TRUMP OPERATES from a fundamental nationalist premise. He is deal-oriented or transactional, to be sure, but his transactions reflect two central premises: national self-interest and a realist commitment to rebalancing the postwar global system.
While he rants against globalization, Trump makes deals to strengthen alliances, recalibrate global capitalist markets, and reduce the uncontrolled flow of refugees and immigrants. So far, his realist instincts keep him engaged in the world. If he succeeds in rebalancing trade and security commitments, his nationalist policies might offer a valuable course correction and sustain globalization far into the future, boosting growth and safeguarding the prospects for freedom where it counts the most, such as in Ukraine, Taiwan, and on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s approach depends on the realization of two big expectations. The first is that democratic allies in Europe and Asia step up and share greater leadership and burdens. If they don’t, Trump may bring American forces home, a move which many realists now support. The second is that China must accept more transparent rules for world trade. If it doesn’t, there may be a decoupling, and global markets will once again divide between statist and free market economies.
To avoid this outcome, however, as much depends on American allies and China as on the United States. America’s allies today are powerful and wealthy democracies—they are no longer semi-sovereign or middle powers that cannot be trusted with military responsibilities or have only regional not global interests. And China has to face a bracing reality: it has enjoyed enormous economic success because it has been engaged in global markets. The profitable sectors in China are all export-oriented. If China decouples, it can still exploit a large state-sponsored domestic market and stoke nationalist fervor. But that path can take it only so far. As Matthew Kroenig argues in a new book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry, autarchic powers do not prevail over democratic ones in the long term.
Trump’s nationalist approach, which accepts and seeks to strengthen an existing world of democratic alliances and open markets, does not satisfy many proponents of the liberal world order. The internationalists are angry and blame Trump for destroying the postwar status quo. But not every effort to slow down and recalibrate globalization is an attack on free trade and democratic peace. And not every populist movement in Europe, Asia, and the United States is anti-democratic. The populist backlash is, in fact, a democratic check on cosmopolitan elites at home and abroad who value their own self-touted expertise more than their accountability to democratic citizens. It is stunning that, after seventy-five years, not one international institution, including the European Union, elects its top officials. Why doesn’t it occur to these cosmopolitan elites that this may be the principal threat to the liberal order, not populist parties pushing back against endless wars, unfair trade, and uncontrolled immigration?
Trump is hard to decipher, and his bombastic style makes it even harder. But on the basis of what he does and achieves, he is acting not only in an understandable manner but in a way that may salvage the liberal international order and conserve the democratic peace for decades to come. The covid-19 crisis, to be sure, adds a new chapter to Trump’s legacy. But keep your eye on the results, not the rhetoric. Sometimes, appearances deceive, and Trump’s foreign policy thus far is much better than it may appear.
Henry R. Nau is a professor emeritus at George Washington University. From January 1981 to July 1983, he served on President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council. This essay is drawn from Renshon and Suedfeld eds., The Trump Doctrine and the Emerging International System, Palgrave, forthcoming.