For generations, American presidents have vowed to use their power to spread freedom around the globe. But the president-elect is set to break with that precedent.
Inaugural addresses are, in part, catechisms. The new president signals that he’ll take the country in a new direction. But he casts that new direction as consistent with old and cherished national principles, from which the country has strayed, and to which it must return.
Since Woodrow Wilson, and certainly Franklin Roosevelt, part of the catechism has been America’s mission to defend freedom around the world. For close to a century, incoming presidents have called American power a blessing from God, which the United States must use to assist the cause of liberty in other lands.
But this Friday, Trump may not say that. No president-elect in modern American history has talked less about America’s obligations to the rest of humanity. When it comes to foreign policy, Trump has two primary rhetorical modes. The first is transactional: America is being ripped off by other nations, and must cut better deals. The second is civilizational: America is part of the Judeo-Christian West, which is threatened by “radical Islam.” The former defines the world as a struggle between America and its trading partners. The latter defines the world as a struggle between civilizations. Neither mode suggests that promoting freedom for peoples of all nationalities, races, and religions serves America’s interest. Both are fundamentally zero-sum.