A More Realist U.S. Foreign Policy?

Observers of the Trump foreign policy tend to focus on its volatility and the erratic qualities of the President’s interactions with foreign leaders, at foreign summits, and in policy. However, under the Trump administration at large, a more important trend is developing: an American exceptionalism defined by the United States’ supposedly rejuvenated dedication to its national sovereignty over all else. The administration is acting more in sync with the zero-sum foreign policy logic--that another’s losses are necessarily our gains and vice-versa--generally favored by the public than at any other point in the last thirty years. This extreme realist mindset is not necessarily an aberration induced by the Trump administration. In fact, there is reason to believe the increasingly inward-looking posture characteristic to “America First” may endure in some capacity after this administration passes, though in more moderate terms.

The present administration’s minimal interest in promoting democratic values abroad and its heavier emphasis on pursuing US sovereignty and national interests first has been well documented. It represents quite the departure in narrative and practice (albeit an imperfect practice) from traditional US foreign policy. It is evident that the President does not engage foreign policy with any broader grand theory and typically favors moves that repudiate his predecessor’s policies. With that said, to the extent that his inconsistent foreign policy has any anchoring in some greater worldview, it would be one which views sovereign states in a zero-sum competition.

Statements made by Trump’s inner circle, such as Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster’s denial of the liberal internationalist notion of an “international community”, implicate a hard steer toward realism that should be separated out from the incoherence in the Oval Office. This sentiment, in fact, was echoed by Trump recently, who declared to the UN that “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.” Notwithstanding the interesting choice of venue for a statement advocating the primacy of the nation-state, it is a curious statement to make given a world order that is increasingly dominated by risks and challenges that transcend national borders and necessitate greater international cooperation.

In the last thirty years, U.S. foreign policy elites and technocrats have favored liberal internationalism--a commitment to promoting democracy, economic interdependence, and international institutions--more than the mass public. For instance, Daniel Drezner notes that in the 1990s, elites cared more about transitioning Russia to democracy, whereas the public was focused on the threats of Japan’s economic rise. This marks a contrast with the situation in the early Cold War, when prominent statesmen worried that a more moralistic American public would run U.S. foreign policy amok without being guided by technocrats who could manage the realpolitik complexities of international politics.

In fact, the reverse became true by the turn of the 20th century. What has been referred to as the American foreign policy establishment was, by and large, run by committed liberal internationalists. Some have argued that President Obama oversaw a shift toward a more realist foreign policy, but these arguments, in spite of some convincing evidence, are overblown.

In one sense, the Trump administration is overseeing a shift in the logic of foreign relations closer to that which has been held by the public for quite some time now. Eliot A. Cohen writes that “our politicians and our foreign-policy establishment … have lost the ability to make the case to the country for prudent American management of an international system whose relative peace for 70 years owes so much to Washington’s leadership.” This ability, of course, was essential to manage the divergence between public and technocratic views of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

But it is more than simply a matter of American politicians and foreign policy elites’ failure to make the case for upholding the liberal international order. Perhaps, this failure is instead symptomatic of a broader turn away from liberalism in the Western world. As Edward Luce argues, stalling economic growth has left liberal democracies with “left-behinds” who “have lost faith that their systems can deliver,” and who, in turn, develop more radical zero-sum views of politics, domestically and internationally. For many, attention needs to be focused internally and on preventing other states from taking advantage of this seemingly benevolent America -- prompting politicians to shy away from extolling this notion of America that is indispensable to the rest of the world.

It makes sense then, that we are seeing an expression of American exceptionalism from the top that advocates the exceptionalism of American sovereignty, rather than its ability to promote liberal values at home and abroad. Indeed, in President Trump’s Warsaw speech, one hailed by many, even establishment voices, as a success, he cited “individual freedom and sovereignty” as the Western values currently under threat and those unifying America and Europe. These, perhaps uncoincidentally, are the same values that Trump sees Europe as having forfeited vis-a-vis the European Union, its migration policies in the context of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and so forth.

Trump has, at great length, portrayed Europe as a chaos land, from slamming Germany and the EU’s open migration policies toward refugees to tacitly encouraging other states beyond Britain to exit the European Union. Painting contrasts between the U.S. and Europe, however, is hardly a new phenomenon in American foreign policy thought. One recent example lies in one of the main criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy: that he somehow rejected American exceptionalism by favoring multilateralism in relations with Europe. Bobby Jindal, for example, remarked in 2015 that Obama allowed “foreign capitals to have veto power over our foreign policy.”

Trump’s exhaustive list of foreign policy blunders notwithstanding, the U.S. was bound to move in the direction of realism regardless of Oval Office occupant. In part, this can be seen as a response to the changing power structure of the international system. As the United States decreases in power relative to rising powers like China, it becomes harder to promote liberal Western values as other states increasingly have alternative commercial and security partners. Not to mention the doubts rising internationally over the efficacy of US-style liberal democracy in the context of robust political divisions and domestic sclerosis on one hand, and neoliberal capitalism in the context of the Great Recession, on the other. With decreasing relative power, foreign relations for the U.S. then becomes more of a matter of playing power politics, zeroing in on core interests, and building security and economic capabilities.

From another angle, this directional shift can be seen as a function of the failures of liberal internationalism, or at least strains of liberal international thought, in the first decade of the 21st century. For instance, an extreme strain of liberal internationalism, neoconservatism, overextended the U.S. into the draining and regionally destabilizing Iraq War, leading many to question the feasibility, and worthwhileness, of trying to export American values and caring about the internal governance of other regimes. A Clinton presidency would have likely, too, seen the US lighten its emphasis on promoting values abroad in places where American values weren’t respected or realistically attainable. As argued by some, this shift was already underway under Obama. The former president talked loudly about the humanitarian abuses of the Assad regime, yet in his words, “any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the same exact region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”

The point of this discussion isn’t to say that we would see the same foreign policies in a Clinton administration as we are seeing in the Trump administration. Rather, it’s to say that the broader perspective toward foreign relations that even high-ranking, non-Bannonite officials in the administration are taking has some foundation in longer running pressures that Clinton, too, would have to confront. The problem here is not that that the U.S. is shifting toward an increasingly realist posture in the long-run; in some ways, this might be a good thing. Doing a better job of distinguishing core interests from tangential ones, maintaining strong alliances, and being careful not to overextend are important realism-oriented strategies which should accompany maintaining and updating the liberal international order to meet the challenges of 21st century, such as globalization.

This administration’s problem is in the way zero-sum logic is being bastardized by Trump and misused by Trump’s inner circle, alienating allies, placing important global institutions under siege, and digging the U.S. into a deeper hole geopolitically than it was before 2017. There is, however, some room for optimism about what future American foreign policy may look like. As shown by a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the radical policies of “America First” are in fact not so popular: A majority of Americans still think that NATO is essential to U.S. security; a majority still think that international trade is good for the U.S. economy and American consumers; perceptions that large numbers of immigrants and refugees threaten U.S. security are actually in decline; and a majority of the population supports participation in the Paris Agreement. Based on these trends, “America First” will moderate significantly from its current perverse form, but post-Trump America will inevitably still be more inward-looking, less interventionist, and likely more realist in orientation than it was in the 1990s and 2000s.