Fuel to the Fire

How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover)

October 2, 2019 • Commentary
Fuel to the Fire Hero

Fuel to the Fire

How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover)

October 2, 2019 • Commentary

Introduction: Trump’s Rhetorical Assault on the Foreign Policy Consensus

To many, Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican primaries and eventually to the presidency represented an astonishing break with the foreign policy consensus that had prevailed from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. The broad pillars of post–World War II U.S. grand strategy, pursued with remarkable continuity from 1945 to 2016, prescribed an international order made dependent on U.S. military predominance. Washington extended security commitments to scores of allies and client states and deployed a permanent globe‐​straddling forward military presence. It installed itself as leader of the major political and economic international institutions established after World War II and relied on the frequent threat and use of force to pursue a wide range of perceived national interests, not merely to protect America’s physical security. The foreign policy preferences of candidate Trump, many argued, were a radical departure from these long‐​standing grand strategic imperatives.

“I think NATO is obsolete,” Trump said in an interview with ABC News in March 2016, roughly two months before he would secure the nomination of the Republican Party. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a security alliance established in the early years of the Cold War to contain Soviet influence in Europe, had until now been an unassailable element of bipartisan foreign policy doctrine. It obligates member nations to treat an attack on any member as an attack on all of them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States kept the alliance in place and later expanded it to the far eastern reaches of Europe. NATO has come to represent much more than a defensive security alliance. Washington largely sees it as the fulcrum of peace in Europe and an institutional model for promoting democracy, extending economic integration, and allowing the United States to maintain its leadership of the so‐​called liberal international order.


October 21, 2019 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM EDT
Hayek Auditorium, Cato Institute

Watch the Forum

Trump’s dismissal of NATO as obsolete in a world without the Soviet Union was consistent with his expressed frustration with allies’ free riding on U.S. protection. “We are being ripped off by everybody,” Trump said in October 2016. “We have to renegotiate these agreements because our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and many other places.” In addition, candidate Trump spoke somewhat cavalierly of the prospect of nuclear weapons proliferation in South Korea and Japan, countries that had abstained from building their own nuclear deterrents thanks in part to American security guarantees. This position also sharply deviated from the foreign policy consensus in Washington, which understands the U.S.-led international security architecture—centered on U.S. security commitments and extended deterrence—as a vital and incontestable American responsibility.

Fuel to the Fire


Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover)

Purchase Book

Trump repeatedly called for an accommodative posture toward Moscow. In verbiage he would use again and again, Trump told Fox News in April 2016, “If we can make a great deal for our country and get along with Russia, that would be a tremendous thing.” And he told a crowd in Scranton, Pennsylvania, “Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could get along with Russia?” Such comments sounded dissonant coming from a Republican candidate for president, but they became particularly controversial in light of subsequent assessments by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.

Trump also boldly attacked regime‐​change and nation‐​building wars, missions that the United States had taken up with increasing frequency in the post–Cold War era and with conspicuously bitter results. In the aftermath of the Iraq War debacle and the ongoing military quagmire in Afghanistan, public opinion soured on costly ground wars intended to replace far‐​off regimes with nominally democratic ones. However, the national security establishment continues to value such operations as critical tools of U.S. foreign policy and seems to view Trump’s rhetorical attacks as a ploy to exploit public war fatigue in a way that threatens to sap support for even limited military action. Because the post–World War II order requires a generous dose of U.S. military activity, Trump’s brickbats led to much establishment handwringing over the possible crumbling of that order.

The Consensus Prevails: More Continuity Than Change during Trump’s Presidency

These frenzied fears about the demolition of America’s enduring grand strategic duties have proved overwrought. A bird’s-eye view of President Trump’s foreign policy reveals that he has not retreated from the world and that there is much more continuity with the policies of his predecessors than change.

In the Middle East, Trump increased the number of deployed U.S. troops by more than 30 percent in his first year while loosening the rules of engagement to intensify ongoing bombing campaigns across multiple countries. He doubled down on America’s traditional alliances, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, while reasserting U.S. hostility toward long‐​standing adversaries, like Syria and Iran. The administration’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran, which included abrogating the Obama‐​era nuclear deal and imposing unrelenting economic warfare on the country, nearly brought the United States to the brink of another disastrous Middle East war. With help from traditionally hawkish cabinet members like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump’s Iran policy was barely distinguishable from the deepest desires of Bush‐​era neoconservatives bent on regime change.

Security policy toward Latin America also saw little change. As if to emphasize the essentially conventional nature of Trump’s approach, Bolton coined the phrase “Troika of Tyranny,” an implicit allusion to the Bush administration’s “Axis of Evil,” as a call to confront the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. In particular, the Trump White House has made a point of targeting the Venezuelan regime with persistent threats, hostility, and economic sanctions. Numerous times, the administration explicitly threatened U.S. military action in Venezuela unless the Maduro regime gave up power; it also made explicit reference to the prospect of an internal military coup.

In Europe, Trump has tactlessly berated European allies for not carrying their own weight in terms of national defense and deliberately made European leaders doubt the reliability of America’s security commitment without actually initiating a formal revision to it. He increased U.S. troop deployments in the region while reaffirming America’s Article 5 security commitment to NATO countries. In his first year in office, he welcomed Montenegro as the 29th NATO member country and vowed to challenge Russia’s “destabilizing activities” in Eastern Europe. He provided aid to Ukraine—not a NATO ally—to battle Russian‐​backed separatists and toyed with establishing a new U.S. military base in Poland.

In East Asia, Trump also reaffirmed long‐​standing U.S. security commitments to allies and partners, from South Korea and Japan to Taiwan and the Philippines. America’s forward presence remained robust, with more than 150,000 active‐​duty military personnel stationed at scores of military bases throughout the region and more than half of overall U.S. naval strength regularly patrolling the Pacific theater. By launching a trade war against Beijing, he has helped lock in the image of China as an implacable nemesis that America must confront in the 21st century.

Although Trump had decried the war in Afghanistan as a wasteful quagmire and pledged to “[get] out of the nation‐​building business,” as president, he dispatched an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to the mission, thus ensuring that the longest war in U.S. history would continue. Again, this does not fit the model of Trump as a determined opponent of the Washington foreign policy establishment and the U.S.-led hegemonic order.

These broad areas of consistency shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that there has been nothing unique about Trump’s approach to foreign affairs. In a few critical policy areas, he has undeniably resisted pressure to conform. Thanks to his lack of previous foreign policy experience and his general policy illiteracy, Trump relies on an existing set of personal and political impulses. For example, Trump clings to an almost unwavering zero‐​sum transactional worldview, which explains why he favors unusually protectionist trade policies and why he seems to spend at least as much time criticizing allies, entwined with the United States militarily and economically, as he does adversaries, who usually have fewer such ties.

Another clear distinction is Trump’s penchant for eschewing multilateral agreements and abruptly withdrawing from international organizations. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement; the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership (TPP); the Iran nuclear deal; the Intermediate‐​Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and the UN Human Rights Council. He seems to have a visceral distaste for international arrangements of any kind, reflecting his Jacksonian emphasis on national sovereignty and rejection of globalist designs.

Trump also has distinct authoritarian tendencies, which might explain the notable lack of rhetoric about the importance of promoting democracy and liberal values in U.S. foreign policy under his administration. These tendencies also help explain Trump’s undermining of basic norms in the conduct of foreign policy. For example, his apparent attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine to provide dirt on his domestic political rivals during an election year is a novel—and shocking—way to exercise presidential power in foreign affairs.

Trump’s largely peaceful diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong‐​Un certainly represents another departure from the norm, at least as far as Republican Party doctrine is concerned. This new approach is driven in large part by Trump’s affinity for stagecraft rather than statecraft. Trump is fixated on his—and by extension America’s—status and prestige. He craves the pageantry, not the substance, of diplomacy. He enjoys the wall‐​to‐​wall cable news television coverage of his summitry and the accompanying whispers of Nobel Peace Prize glory. The approach has largely failed: though North Korea has made a few perfunctory concessions to demonstrate good faith, the regime in Pyongyang has not taken substantive steps to roll back its nuclear weapons program, largely because Washington has yet to lift economic sanctions but also because Pyongyang simply doesn’t trust the United States. The president’s refusal to acknowledge the intelligence community’s findings on the status of Pyongyang’s program suggests he is more interested in the appearance of a good deal than how to achieve one.

Explaining the Disconnect between Trump’s Words and His Deeds

Overall, Trump has mostly stuck to the primacy playbook. But given the bracing challenge to traditional American foreign policy that Trump outlined during his campaign, why does so much of his foreign policy look so similar to the policies of primacy from the past several decades? Why has he implemented his “America First” vision in a few cases but not in others? After all, people have been worrying about excessive presidential power in foreign affairs since long before Trump took office.

A close look at Trump’s track record suggests a few answers. First, the vastly expanded powers of the modern presidency help explain Trump’s successful efforts to make changes. Thanks to a slew of prior congressional decisions to empower the White House in trade negotiations, Trump has happily exercised unilateral action to withdraw from the TPP, renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and launch a trade war with China. On the other hand, Trump could have also pushed for more change in other areas where he enjoys a relatively free hand. Why, despite his very public doubts about the wisdom of foreign military occupations, has Trump expanded the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Syria, and the Middle East more broadly?

Fuel to the Fire


Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (and How We Can Recover)

Purchase Book

One theory is that much of what Trump said on the campaign was just rhetoric and that once on the job, he realized that the status quo wasn’t as foolish as he had once believed. This might, for example, explain why Trump has decided to keep troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As he told the Washington Post at one point, “We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to [says] if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.”

Another argument is that Trump knows and cares little about matters of foreign policy, leading to a turbulent and unpredictable approach to policymaking. Trump careens from issue to issue, changing policy via Twitter without warning his own national security team. The chaos also extends to his national security team, which has turned over at a rate exceeding any previous White House. All of this, in turn, limits his administration’s ability to implement major foreign policy change.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump has faced all the strategic and structural constraints that have long served to keep American foreign policy moving in the same general direction. Seven decades spent pursuing primacy have imbued the status quo with tremendous inertia—difficult for even a determined president to change. Not only do most politicians in Washington hew to the bipartisan consensus around primacy, but so do most of the bureaucrats and policymakers in the foreign policy establishment—“the Blob,” as President Obama’s adviser called it.

This consensus props up primacy and pushes back against Trump in at least three ways. First, through think tanks, talk shows, and other media, the Blob dominates public debates and shapes public opinion. Second, by dominating the pool of people from which presidents typically choose their national security team, the Blob can work from the inside to block and blunt attempts to shift course. Many members of Trump’s initial national security team, including Generals Flynn, McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis, built their careers on the basis of operations justified entirely by primacy’s core assumptions. The result in many cases has been a high level of internal opposition to Trump’s foreign policy instincts. Though Trump has certainly overruled his advisers at times, no president has the bandwidth to fight every fight. And where Trump has avoided those battles, primacy persists.

Trump’s Uncertain Legacy and the Future of Restraint

Expert examinations of Trump’s foreign policy preferences consistently give the president more credit for having a clear vision of foreign policy than is warranted. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to doubt that the president has ever systematically contemplated the foreign policy issues over which he now has ultimate authority.

President Trump is probably the least informed, least experienced, and least intellectually prepared U.S. president in modern memory—perhaps in American history. “He didn’t know a lot of details,” Steve Bannon said of candidate Trump. “He knew almost no policy.” His rhetoric reveals mostly policy illiteracy, and he seems to lack the rigor and acuity to digest new information in a sophisticated way.

In June 2017, the Washington Post reported that “in private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously” and that many “Republican lawmakers … are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy.” Trump’s national security team has had to develop novel ways of briefing the president, relying on one‐​page, bullet‐​pointed memos and lots of visual aids to cope with his “notoriously short attention span.” As national security adviser, H. R. McMaster reinvented the process. According to the New Yorker, the “multi‐​page explications of policy and strategy” that used to accompany daily briefings were traded for one‐​page memos after the National Security Council received “an edict” from the White House to “thin it out.” Even then, the White House reportedly said single‐​page memos were still too long and suggested briefing Trump “pictorially.”

Yet some of Trump’s rhetoric, when taken out of context, does resemble coherent ideas in the field of international relations, particularly certain strains of academic realism that advocate for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. Opponents of these ideas in the policy community have frequently mischaracterized Trump’s “America First” views as variously isolationist, noninterventionist, realist, or restrained. Some have even gone so far as to explicitly associate Trump with these restraint‐​oriented schools of thought, suggesting that he had even the vaguest understanding of these well‐​developed ideas.

Undeniably, Trump was elected despite saying things deeply at odds with the view of the U.S. role in the world that prevails in Washington. In practice, as shown above, Trump has by no means pursued a strategy of restraint.

Restraint is an idea whose time has come; actually, it is long overdue. Despite hysterical news headlines and the ubiquitous elite haranguing about existential national security threats, today’s international system is remarkably peaceful and stable. The United States, thanks to its geographic isolation and its outsized economic and military power, is particularly insulated from foreign threats.

Yet our foreign policy does not reflect this benign security environment. America has been at war for two out of every three years since the end of the Cold War. About 46 percent of Americans have lived the majority of their lives with the United States at war. Washington has engaged in more military interventions in the past 30 years than it had in the preceding 190 years. This hyperactivist, heavily militaristic foreign policy has not only been unnecessary, costly, and counterproductive for U.S. interests but has occurred in a period of declining relative U.S. power.

Following World War II, after the other great powers had been devastated by conflict, the United States accounted for about 50 percent of global economic output, making it hard for our ambition to truly exceed our means. That figure stood at 22 percent as recently as the 1980s, but today the U.S. share has fallen to 15 percent, and the International Monetary Fund projects that it will slip to 13.9 percent by 2023. Such figures mostly reflect the fact that billions of people around the world have lifted themselves out of grinding poverty, a process aided by the embrace of liberalism and market economics. Such human progress should be celebrated. Still, U.S. foreign policy has not adapted; its goals are suited to a time long since passed, when the available resources seemed nearly limitless.

Change has been slow in coming, owing to the policy consensus around the grand strategy of primacy, which prescribes an expansive conception of the U.S. role in the world that requires overspending on the military and the elevation of peripheral interests to the level of vital ones. A grand strategy of restraint, by contrast, counsels prudence, nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, and a more modest set of objectives and interests. It eschews elective wars, unrealistic nation‐​building schemes, and the pursuit of hegemony. It draws from a rich history of U.S. foreign policy in which, as one of America’s preeminent statesmen (and eventual president) John Quincy Adams put it, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and “is the well‐​wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Adams warned that if America went down the path of global dominion,

she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

Restraint in U.S. foreign policy is ripe for a revival. Primacy has indeed entangled us in gratuitous wars of interest, intrigue, and hubristic ambition, but they are not, we believe, beyond the power of extrication.

Trump’s entry into the presidency and onto the world stage has fortuitously prompted a much‐​needed debate about grand strategy. What America needs is not Trump’s “America First,” nor a return to the status quo ante, but a radical reevaluation of its role in the world.

About the Authors
A. Trevor Thrall

Trevor Thrall is a senior fellow for Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department.