Even if one had the stomach for more prognostication after last night, when it comes to Trump foreign policy looking ahead seems like a fool’s errand (see my last op-ed if you don’t believe me). As Max Fisher notes in the New York Times today, Donald Trump has been so inconsistent on foreign policy specifics that no one feels confident in making bold predictions. Uncertainty, at home and abroad, rules the day.
However, even though the election can’t tell us much about what might happen in the future, Trump’s victory does reveal a great deal about how Americans think about politics in general and foreign policy in particular.
One thing we have learned is that the divide in Americans’ foreign policy views now mirrors the broader political fault lines in the nation. As I wrote after the final presidential debate, in the absence of a compelling external threat, Americans have become more polarized as the “national interest” has devolved into an array of competing interests. The foreign policy debate is no longer about how to keep America safe; it’s a clash over competing conceptions of America and its role in the world.
In one corner are the previous champions, the liberal internationalists, who enjoyed a long, bipartisan run after the end of the Cold War. The liberal internationalists have seen globalization as a boon for the U.S. and the world. In this vein they have pursued free trade, an expansive network of alliances, and meddled a great deal in the affairs of other nations for a wide range of often dubious but usually well-intentioned reasons. In the other corner we have Trump’s surging nativists and nationalists—much more pessimistic about the benefits of globalization, much less supportive of free trade, far less interested in engaging the world, and far more concerned about what immigration might do to the United States.
Trump’s election last night might have been a shock, but the growing divide on foreign policy has been clear for some time. A great deal of polling data from the past several years has revealed that the public has lost much of its appetite for the liberal internationalist cause. Recent polling has discovered that record numbers of Americans think the United States should “mind its own business” internationally and fully 70% of Americans want the next president to focus on domestic policy. When you add to that the widespread concerns about Obama’s trade deals and U.S. policies in the Middle East, it becomes clear that much of the nation is ready to rethink the Beltway Consensus on foreign policy.
The implications of this emerging foreign policy tribalism are profound. Without existential national security concerns to ground the debate, foreign policy has become just another arena for cultural and identity politics. Trump’s foreign policy, whatever it turns out to be, will not be constrained by broad-based public and elite support for a single strategic vision. Instead, Trump is free to pursue foreign policies that please his base.
Though I won’t dare to make predictions about which issues Trump will take up in earnest next year, a quick comparison of his supporters to Democrats on key issues is potentially revealing. 80% of Trump’s supporters see immigrants and refugees as a critical threat, for example, compared to just 27% of Democrats. 92% of Trump’s supporters support his proposal for a wall on the Mexican border while just 29% of Democrats do. Whereas 68% of Democrats believe international trade is good for the U.S. economy, just 42% of Trump supporters do.
I will boldly end with one prediction: Regardless of which way Trump goes on foreign policy, the divisions revealed during this campaign will not go away any time soon.