The Trump administration’s reconceptualisation of American foreign policy marks the radical abandonment of a consensus that has held firm since 1945. In the process, the international profile of the United States is being fundamentally redefined, and the world’s strategic landscape reshaped.
In a definitive commentary for the Wall Street Journal, national security adviser HR McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn sketched the outlines of a “Trump Doctrine” in American foreign policy. In the process, they completely recast Washington’s global role.
These two key presidential aides were apparently trying to explain what Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology means for US foreign policy. The results are alarming.
They start with a Hobbesian vision of international relations as an anarchic war of all against all – a most unrealistic version of “realism”. They endorse “a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” And, to dispel any doubts, “rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
They have “a clear message to our friends and partners: where our interests align, we are open to working together”. Everything is contingent and transactional. No real “friends” or “partners”. No community. Just patrons and clients, rivals and competitors.
They are obviously right this represents “a strategic shift for the United States”. Less convincing is their claim it “signals the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas”.
In fact, this values-free paradigm abandons American claims of leadership, vision or standing for anything beyond narrow and short-term gains. It’s also a clear repudiation of Washington’s actual “traditional role overseas”.
As the dust settled following the Second World War, the outmoded isolationism that had left the country so ill-prepared for that conflict and its aftermath lost any real influence.
Instead, a debate ensued between two approaches to the Cold War that, until now, demarcated the essential parameters of the American foreign policy conversation.
One view, defined by the diplomat George Kennan, sought to contain the Soviet Union and wait for its despotic system to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The competing view, defined by philosopher and former Trotskyite James Burnham, urged a far more aggressive approach, seeking the deliberate development of a coercive global American empire and a campaign to defeat and destroy the USSR.
The containment view almost entirely won, although Ronald Reagan articulated some essentially Burnhamite rhetoric. The key, though, is that for all their differences both Kennanites and Burnhamites agreed the United States absolutely needed to globally trumpet its economic and cultural dynamism, democratic character, liberal values and what it could positively offer the world in contrast to Soviet economic malaise, social atrophy and political repression.
Both sides saw American culture, character and values as a huge asset and competitive advantage internationally, and understood that the US both could and should draw people, especially those living under the oppressive rule of enemies and rivals, towards it by appealing to ideals and offering something better and, where possible, inspiring. To say this was very effective in the Cold War would be an understatement.
Now, the Trump advisers write, “America will treat others as they treat us.” This reads as “others must do unto us as they would have us do unto them” – the very inversion of generosity. It is self-centeredness in place of magnanimity, and literally illiberal. It’s also as inspiring as a phone bill.
Yet this shift, however self-defeating, reflects a strong American popular impulse. As the scholar Walter Russell Mead perceptively notes, extroverted American elites wanted to continue the country’s international role following the end of the Cold War. Voters consistently preferred “untried outsiders who want increased focus on issues at home” and therefore elected “Clinton over Bush in 1992, Bush over Gore in 2000, Obama over McCain in 2008, and Trump over Clinton in 2016”.
The McMaster/Cohn vision is a distilled and applied version of this introverted impulse.
The American establishment, in short, has not successfully sold the benefits of American internationalism and idealism to a sceptical and parochial public. Hence Mr Trump seeks political advantage by pandering to his base at the expense of the national interest.
Washington’s rapidly shrinking international reputation, especially in Europe, suggests the likely – and grim – results. The old consensus united left and right for 70 years precisely to avoid such dire consequences.
The Trump administration apparently sees itself as effectively collecting on numerous international unpaid bills. But it is Washington that could ultimately face a great global reckoning in a little American room.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog