purports to represent the will of the people, fixates on enemies who are thwarting it and routinely attacks the “allegedly illegitimate institutions that come between him and the people.”
There can be no doubting that the consequences of Trump’s more odious tweets are anything but nugatory. Overnight, for instance, he has singlehandedly thrown British-American relations into crisis. The British House of Commons is currently debating whether to rescind his invitation to visit the United Kingdom in response to his dissemination on Twitter of a local far-right group’s virulently anti-Muslim videos, at least one of which, according to the Dutch embassy in Washington, falsely represents a Dutch citizen as a Muslim immigrant, when he is neither. Speaking in Jordan, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that “retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do.”
But Zoellick’s column also inadvertently points to an interesting conundrum, which is the danger of taking Trump at his word when it comes to his broader approach to foreign-policy issues. Has Trump actually governed as a populist? Or has he in fact embraced many of the policies that establishment figures have espoused over the past decades? Does Trump represent a radical break with his presidential predecessors? Or is there more continuity than he might himself like to acknowledge?
Start with Trump’s team. Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly seem to represent fire-breathing populist tenets in foreign affairs. Add in Goldman Sachs figures such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and you have as conventional a Republican team as you could imagine.
This team has constrained some of Trump’s more uninhibited impulses. Take Afghanistan: America was supposed to have pulled out under Trump’s guidance. Instead, in September, he signed off an increase of several thousand troops, to his evident chagrin. Retreating from Afghanistan, he now announced, would be worse than staying. Then there is Russia. What has happened to the much-ballyhooed improvement in relations that Trump claimed he would produce? Once again, it’s been the same old, same old. To all appearances, Trump has essentially been boxed in—because of the Russia investigation by Robert Mueller and Congress, and because of his own foreign-policy team. And for all the initial hugger-mugger about Trump’s early doubts about NATO and Article V, the administration has been pretty much unequivocal in supporting it.
This week, for example, Tillerson spoke at the Wilson Center, where he was hosted by former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, a longtime foreign-policy hawk. He unequivocally backed NATO and denounced Russia’s “malicious tactics.” According to Tillerson , “Russia can continue to isolate and impoverish itself by sowing disorder abroad and impeding liberty at home, or it can become a force that will advance the freedom of Russians and the stability of Eurasia.” Far from embarking upon a spheres-of-influence deal or removing sanctions from Moscow, Trump has essentially been on diplomatic autopilot. In fact, Congress has stiffened sanctions on Russia in the form of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Trump grudgingly signed in August. According to a recent report in the Guardian, the bill seems to contain something of a time bomb:
“Deep inside it, section 241 is the closest thing to a bombshell for Putin’s pyramidal power structure. Indeed, it stipulates that by February 2018, the US administration must submit a detailed report to Congress containing ‘the identification of the most significant oligarchs’ in Russia, their relationship to Putin, evidence of any corruption, estimated net worth and sources of income. Anyone fitting the criteria could be subjected to personal sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans.
“Not only would Russia’s wealthiest come under unprecedented American scrutiny but the same would happen to their family members, and anyone doing business with them in the west. As such, the scope of the bill goes much further than anything undertaken to date against members of Putin’s entourage.”
What about China? Trump has been talking tough on trade, but he has not performed any actions that would represent a real break with previous administrations’ approach to Beijing. He is in fact seeking to work with it to stymie North Korean nuclear ambitions. For all his tough talk, Trump seems to have little idea of how to stop the North, any more than previous presidents. Indeed, his tweet toda y had a plaintive air to it: “The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man. Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch.”
When it comes to free trade, Zoellick’s case is at its strongest. Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a blunder that will cost Washington dearly. But when it comes to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the jury is still out.
Perhaps the broader lesson that can be drawn from the Mead and Zoellick essays is that the ructions surrounding American foreign policy transcend Trump himself. Trump managed to ride a larger sense of unease about globalization to the White House, one that is not confined to America but is also manifesting itself in Europe and elsewhere as populist sentiment experiences an upsurge. These debates are becoming as pointed on the left as they are on the right. Trump or no Trump, the disputes about America’s purpose abroad are not about to go away anytime soon.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest .
Image: Donald Trump speaks about tax-reform legislation in St. Louis, Missouri, November 29, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.