The Rise of ‘Revisionist’ America

The U.S. president doesn’t want to play by the international rules the U.S. itself set.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

H. R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former national-security adviser, used to warn of the dangers of “revisionist powers.” He had in mind countries like China and Russia that are newly ascendant and determined to amend to their advantage the global status quo: a decades-old, U.S.-led international system of free trade, military and diplomatic alliances, and liberal rules and institutions that govern how countries conduct themselves.

But the U.S. president’s recent Europe trip, which whisked him from a confrontational breakfast with the secretary general of NATO to a conciliatory lunch with the president of Russia, made one thing clearer than it’s ever been before: The call is also coming from inside the house. Trump is a revisionist, even if many of his advisers may still conceive of the United States as the world’s leading status-quo power.

Trump’s revisionist streak was on display in Belgium when the president reportedly threatened to reconsider America’s involvement in NATO if the military alliance’s members don’t spend far more on their own defense. When Fox News’s Tucker Carlson questioned this week why the United States should be obligated to defend another NATO member if it came under attack—the commitment at the very heart of the alliance—the president shook his head in disbelief and responded, “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question … That’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.” The implication was that he needed more time to shake things up.

The streak was on display in the United Kingdom, when Trump actively encouraged defection from the European Union by offering Britain a trade deal with the United States only on the condition that it make a clean break with the EU. “We are cracking down right now on the European Union,” he told The Sun, in reference to the raft of tariffs he has imposed or threatened to impose on the bloc. He argued, as he has since the 1980s, that in certain ways traditional U.S. allies pose a greater threat to the country than longtime adversaries because they are essentially friendly pickpockets: exploiting America’s military protection and preferential treatment on trade to get rich at the expense of the United States. “The European Union is a foe” because it takes “advantage of us” on trade and “many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills,” Trump explained to CBS, before adding that “Russia is a foe in certain respects” and “China is a foe economically.”

And it was on display in Finland, when Trump tried to team up with Russian President Vladimir Putin to address the world’s top problems—from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to the nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine—without any apparent regard for history or concern about the challenges that Putin’s revisionism has posed to the international system. At a joint press conference, the American president refused to take Russia to task for interfering in democratic elections, or even to call out any specific instance of Russian bad behavior—be it committing and abetting atrocities in Syria or allegedly ordering the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a nerve agent in Britain. (In his interview this week with Carlson, Trump described NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, not as the victim of an alleged Russian-supported coup plot in 2016 but as an “aggressive” nation that could drag the United States and other NATO members into “World War III.”) Instead, Trump blamed rotten relations with Russia on “many years of U.S. foolishness.” Remarkably, it fell on Putin, not Trump, to state at the press conference America’s policy that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was illegal. Trump “stands firmly by” that position, Putin said. If Trump does have a problem with the first seizure of territory by one European country from another in decades, he didn’t mention it in Finland.

While “American presidents since the 1940s have primarily sought to conserve the post-World War II order,” the international-relations scholar Walter Russell Mead recently observed in an article on the president’s revisionist tendencies, Trump “wants to alter the terms of the world system in America’s favor” and use “military and economic tools to persuade other powers to accept” his modifications. In Mead’s telling, these adjustments include leveraging China’s dependence on the U.S. economy to rectify trade imbalances between the two countries; “disrupting the status quo” in Europe, and fashioning a “revised model” of the transatlantic relationship so that it stops being “more valuable to Germany than to the U.S., even as America contributes most to its upkeep”; and no longer placing the containment of Russia at the center of U.S. strategy in Europe, since Trump does not consider Russia “a significant economic or military threat to vital U.S. interests.”

Trump’s advisers have attempted to portray what the president is up to as a project of revitalization, not wholesale revision. In a recent interview with Mead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that Trump wants a “reset” of a world order in need of updating after decades of stasis—to reform aspects of the system “that no longer are fair and equitable” while preserving “the important historical relationships with Europe and the countries in Asia that are truly our partners.” The president is preoccupied not with how a given international rule or institution “may have impacted America in the ’60s or the ’80s, or even the early 2000s,” but rather how it benefits the United States “in 2018 and beyond,” Pompeo said. Last month in Brussels, Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for Europe who before joining the Trump administration issued dire warnings about the revisionism of countries such as Russia and China, asserted that the Trump administration is engaged in “strategic renovation” aimed at “shoring up and strengthening the West” politically, economically, and militarily. The objective is to ensure “that we don’t have to do so later on terms that are less favorable”—even if that requires controversial steps that shatter “the appearance of transatlantic unity.”

But whatever you call it—a reset, strategic renovation, or America First revisionism—Trump’s agenda of upending the international status quo is reorienting the United States as an actor in the world, even if the U.S. president’s ambitious plans have often been frustrated by resistance from his own advisers, Congress, and the inertia of a global system that the United States has invested in for decades. (Note that, in the wake of Trump’s Europe tour, NATO members are still pushing back against Trump’s steep spending demands, the United Kingdom appears to be proceeding with only a partial break with the EU, and Trump is struggling mightily to translate his personal bond with Putin into the world-changing cooperation with Russia that he envisions.)

And if three of the world’s top powers—the United States, China, and Russia—are all acting like revisionists, that suggests the world is poised to change a whole lot, even as U.S. allies such as the European Union, Canada, and Japan strive to uphold the status quo.

EU leaders are seeking to reconcile their “post-nationalism identity with the reality of a world that has grown more competitive,” Célia Belin, an expert on U.S.-Europe relations, recently observed. “In a world of carnivores, [Europe] is the herbivore. It’s a power without teeth, basically. [While] big predators are preying on resources out in the world and playing zero-sum games, you have an entire continent that thrives under a win-win type of interdependence, rule of law.”

At the moment, Europe “is not strong enough to uphold this system by itself,” Belin continued. It “still needs big allies like the U.S.”