However, since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has always been defined by the views and character of the commander-in-chief. This time is unlikely to be different. Trump’s position exacerbates America’s chief strategic vulnerability, and it weakens its primary advantage in a competition with Russia and China.
President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the threat that Russian interference poses to western democracies leaves the United States particularly vulnerable. The U.S. government has largely shrugged at the challenges of protecting itself against future attacks, or deterring Russia from conducting them. It’s unclear how long it can maintain such detachment. The day before the State of the Union, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s hand-picked CIA director, warned of Russian interference in the 2018 mid-term elections, only for the president to let it be known that he would not impose new sanctions on the Kremlin as mandated by Congress. A statement issued by the State Department said that sanctions were unnecessary. Just dangling the threat of sanctions, State suggested, had effectively deterred Russia—a direct rebuke of Pompeo and the new national-security doctrine.
In this context, the Trump administration is exhibiting signs of what one could call Maginot-Line thinking. In 1929, France began building a line of defenses, known as the Maginot Line, along its border with Germany to protect against the very real threat from its neighbor. The line was completed in 1938. Adolph Hitler chose to simply go around it by invading France by way of Belgium. Today, the United States faces a conventional and nuclear threat from Russia in Europe, but faced with a robust U.S. response, Putin may choose to press ahead where the country remains largely defenseless. And it’s not just Russia. It remains to be seen if Trump will back a proposal in the National Security Strategy to investigate China’s political influence in the United States, especially given his family’s business interests there.
Trump is also unilaterally abandoning America’s greatest strategic advantage in a 21st-century great power competition. It’s not its military, its economy, or even its nuclear power, important as those are. America’s unique advantage is that it defines its strategic interests in a way that is compatible with the strategic interests of dozens of other powerful states—meaning, they want the United States to succeed. By insisting that the international order be free, open, democratic, and cooperative, the United States is offering something that appeals to a wide swath of people across all nations. Yes, the United States shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden for decades, but this was precisely why other nations treated it differently than the great powers and empires of old.
The key insight of Trump’s America First worldview is that the United States should no longer play this wider role. It should only act to protect its own interests. This is the context in which the rejection of free trade, the retreat from multilateral institutions, and the end of democracy promotion should be seen. But if the United States follows the examples of Russia and China and elects to define its interests so narrowly, it reduces the appeal of the American model of international order. Little would differentiate America from the other great powers that aspired to leadership, either now or in the past.