Don't Be Fooled: Trump's Return to Realism in American Foreign Policy by Joshua Turner
Donald Trump made clear his foreign policy intentions during his campaign for president: to lessen American involvement in world affairs, build up hard military power at the expense of soft diplomatic power, and to put “America first.” Thus far he is certainly fulfilling that campaign promise.
In his budget, President Trump called for large increases in military spending while cutting funding for the State Department and foreign aid. He has publicly and on numerous occasions questioned America’s commitment to NATO allies and has been more willing to work with strongmen like (until recently) Bashar al’ Assad in Syria, President Erdogan of Turkey, and, President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Gone are the days of neoconservative idealism as the predominant foreign policy ideology on the right. One is not likely to hear talk of nation building, “axis of evil,” or human rights enforcement from this administration.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley may talk a good game about human rights and their importance to her, but this is completely undercut when the Secretary of State cannot be bothered to attend his own department’s announcement on human rights.
This also indicates a change from Obama administration policy which, though less idealist than the Bush administration, emphasized and supported countries that sought to become more democratic and open.This was evident in the administration’s handling of the Arab Spring, its more confrontational tone with Israel and the issue of settlements, and its intervention in conflicts like Libya and Syria.
Despite the recent missile strikes on Syrian airfields, President Trump had proposed a diminished role in Syria, one more focused on defeating ISIS while ceding much of the conflict resolution to Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The change in policy likely has more to do with a gut reaction by Mr. Trump to cable news playing video of Syrians suffering from the chemical weapon attack.
If there is a larger strategy here, it has not been revealed. The president is clearly not concerned with Russian human rights violations or their interference in Western elections, shown by his inability to criticize Russia or Vladimir Putin. All this while also sharing Mr. Putin’s distaste for both NATO and the European Union, where Trump was outwardly supportive of Brexit, a move that only weakens the EU while helping Russia. The administration has also repudiated Republican orthodoxy on the issue of trade, pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has given China a much larger role in the region, allowing them more control over the trade policy of those countries whom had signed on.
All of this clearly marks a return to realism in the realm of foreign policy; seeing relations as more zero-sum in nature, returning to a Westphalian notion of sovereignty and statehood where internal domestic affairs are not our concern, and only acting on the world stage when it is our direct interests to do so.
While this is certainly what many Trump (and Sanders) voters wanted, a position that may even have popular support among the broader electorate, this does not mean it is correct. The pendulum is still swinging away from the Bush administration, pulled by a war-weary society that has lost faith in our own institutions. Whatever one thinks of President George W. Bush, there was merit to his and President Obama’s approach of intervention in international relations.
The negative consequences of this foreign policy are already being felt. President Assad has seen fit to test the Trump administration’s willingness to allow him to stay in power by launching chemical attacks against rebels. North Korea continues to push boundaries with missile tests as Trump continues to behave in such a manner that costs him in popularity and influence at home and abroad.
Using American power and influence to support the spread of democracy, to help build lasting institutions in countries looking to change, to open closed countries up to economic investment, and to attempt to protect human rights and global stability is money and political capital well spent. If we are unable or unwilling to provide the means to make this a possibility, the world will turn to others that might seek to move global order in a different direction.
Joshua Turner is the creator and editor of The Hitch.