Trump and American Foreign Policy;
A Threat to Peace and Prosperity?
Rodger A. Payne
Professor and Chair
Department of Political Science
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY 40292
Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Baltimore, MD,
February 22-25, 2017.
Trump and American Foreign Policy;
A Threat to Peace and Prosperity?
Donald J. Trump has promised to implement substantial changes in American foreign
policy during his presidency. Trump campaigned as an anti-establishment and anti-globalist
candidate who would put “America First.” While Trump has only been serving in the Oval
Office for a few weeks and many positions in the executive branch are vacant as of this writing,
a large array of international affairs professionals have already been forecasting that Trump’s
favored policies could profoundly transform international politics and America’s role in world
affairs. Indeed, there is remarkable agreement that Trump will pursue changes that go well
beyond the normal parameters in the transition from one United States presidential
administration to another. As international relations scholar Robert Jervis (2017) explains,
Trump “has espoused foreign policy views radically different from those of his predecessors.”
Opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer (2017) similarly claims that Trump’s (2017)
“revolutionary” inaugural address “radically redefined the American national interest as
understood since World War II.” Somewhat more specifically, scholar Walter Russell Mead
(2017) observed that Trump “disparages the policies, ideas, and institutions at the heart of
postwar U.S. foreign policy.” Precisely because of Trump’s unusual views, journalist Peter
Baker (2016) wrote in the New York Times that Trump’s victory was “upending an international
order that prevailed for decades and raising profound questions about America’s place in the
world.” Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin (quoted in Mohammed and Landay 2016)
said that “If he [Trump] does everything he says he’s going to do, we [the U.S.] can kiss
goodbye our leadership role in the world.”
Of course, scholars, diplomats, former policymakers, and journalists do not uniformly
agree about the desirability of Trump’s foreign policy priorities. On one side of the debate, many
critics argue that the Trump administration’s 21st century version of American First will destroy
a well-established liberal international order grounded in free trade, multilateralism, alliances,
and U.S. embrace of widely shared rules of interstate behavior. Over a period of many decades,
American participation in this order served to promote broadly shared goals, including economic
growth, human rights and democratization, as well as international security and arms control.
Trump’s agenda threatens this order and those shared goals by focusing on a narrower
conception of national interest. The President embraces a transactional, zero-sum view of
politics, and apparently stands willing to disregard longstanding alliances, trade partnerships, and
a variety of international norms. To Trump and his supporters, American foreign policy has been
disastrous as both allies and enemies have exploited U.S. weakness and willingness to bear the
costs for policies serving the interests of global elites and other states.
Indeed, to reframe the favored policy, Trump supporters seem to support an “intense”
version of realism (Ignatius 2016) that does not always align with contemporary academic
understandings of that perspective. Rather, Trump’s nationalist notions about present-day
international politics arguably (Wright 2016) constitute a “remarkably coherent and consistent
worldview” that admirers have compared favorably to the policy of Theodore Roosevelt
(Ferguson 2016), who famously said that America would "speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Supporters argue that Trump will “make America great again,” in large part by renegotiating
deals so that America wins rather than loses in its international relationships. Longstanding
alliance and trade relationships appear vulnerable to profound change. Either other states will
make new bargains with the US that will advantage America, or Trump has threatened to tear up
the previous agreements. Critics like Thomas Wright (2016) argue that in espousing these
positions, Trump embraces “antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior
to World War II.” Wright (2016) unflatteringly likened Trump to “staunch isolationist and
mercantilist” Senator Robert Taft and to populist isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who was
disturbingly friendly with foreign dictators prior to World War II.
This paper will briefly overview the most prominent foreign policy changes Trump or his
top advisors have promoted and then evaluate the potential implications of those new policies.
Will Trump’s foreign policies genuinely threaten a liberal international order? Why do so many
international affairs professionals find that prospect disturbing? What are the repercussions of
Trump demonstrating an affinity for 19th century world politics? Will Trump launch an era of
greater American restraint in international affairs, signaled by US withdrawal from the world and
an inward turn?
For primary evidence, the paper relies upon policy pronouncements issued by the new
administration or on conspicuous claims Trump made during his campaign to be America’s chief
executive. While international relations scholars often argue that political communication about
world politics and foreign policy is merely “cheap talk,” this paper presumes that the messages
conveyed by presidential candidates are important for signaling their foreign policy intentions.
Scholars who study and write about American politics (Hill 2016) have found over a period of
decades that presidents serving through the twentieth century fulfilled an ample portion – about
two-thirds – of their campaign promises. Similarly, the website PolitiFact (2016) found more
recently that President Obama fully kept or reached some compromise on over 75% of 533
promises made across two campaigns. Based on this evidence, it would appear likely that
President Trump will pursue the policies he promised as a candidate.
Trump’s foreign policy changes
Many of President Trump’s foreign policy positions and preferences are well known as
they were emphasized regularly by the former reality television star and businessman throughout
the long 2016 presidential election campaign. Trump’s statements received extensive media
coverage and often reflected substantial deviations from longstanding American policies and
priorities. Some important foreign policy choices have additionally been made clear by official
pronouncements emanating from President Trump or other members of his new administration.
Finally, still other potential policy choices are more obscure, but were nonetheless outlined in
key foreign policy speeches during the campaign or transition period. One caveat to keep in mind
is that newly appointed members of the executive branch have sometimes offered important
clarifications of the administration’s positions – or even signaled disagreement within the ranks.
Indeed, Trump himself has frequently offered inconsistent views, which serves to obscure his
intentions and promote uncertainty (Saideman 2017). The final section of this paper will address
As analysts and apparently even some Trump aides have repeatedly observed, President
Trump has a transactional view of foreign affairs. In order to achieve results that put America
First, he aims to “win” newly negotiated deals with various other states, including prominent
long-time allies and trading partners. Trump often suggests the need to renegotiate bilateral
arrangements – including military commitments – with a long list of countries, including blue
chip allies like Germany and Japan, long-time regional friends such as South Korea and Saudi
Arabia, and major trading partners, including Mexico and China. Trump has essentially offered –
or perhaps threatened – to end longstanding arrangements nurtured and ultimately taken-for-
granted by prior administrations of both political parties. By his analysis, America has made a
long series of terrible deals in the past thanks to the work of “stupid” people. He asserts (Nedal
and Nexon 2017) that “the best, smartest people—most notably, Trump himself—always get the
On security issues, Trump’s transactional and zero-sum worldview has led him to
question the status of NATO, long viewed as America’s most important and successful alliance,
though he has also challenged the basis of various important bilateral relationships as well. On
multiple occasions, Trump has called NATO obsolete, primarily because the alliance does not
focus sufficiently on terrorism. However, Trump also frequently criticized alliance members for
free-riding on American defense expenditures. By Trump’s logic (quoted in Zenko and Lissner
2017), American allies “are making billions screwing us.” Under his leadership, “We will not be
ripped off anymore” (quoted in Sanger and Haberman 2016). Thus, in a February 2017 meeting
with defense ministers from NATO countries, new Secretary of Defense James Mattis (quoted in
Lamothe and Birnbaum 2017) issued a direct warning to U.S. allies: “America will meet its
responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the
alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.” With regard
to regional allies like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, Trump likewise claims that these
states have taken advantage of U.S. military power without paying sufficiently for the protection
America explicitly provides. In fact, Trump has suggested that he would not oppose these states
developing their own nuclear arsenals to replace America’s protection. It is precisely this kind of
thinking that leads some observers to label Trump an isolationist. Using the same kind of
transactional and zero-sum logic, but with a foe instead of an ally, Trump is also a staunch critic
of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal and argues that it has been too generous to Iran.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly positioned himself as a less hawkish foreign
policy choice than his opponents (Davis 2016). This too offered the prospect of America
recognizing the limits of its power. Trump (2016b) declared that under his leadership America
would be “getting out of the nation-building business” and argued for negotiation, diplomacy,
and restraint: “unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first
instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that
caution and restraint are signs of strength.” On the campaign trail and in televised debates,
Trump often claimed that he was a critic of the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 intervention in Libya,
arguing that he was always opposed to these uses of force and that they were failures of
American policy attributable to his electoral foes and/or their political allies. However, Trump’s
credibility was challenged as an audio tape recording surfaced of Trump expressing at least
lukewarm support for war with Iraq on the one-year anniversary of 9/11 in 2002 (Draper 2016).
Likewise, Trump was quoted on multiple occasions over the years calling for the U.S. to topple
Muammar Qaddafi (quoted in Beauchamp 2016), “We should go in, we should stop this guy,
which would be very easy and very quick.”
Further confounding Trump’s image as a dove, his rhetoric on U.S. military power and
terrorism has been especially hawkish and some of his foreign policy positions are virtually
colonial. To start, Trump (2016b) says he will increase U.S. military spending and claims that
America’s “military dominance must be unquestioned.” To combat terrorism, Trump expressed
clear support during his campaign for torture “much tougher” than waterboarding, adding an
assertion that “it works.” As a candidate, the President even called for the U.S. to “take out their
families.” Trump also famously threatened to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, a phrasing he has used
in regard to other states as well (Beauchamp 2016). If implemented, these positions are bound to
escalate American intervention into Syria’s war. Additionally, Trump (2016c) noted that as part
of his anti-terror policy, the U.S. under his leadership would work even with authoritarian and
autocratic regimes, including “King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Sisi of Egypt, and all
others who recognize this ideology of death that must be extinguished.” Ostensibly, a shared
interest in combatting terrorism and fighting ISIS is behind Trump’s often highlighted desire to
improve relations with Russia (Razumovskaya 2017). Beyond his call for war against “radical
Islamic terrorism,” Trump has for years argued a neo-colonial view that the U.S. should have
taken Iraq’s oil as compensation for the 2003 invasion. He also said something similar about
taking Libya’s oil when the U.S. intervened there.
Walter Russell Mead argues (2017) that Trump’s rise reflects the importance of the
Jacksonian tradition in American foreign policy. This also explains his apparently inconsistent
dovish and hawkish positions. Jacksonians define American national interests narrowly, and thus
are not interested in nation-building campaigns, democratization, or the status of human rights in
other nations. They instead prioritize America’s physical security and are willing to use even
overwhelming force (Mead 2002) to assure that legitimate enemies – like ISIS in Trump’s view
– are vanquished. Jacksonians also generally favor increased military spending even though they
distrust most government programs.
In the economic realm, Trump’s transactional and zero-sum perspective are pervasive.
For example, he was particularly harsh during the campaign about the structure of trade with
Mexico and China, but he also talked tough about multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and
the burgeoning Trans-Pacific Partnership. As Wright (2016) noted, the “alleged Chinese
economic threat” was a “core part of his stump speech.” Since the US had not yet formally
joined the TPP, it was fairly simple for Trump to sign an order in January 2017 indicating that
the US would not partake in that deal. Yet, it is difficult to imagine an advantageous reworking
of trade deals with individual states, especially major trading partners like Mexico and China,
which would not threaten the rules of the World Trade Organization. Trump has warned that the
U.S. could significantly increase tariffs towards Mexico and China, partly to encourage firms
that have relocated production facilities to move back to the U.S. In fact, Trump ominously
threatened in July 2016 (Dyer 2016) to withdraw from the WTO if the U.S. was not allowed to
renegotiate bilateral trade deals.
Perhaps the best known of Trump’s policy preferences is both a domestic and foreign
policy goal and it further reflects the President’s apparent isolationism.
promised to build a wall along the US border with Mexico. The purpose of the wall would be to
stop the inflow of immigrants into the US who lack lawful immigration documents. Trump also
famously claimed that Mexico would pay for it, though the Mexican government has strongly
signaled that it has no intention of doing that.
More broadly, Trump promised to improve border
security and reduce the risks that dangerous individuals (referenced as “bad hombres” and “bad
dudes”) could enter the country. In its first weeks in office, the administration banned via
Executive Order all refugees from entering the U.S. for four months. It also implemented a
temporary (90 day) ban on citizens from seven primarily Muslim countries, though the EO was
soon thereafter blocked in federal court.
The EO also requests the Secretaries of Homeland
Security and State to develop new immigration screening procedures, apparently echoing a
campaign promise to provide “extreme vetting” of immigrants and travelers. Again, these actions
were justified by the administration on the basis of alleged terror threats, though no immigrant
from the seven countries has committed an act of terror in the U.S. and no refugee has committed
an act of terror in the U.S. since 1980 (Levenson 2017).
What are the implications of Trump’s Proposed Foreign Policy Changes?
This section will first consider the alleged adverse effect President Trump’s policies will
have on the longstanding liberal international order. Then, it will consider the possibility that
Trump’s version of “intense” realism will serve a strategic purpose consistent either with the
restraint favored by some academic realists or a form of national greatness conservatism.
The Liberal World Order
On the night of the American election, the French Ambassador to the U.S., Gérard Araud
(quoted in Borger 2016), wrote on Twitter, “‘It is the end of an era,’ he declared, ‘that of
neoliberalism.…A world is collapsing before our eyes.’”
Many international affairs
professionals have echoed this concern, arguing that Trump’s policies threaten the liberal
international order supported by the US since the end of World War II. Trump’s zero-sum
worldview clashes directly with liberal ideals and policies (Drezner 2016b), which explain
international cooperation as mutually beneficial (Keohane 1984), especially for multilateral
Put simply, liberalism imagines win-win relationships while Trump sees
winners and losers. America can only win, in Trump’s view, if other states lose.
Some scholars use the term “intermestic” to describe issues like immigration that straddle international and
In a memorandum to The Washington Post, Trump (2016) explained how he would threaten to seize remittances
from immigrants unless the Mexican government paid for the wall. He also suggested using visa fees or trade tariffs
to fund the project.
The seven Muslim countries were identified as “countries of concern” in a recent law about immigration visas.
Three are on the list of states the United States accuses of sponsoring terrorism -- Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The
remaining four states are considered havens for terrorists: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Trump administration
officials also noted that the number of states on this list could be increased.
Araud later deleted his tweets.
Critics like Nedal and Nexon (2017) point out that Trump’s mercantilist vision “has been out of style for over 200
Analysts argue that virtually all of Trump’s proposed foreign policies threaten the liberal
international order. Kahl and Brands (2017), for example, point to his hostility to alliances with
other democracies, his zero-sum view of the European Union, and his efforts to seal America off
to the outside world via an “extreme” version of homeland security. NATO has been an enduring
alliance that long outlived its initial cold war purpose. It is often described as a vital pillar of
security cooperation among likeminded western states. Today, nearly all of those member states
are democratic. The alliance participated in the war in Afghanistan, providing more troops to that
endeavor than the US did during portions of the Iraq war. NATO’s presence made the so-called
“war on terror” a more legitimate multilateral endeavor and lowered costs for the US. America’s
military alliances with Japan and South Korea have similarly bolstered relations between these
countries and the US. Moreover, American commitments in all these instances helped
democratic states defend themselves against potential threats from nondemocratic states in their
regions, including the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China.
Trump threatens to adopt a variety of economically nationalist measures that will
promote unilateral American advantages, tariffs, and discriminatory trade practices. These are all
fundamentally inconsistent with the liberal trade regime. In fact, economic openness was
promoted by a trade regime that the U.S. has long helped to develop. The original General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade embraced open access to markets and “most favored nation”
status granted reciprocally. Over time, more-and-more states traded under the norms of GATT
and the agreement itself reduced tariffs and nontariff barriers to trade, including quotas. GATT
ultimately gave way to the World Trade Organization, which codifies rules on non-
discrimination, extends free trade to additional economic sectors, and institutionalizes
multilateral dispute resolution procedures. The WTO is of course the mainstay of the global
trading regime, which has been responsible for $15 to $19 Trillion in annual global trade in
merchandise and commercial services since 2010 (WTO 2016). Economists commonly argue
that mercantilist, protectionist, and isolationist economic policies threaten the global trading
regime. The economic consequences of a trade war would be disastrous for almost all states and
would seem especially undesirable for American exporters and consumers. Exporters could
expect to lose market share during a trade war, while consumers would likely have to pay
significantly higher prices for imported goods.
As noted earlier, Trump is not interested in promoting American democracy abroad and
does not have much of anything to say about human rights or even democracy. He has also
openly challenged the purpose of the European Union, which is institutionally committed to
democratic norms as well as free trade, and has proposed policies that limit the movement of
refugees and Muslim immigrants. American intervention to promote democracy and human
rights has certainly not always succeeded as planned, but it would be a substantial change in
global politics if the US became indifferent to the success or failure of democratic movements,
states, and organizations. Likewise, Trump’s apparent willingness to work with authoritarian
autocrats is not unique, obviously, given America’s cold war experiences in Latin America and
Southeast Asia. However, many scholars fear that Trump is openly sympathetic to the political
leadership of authoritarian ideas and strongmen (Blitzer 2016). His praise for Vladimir Putin is
well-known, for example, but Trump has often publicly admired other dubious foreign leaders he
describes as “strong” and “tough” (Wright 2016). One troubling scenario for backers of the
liberal world order would be for the US to align with Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Bashar Hafez al-
Assad against ISIS.
When critics worry that the Trump presidency will pose a threat to the liberal
international order, they are not expressing a fealty to an ideological position. Rather, given their
understanding of world order, Trump’s policies pose a direct threat to peace and prosperity.
Somewhat more benignly, a number of international affairs analysts (Bandow 2016;
Drezner 2016a; Brooks 2016) see in Trump’s presidency opportunities for American foreign
policy to be restructured in a manner more consistent with the realist conception of world
As an example, the realist academic and blogger Stephen M. Walt has sometimes
sounded hopeful about various Trump positions that align with his. For example, shortly after the
November election Walt (2016) noted a number of reasonable points Trump had made during his
campaign -- “his commonsense observation that key U.S. allies are free-riding, his recognition
that open-ended ‘nation-building’ exercises are foolish, and his belief that U.S. foreign policy
should first and foremost serve the U.S. national interest.”
Realists, after all, take it for granted
that great powers like the U.S. should focus narrowly on their own interests, are generally
skeptical of the value of international institutions, and view interstate alignments as merely
conditional means to achieve strategic goals tied to the distribution of power in international
politics. Alliances are not meant to last forever – states have temporarily aligned interests, not
Moreover, Trump’s position on winning or losing trade and alliance relationships is
remarkably similar to the much-debated neorealist position explaining why state pursuit of
relative gains preclude meaningful international cooperation (Mearsheimer 1994/95; Grieco
1988). Additionally, like Trump, prominent realists see China as the primary future great power
rival to the U.S. (Mearsheimer 2001) and agree with the new President that American trade
policies have served to strengthen China in relative terms, which is antithetical to long-term
American interests. Many realists are also sanguine about the risks (or benefits) of horizontal
nuclear proliferation (Mearsheimer 1993; Waltz 1981). Over the years, academic realists have
embraced the prospect of Germany and Ukraine, as well as Iraq and North Korea, obtaining
nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes.
Additionally, some realists who favor American restraint have overtly praised Trump’s
foreign policy proposals (Ward 2015). Realist advocates of restraint (Gholz et al 1997; Posen
2014) commonly argue that America is over-extended in world politics and should disengage its
military forces. Advocates of restraint would maintain strong US military capabilities, but those
forces would not actively intervene in the affairs of other states unless vital American interests
Other analysts argue that Trump’s assorted tactical and transactional foreign policy ideas do not amount to a
coherent grand strategic approach (Zenko and Lissner 2017).
Walt (2016) has also acknowledged the Trump “combined these sensible notions with a lot of divisive, ignorant,
and dangerous nonsense.” For example, Walt (2016) worried about it being “amateur hour” in the new
administration, with personnel doomed to make rookie mistakes that would be exploited by foreign policy
professionals in other countries. However, Walt was most worried about “the possibility that Trump (and Trumpism)
poses a long-term threat to our traditional constitutional order.”
were at stake. The US would not attempt to promote democracy or human rights with military
force. Over the years, realist advocates of off-shore balancing (Layne 1997) have been making a
very similar argument as well, designed to minimize future American involvement in a great
power war and increase the resources available for America to address economic and social
domestic needs. Many of Trump’s ideas about foreign policy appear to align with these realist
positions. As Bandow (2016) argued, Trump “offers restraint advocates their best opportunity in
a generation to challenge today’s interventionist zeitgeist.”
However, the realists as a whole have been reluctant to embrace Trump, with many
openly criticizing his views and declaring that Trump’s positions are not consistent with theirs
(Kaplan 2016). Ashford (2016), for instance, vehemently argues that Trump does not espouse a
realist view and that his “foreign policy is best defined as incoherent….the primary defining
characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.” Foreign policy
experts circulated a number of anti-Trump letters during the campaign season and many
prominent realists and restraint advocates signed them (Ashford 2016). In particular, many realist
advocates of restraint openly fear that Trump’s statements about fighting terrorism and ISIS
promise another costly and unwinnable American intervention. They also see him as a threat to
free trade, which many seem to embrace because it is an important source of American strength.
For example, Walt (2017) has expressed concerns about Trump taking actions towards Islam that
would make “a true and costly ‘clash of civilizations’ more likely” and “openly flirting with a
trade war that would damage the entire world economy.” The realists, it seems, agree with the
liberal internationalists that Trump poses a threat to peace and prosperity.
National greatness conservatism?
Trump’s use of the phrase “Make America Great Again” has reminded some analysts of
“national greatness” conservatism. David Brooks (1997) outlined what he considered a 21st
century version of this idea towards the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Brooks called for
conservatives to reanimate a lost “sense of national mission and national greatness.” As Brooks
and others (Goldman 2016) have developed the idea, the US needs “need a dramatic national
initiative.” Brooks added, “It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself, as
long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.”
With Theodore Roosevelt as
their role model – and sometimes Abraham Lincoln (Packer 2004) – many contemporary
conservatives favor vigorously embracing a large national project. Trump himself told
interviewers (Sanger and Haberman 2016) that he believed American power was at its peak in
the era of Theodore Roosevelt. In Trump’s case, the large national project would apparently be a
“great, great” (or “big, beautiful”) wall along the southern border with Mexico. Niall Ferguson
(2016) offered perhaps the most thorough outline of this perspective in an essay published
shortly after the election. In addition to the construction of a wall, Ferguson discussed bolstering
national strength by dramatically increasing American’s military forces and adopting neo-
mercantilist trade policies.
Goldman (2016) argues that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative served this function.
Ferguson argued that Trump’s August 16, 2016, foreign policy speech “may one day be read as the first draft of a
Trump Doctrine.” The speech renounces nation-building and declares war on “the spread of radical Islam.”
In the 1990s, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol were among those
calling for the revival of national greatness conservatism. However, the neoconservative vision
of national greatness embraces a different conception of nationalism than does Trump. Kristol
and Brooks (1997), for example, specifically noted that American nationalism welcomed
immigrants, promoted freedom around the world, and does not fear the global economy. Indeed,
they contrasted their ideas to those trumpeted by Patrick Buchanan, whose views reflected
European “blood and soil” nationalism. Buchanan, of course, has frequently been viewed as a
precursor to Trump (Greenfield 2016). In an essay promoting a neo-Reaganite foreign policy,
which has been viewed as part of the same “national greatness” project, Kristol and Kagan
(1996) famously called for the US to engage in what they called “benevolent global hegemony.”
As Kristol and Kagan imagined it, this policy meant strengthening military power, bolstering
allies, and advancing American principles and interests around the world. Neoconservatives have
subsequently been criticized for supporting virtually any American war, regardless of target,
because war serves as a national project to goad “heroic acts of sacrifice on the part of citizens”
(Linker 2011). In any event, this array of neoconservative foreign policy ideas does not align
with Trump’s. Indeed, neoconservatives were prominent and consistent right-leaning critics of
Trump’s presidential candidacy (Gallington 2016).
Tucker (2016), however, argues that regardless of their specific policy differences,
Trump and the neoconservatives agree about the ethos of national greatness: “They
fundamentally agree about what makes up a ‘nation’ and what makes it ‘great’….They see
society, not as an interplay of individual wills, but as a collective project guided by a central
mission carried out by powerful, charismatic leaders.” While campaigning, Trump regularly
talked about both the need for people to rally together to make America again wealthy, safe, and
great. He also suggested that he was the one person who could make that happen.
CONCLUSION: Dangerous Change? Or, more of the same?
President Donald Trump may well pose a threat to peace and prosperity as a threat to the
liberal international order. After all, Trump has called himself a foreign policy realist and
embraced many positions consistent with “intense” form of realism that calls into question
almost all longstanding US foreign policy relationships. However, even contemporary realists
and proponents of US restraint worry that the President’s hawkish threats about ISIS and trading
partners might threaten world order.
This last section briefly considers the possibility that Trump will not behave according to
plan, as he may well be restrained by existing foreign policy consensus, his own advisors, or the
foreign policy bureaucracy. Moreover, to some extent, his genuine policy positions may not
reflect his rhetoric – or they will reflect the fact that his rhetoric has often been inconsistent and
There are already early signs that Trump’s agenda will face resistance. His Executive
Order freezing the inflow of refugees and immigrants from seven nations was fairly quickly
stopped by Federal courts. Trump’s case was not helped by the fact that he referenced the policy
casually as a “Muslim ban,” which on its face implies unconstitutional religious screening of
immigrants. His first National Security Advisor, Islam-hawk Michael Flynn, was forced to resign
after disclosure of his phone calls to the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration.
While it is unclear if Congress will investigate the campaign’s potential links to Russia, some
Trump officials – including most prominently Secretary of Defense James Mattis – have made
much more hawkish statements about Russia and President Putin. Additionally, President Trump
seems to have backed off of some of his earlier positions that heralded significant policy change.
Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited Washington and the new President confirmed
America’s commitment to Japan’s security without demanding greater military spending from
Tokyo (Reuters 2017). Likewise, the Trump administration has reaffirmed the longstanding US
“one China” policy. This public stance can be markedly contrasted to the position implied by a
phone call then-President-Elect had with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan in early December.
Observers interpreted this as Trump backing down on his previous position and thus producing a
victory for China (Perlez 2017).
These early reversals may portend a foreign policy that will change far less than
advertised. Moreover, some of Trump’s claims seem so outrageous that international affairs
observers do not believe they will shape policy. Columnist David Ignatius (2016), for example,
concludes that it is “unlikely that Trump will dismantle NATO.” Trump’s own inconsistencies
must also be taken into account. During one of the fall debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump
of weakening U.S. commitments to NATO allies and Asian partners Japan and South Korea. In
turn, Trump accused her of lying, even though Trump was often quoted making statements
threatening to challenge American commitments to NATO, Japan, and South Korea. Trump has
additionally surrounded himself with key personnel who do not agree with his previously stated
foreign policy positions. This was revealed, for example, in the confirmation hearings for a
number of his most important Cabinet-level nominees. As Kahl and Brands (2017) noted simply,
“key advisors have staked out positions very different from those of the president.” Even
Trump’s apparent stance as a national greatness conservative will likely be threatened if he fails
to convince the more traditionally fiscally conservative Republican majority in Congress to fund
a wall along the Mexican border that may cost more than $20 billion.
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