Buchanan’s foreign policy, like that of Fillmore, was generally hostile to Europe but bullying toward Latin America, especially Cuba and Mexico. In particular, he employed the navy to pressure Britain to limit its presence in Central America; Britain controlled the colony of British Honduras, as well as numerous Caribbean islands.
Buchanan sought unsuccessfully to annex Cuba. As for Mexico, Buchanan tried to pressure America’s neighbor to the immediate south in a number of ways. He proposed to launch another attack on Mexico so as to seize its northern states, but the Congress would not go along. He asked Congress for funds to police both Mexico and Central America. Again, Congress did not cooperate. Finally, the Senate would not ratify a treaty that his administration had negotiated for American transit rights through Mexico. In the end, Buchanan managed to get Mexico—as well as Costa Rica and Colombia—to cover damages to American property and won transit rights from Nicaragua.
Buchanan, as a Northerner, was a strong supporter of his region’s still fledgling industries. Whereas several of his predecessors supported lowering tariffs, a policy that the free-trade oriented South supported, Buchanan sought to raise them. He sympathized with opponents of the U.S.-British Elgin-Marcy Treaty of 1854, which provided for the reciprocal tariff reductions between the United States and Britain’s five Canadian provinces. One of his last acts in office was to sign the Morrill Tariff, which reversed fifteen years of Washington’s low-tariff policy.
In seeking and winning the presidency, and as president, Trump, like both Fillmore and Buchanan, has evinced indifference to racial and religious tensions and hostility toward immigrants. That the United States has long since formally abandoned its indifference to racial and religious intolerance does not seem to have affected the president’s thinking. Like Fillmore, and possibly Buchanan, Trump apparently does not personally harbor racist and anti-Semitic sentiments. Nevertheless, his not so heavily veiled attacks on Muslims, his countenancing of the hate-filled rants of the Charlottesville demonstrators and his snide remarks about Haitians and Africans hark back to the Know Nothing Party’s platform and to Buchanan’s willingness to support Southern racism. Ironically, Trump’s hostility to immigrants in particular flies in the face of countless studies that have demonstrated that immigrants are a boost to the national economy and that most are at least as well educated as average Americans. In addition, Trump’s veiled attacks on minorities have stoked racial tensions and the culture wars that have plagued the United States for the past several decades.
Like Millard Fillmore, Trump has pursued an aggressive trade policy: Fillmore supported Commodore Perry’s “opening” of Japan’s markets; Trump has pressed Japan, China, the European Union and America’s immediate neighbors to the north and south to “open” their markets to more American goods. Additionally, like James Buchanan, Trump has been a strong advocate of protectionism; he seeks impose quotas on the importation of foreign goods and tariffs on those that do enter the United States.
President Trump does not appear to recognize that it is the reality of international supply chains, even more than the benefits of international free trade agreements, that underpins America’s transformation from the nineteenth-century nation of infant industries, to the postindustrial, electronic and cyber service-driven economy that is America’s future. Moreover, his inability to see trade policy as yet another facet of national security policy stands in contrast not only to Xi Jinping in particular, but also to the leadership of the European Union and its member states, as well as the eleven signatories of the tpp.
Trump’s desire to renegotiate trade arrangements with Mexico is but one aspect of his very aggressive stance toward America’s southern neighbor that conjures up the policies of James Buchanan. While certainly not advocating any military incursions into Mexico—as Buchanan did—Trump’s repeated demands for Mexico to finance a wall between the two countries smacks of the earlier president’s bullying tactics. So too does Trump’s decision to deploy the National Guard along the U.S.-Mexican border. His posture toward Mexico is hardly designed to promote comity on America’s southern border, and opens the way for foreign antagonists to exploit ongoing tensions with Washington. At the same time, like Buchanan’s belligerence toward Britain, Trump’s manifest coolness toward Germany, Europe’s most powerful state, can only result in unwanted friction with an important ally. Moreover, it offers new opportunities for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to undermine Germany’s democratic norms, as it is already doing elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Trump has evinced considerable admiration for authoritarian rulers, such as Putin, Xi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Neither Fillmore nor Buchanan, indeed none of Trump’s predecessors, appears to have shared the same degree of sympathy for foreign leaders who had such little truck with democracy. Yet Trump’s positive disposition has not prevented Erdogan, Duterte or Hungary’s Victor Orban—leaders of treaty allies of the United States—from cozying up to America’s rivals: Erdogan and Orban to Putin’s Russia, Duterte to China. The president simply may not realize how counterproductive his personal inclinations are toward American strategic interests.
Ultimately, it is not at all clear that Trump actually has formulated a coherent strategy for the twenty-first century, his administration’s strategy document notwithstanding. Yet even if, despite the assertions of his critics, Trump has actually read the National Security Strategy that bears his name, one must wonder whether he takes it seriously—especially since, H. R. McMaster and Nadia Schadlow, the strategy’s principal authors, no longer lead his National Security staff. McMaster and Schadlow are both establishment figures who could have served in an administration headed by most of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. On the other hand, John Bolton, McMaster’s successor as National Security Advisor, has prided himself on not being part of the Republican foreign policy establishment. He is unlikely to be bound by a document that he neither authored, nor to which, at least to all appearances, he made any significant contribution.
The same might be said for Bolton’s new deputy, Mira Ricardel, who transferred from the Department of Commerce where she served as under secretary for export administration. If anything, Ricardel’s contribution to the National Security Strategy would have focused on the document’s aggressively protectionist pronouncements on trade, which, despite its inclusion in the National Security Strategy, the president treats as an entirely separate matter from other aspects of national security.
In sum, to the extent Donald Trump has a strategy, it is one grounded in assumptions and realities that were far more relevant 150 years ago than they are today. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was still grappling with slavery, was welcoming immigrants by the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—was still a heavily agricultural society and was continuing to expand to the west and southwest. It had no formal or even informal alliances, and viewed international security primarily through the prism of the Monroe Doctrine. None of these considerations apply today. President Trump has repeatedly evoked the importance of national security as a justification for many of his policies. Unless he can divorce himself from antediluvian thinking about domestic and national security, he runs the risk of being ranked with Fillmore and Buchanan as among America’s worst presidents.
Dov S. Zakheim was an under secretary of defense (2001–4) and a deputy under secretary of defense (1985–87). He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.