To Donald Trump’s critics, four years of posturing has left him exposed for all the world to see. The president hasn’t made America great again, they argue; he has made it weaker than it’s ever been: disrespected, ridiculed, and now even pitied, as it struggles to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. He has failed to rebalance relations with China, failed to deal with North Korea, failed to end the endless wars in the Middle East, failed to cow Iran, failed to stop European free-riding, and even failed to improve relations with Russia. And that’s before one considers his record of undercutting or destroying international treaties on climate change, trade, and nuclear weapons.
To Trump’s supporters, this is manifestly unfair. The president has, for them, finally reversed Barack Obama’s weakness: He has reinforced red lines, put America first, ripped up bad deals, corralled allies to pay more for their own defense, led the global change in attitude against China, defeated the Islamic State, and kept the United States out of any new wars. Add to that deals in the Middle East to normalize ties with Israel and the new line of communication with Pyongyang, and the world, they say, is now a safer place, and one that is better for American workers. If he has ruffled feathers and offended people along the way, so be it.
Both of these theories miss the real significance of Trump’s presidency. After decades of international adventures that have left the U.S. overstretched, overwhelmed, and overburdened, it was Trump who blurted out the uncomfortable truth: American foreign policy was failing, and had been for decades.
Through a combination of hubris, ignorance, instinct, and ego, he pointed at the reality and demanded to know why it was being allowed to continue. Why was America still fighting wars in the Middle East and elsewhere? Why wasn’t it partnering with Russia against Islamist jihadists? Why was China allowed to abuse the rules of the game? Why were American workers losing their jobs to poorer countries? And why were so-called allies in Europe allowed to place high tariffs on American produce while American workers paid for their defense? Were these countries even allies at all?
One doesn’t have to like Trump or believe he has been a successful president to acknowledge that each of his challenges contains a grain of truth: American leaders were naive to allow China such an easy pass into the World Trade Organization; NAFTA did help hollow out American manufacturing; Europe was allowed to free-ride on American largesse; and the U.S. has become too tied up in military commitments. More than that, though, he was correct on the most fundamental point of all: the direct link between America’s economic strength at home and its power and stature abroad.
When Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal, was atop best-seller charts in the late 1980s, second on the list was a scholarly work called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by the Yale professor Paul Kennedy. That book warned that the U.S. could not sustain a policy of global supremacy indefinitely while its relative wealth continued to fall. The U.S. had risen to dominance in the aftermath of Europe’s implosion after World War II, but, Kennedy argued, this was an abnormality.
The challenge for America, he wrote, was to bring into balance its means and its commitments. In effect, whether it liked it or not, America was moving from being the only power that mattered to the greatest power in a world of them. The book, published in 1987, came out just before the fall of the Soviet Union and America’s unipolar moment of glory. Its central warning, however, has boomeranged back into relevance.
Trump may have no idea that he is revealing any of this; he may not even agree with the things he is revealing. Yet he is revealing them nonetheless. “He’s a Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers person,” Fiona Hill, Trump’s former senior director on European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, told us, before adding: “Though I doubt he ever read the book.”
The remark came during one of several dozen interviews with senior Trump administration officials, foreign-policy specialists, diplomats, and aides in the U.S. and Europe. In those conversations, we discussed Trump’s worldview; his chaotic policy making, singular lack of curiosity, inability to compromise, penchant for dictators, and dislike of allies; and, above all, his curious ability to point out base truths that were being ignored.
Time and again, we were struck by the assessment, related by multiple sources in separate meetings, that Trump’s most important characteristic when it came to foreign policy was not what his critics charge—his amorality or vindictiveness, his lack of success or diplomatic vandalism. They said his most important characteristic, at once his most transformative strength and his greatest weakness, was his naïveté.
Minutes after Trump took the oath of office, any remaining hope within the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that he might be tamed by the magnitude of his responsibility was burned off in the fire of his inauguration address. Trump set out his story of what had gone wrong for America—a story he’d been repeating on and off for 40 years. “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,” he said. “Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military … defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” The U.S. had made other countries rich, Trump said, while it grew poor.
Over the course of 2017, Trump would flesh out these instincts in a series of set-piece speeches. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on his first foreign trip as president, he promised an end to idealistic interventions. At the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, he declared it was time that America put itself first. “We can no longer be taken advantage of,” he said—by adversaries or by allies.
Within a year of his taking office, the various strands contained in these speeches were pulled together in what remains the most coherent foreign-policy document of his presidency to date: the National Security Strategy, written by then–National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and his deputy, Nadia Schadlow. “When I came into office, rogue regimes were developing nuclear weapons and missiles to threaten the entire planet,” Trump wrote in the foreword. “Radical Islamist terror groups were flourishing. Terrorists had taken control of vast swaths of the Middle East. Rival powers were aggressively undermining American interests around the globe. At home, porous borders and unenforced immigration laws had created a host of vulnerabilities. Criminal cartels were bringing drugs and danger into our communities. Unfair trade practices had weakened our economy and exported our jobs overseas. Unfair burden-sharing with our allies and inadequate investment in our own defense had invited danger from those who wish us harm.”
Here, then, was the Trump charge sheet, built on a lifetime of instinct and anger—a set of accusations, explicitly laid out or implicitly made, against not only Obama, but all post–Cold War presidents. George H. W. Bush had failed to foresee a revanchist Russia or to establish an economic package to bring it into the fold; Bill Clinton had paved the way for China’s rise and had expanded NATO to Russia’s borders; George W. Bush had trapped the U.S. in unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Obama had begun a process of American withdrawal and a pivot to Asia without the commitment to see it through. The central problem for Trump’s opponents is this: He wasn’t wrong.
When Trump took over in January 2017, decades of negotiations with North Korea had failed to stop the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons; ISIS was running a self-declared caliphate that stretched across much of Iraq and Syria; Russia had diluted American influence in the Middle East and expanded its power at its borders; China had abused its official status as a developing economy, without showing any signs of becoming more liberal or democratic; European allies were contributing only a fraction as much as the U.S. for their collective defense; and American jobs were being lost, and its government was becoming ever more indebted. The country had a foreign policy that wasn’t working, built on an economy that wasn’t either.
The French philosopher Montesquieu noted of the Roman empire’s decline, “If the chance of one battle … has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle.” In other words, if it took only the election of Trump for America’s global leadership to collapse, or one bad Democratic candidate to let in a man committed to tearing down America’s postwar foreign policy, there must be deeper reasons the system was so fragile to begin with.
Speaking with an array of officials, diplomats, analysts, and advisers—many of whom requested anonymity to freely discuss sensitive issues, diplomatic relations, or government deliberations—it was striking just how many times our conversations came back to this central point. Hill told us, for example, that Trump was “a symptom of malaise, and decline, and decay” in the U.S. more widely. Similarly, Patrick Porter, a professor of international security and strategy at Britain’s University of Birmingham, told us it was impossible to disentangle Trump from the world he inherited.
Schadlow, writing in Foreign Affairs, argued that Trump had “offered some correctives to the illusions of the past—often bluntly and sometimes inconsistently.” She believes that Trump’s interventions “stem from an embrace of the uncomfortable truth that visions of benevolent globalization and peace-building liberal internationalism have failed to materialize, leaving in their place a world that is increasingly hostile to American values and interests.”
This is the intellectual frame for Trumpism, a version of the rise-and-fall philosophy of the 1980s—of great-power competition and relative decline, strategic retrenchment and paranoia, about the next great threat.
Kennedy’s book touched a nerve in 1987, but was quickly overtaken by the end of the Cold War. Yet the fundamental premise remains sound, according to many of those we spoke with. As Dan Coats, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, told us, America’s place in the world is changing: “We’re going to have to adapt to that change. We can’t just rely on what it has been for the last 70 years.”
Kennedy’s thesis—that relative economic power is linked to relative geopolitical power—is key to Trump’s intellectual defenders today. America’s power, in this worldview, has declined and will continue to do so. In 1960, U.S. GDP represented 40 percent of the global total, according to the World Bank. By the time Clinton left office, in 2001, the U.S. contribution to global GDP was 32 percent. In 2018, the U.S. accounted for 24 percent. This share was expected to decrease to 14.78 percent by 2025, according to separate projections by the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, U.S. military spending as a percentage of its GDP has fallen consistently over time: from 6 percent in 1988 to 3.4 percent in 2016, according to the World Bank.
Trump may not know any of this, or see it strategically. The argument he makes is not new, nor is it uncontested. (Indeed, many of those brought into his administration reject such declinist arguments out of hand.) Yet the Trump critique—that American foreign policy has been failing, and that America has been weakened by its relative economic decline—is powerful, because it challenges assumptions both Republican and Democrat elites had considered settled.
“‘Because we’ve always done it’ is never sufficient with him,” Susan Gordon, Trump’s former principal deputy director of national intelligence, told us, describing interactions with the president. “If the best the system can offer is, ‘This is the way we’ve done it,’ he will say, ‘Well, why? Why are we doing that? Why in the world is that to our advantage?’”
The challenge doesn’t have to be consistent, or logical, or moral, or sensible, and it often isn’t. “It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly,” one senior adviser to a European leader said in an interview. “Ugly and bad ideas can have just as much force as coherent ideas. Ultimately, we can’t get our slippery hands around it, because we’re civilized and try to systematize everything. But this is fundamentally uncivilized and doesn’t easily fit into a single system.”
In short, Trump, even as he calls out the American-built world order for its failures, has no coherent plan to replace it, no system that would work better. He isn’t trying to reorder the world; he’s just pointing at the order and calling it naked. Or as Hill put it: “He’s a chaos agent.”
“The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office,” Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs. In our conversations with senior U.S. advisers and officials who have worked directly for the president, their assessments returned to this point: His character is his destiny.
For Trump, uniquely, these fears and vanities were formed entirely outside the traditional schools of American presidential power—state capitals, the U.S. Congress, or elite military academies. Having never made a study of politics, international relations, or history, Trump’s convictions are those of another world—a world beyond Washington and the foreign-policy establishment. His critics argue (and his supporters often admit) that he couples those convictions with a distinct lack of curiosity about the world. “He’s not interested in the history: the history of relationships, anything that has gone before him,” Hill said. “His presidency was like a white slate before him. I used to joke that for him, time was divided into A.D., ‘After Donald,’ and B.C., ‘Before was crap.’”
Many of those we spoke with said Trump’s instincts came from 1980s New York. It is certainly true that by the ’80s, Trump’s worldview—his convictions, in Kissinger’s lexicon—seems to have formed. Taking his first steps into national politics with an open letter to the American people, Trump declared in September 1987 that “the world is laughing at America’s politicians.” That same day, he told Larry King in a CNN interview that other countries “laugh at us behind our backs; they laugh at us because of our stupidity and [that of our] leaders.” The fear then was Japan’s rise, and America’s fall. The U.S. was paying for others’ defense while being undercut economically, Trump complained. The story hasn’t changed in the years since, only the principal threat, which is now China. (Two senior former U.K. officials who worked closely with Theresa May during her time as British prime minister told us that Trump’s real-estate background was never far from the surface in conversations. He used one meeting with her to criticize the U.S. embassy being moved in London, and became fixated on the lease on the ambassador’s residence there. The intervention, on such a small matter, left May baffled.)
Trump’s opinions on the world, and America’s role in it, may have emerged in the ’80s, but they were conceived much earlier. “When Donald Trump was born on June 14, 1946, the power of the United States was unprecedented,” write Charlie Laderman and Brandan Simms in Donald Trump: The Making of a World View. “In Trump’s formative years, however, Americans were forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s power, though considerable, had its limits.”
The 1960s and ’70s brought the Vietnam War, defeat, and division. Kim Darroch, who resigned as Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. after leaked cables detailing his unflattering assessment of the president sent Trump into a rage, told us that in his assessment, much of the president’s worldview reaches back to the America of those years. “A lot of things fixed in Trump’s mind do come from the 1950s, including a vision of America where the coal mines are working and factories are full and churning out American products that everyone buys. In a way, MAGA, if you want to drill down, is about re-creating America’s golden age.”
So although many in the Trump administration attempted to control him, or to impose their own philosophy upon him—McMaster, Schadlow, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—none succeeded. His convictions were formed before reaching high office.
Yet, isn’t this partly what his supporters like about him—that he is different and doesn’t hide it? Trump has the rare gift of saying the bit most people don’t say out loud: He moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem because evangelicals who supported him liked it. Russia isn’t that bad, and the U.S. is not so innocent either. And who cares about the Kurds? It’s not like they fought on D-Day.
Two 2018 incidents point to Trump’s unwillingness to abide by diplomatic rules, and his wildly differing priorities from the foreign-policy mainstream. In both instances, his naïveté (or, less charitably, his ignorance) illuminated the flaws in his critics’ own arguments.
Four officials in the U.S. and U.K. related the story of Trump’s visit to London that year, which was overshadowed by an interview he gave to The Sun newspaper at the beginning of the trip, humiliating May by accusing her of ruining Brexit and ending hopes of a U.S. trade deal. Darroch recalled that the interview “instantly swamped all the other news” from the visit. “I just couldn’t quite understand why he had done it, really,” he said. Trump’s remarks were doubly painful for May because they were accurate, pinpointing the fundamental problem with her strategy, while also increasing her political difficulties at home. To make matters worse, he also said Boris Johnson would make a good prime minister, and Johnson would indeed go on to succeed May, winning the Conservative Party’s largest parliamentary majority since the Margaret Thatcher era. “It totally ruined any goodwill built up,” Lewis Lukens, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London at the time, said of Trump’s newspaper interview.
(The trip made an impression on Lukens for other reasons. During Trump’s remarks at a private dinner at Blenheim Palace attended by the prime minister, the president segued into a discussion of his golf course in Scotland, mentioning its impressive sand dunes, Lukens told us.)
Miles Taylor, who was the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security until his resignation last year, pointed to another set-piece event, the 2018 G7 summit in Canada, which happened just before Trump was supposed to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. “The president was flippantly disregarding allies, disagreeing with them on everything, and effectively ruined the summit, and then refused to sign on to the [G7 joint communiqué], and then did, and then walked it back,” Taylor said of the meeting, adding that the president had complained before the trip that he did not even want to go to the summit. “It was a stunning side by side to see the president of the U.S. kick America’s allies in the teeth before he flew off to meet with a murderous dictator that’s threatened to annihilate the U.S. and some of our closest allies in the region. If that doesn’t sum up Trump’s misplaced priorities, I don’t know what does.” And yet, even here, doesn’t Trump have a point? He is surely right to criticize the G7 as outdated, a throwback to an era of European dominance that doesn’t reflect today’s power dynamics. And nuclear weapons are arguably the greatest threat to the planet. Even some of those who loathe Trump admitted to us that his moves on North Korea, combined with his rejection of the traditional rules of diplomacy and grand strategy, had opened up a line of communication with Pyongyang that had made the world slightly safer, even if these efforts had achieved no tangible results.
Blurting out truths, painful or otherwise, does not amount to a strategy, though. Trump rails against China, but has done little to win over allies to form a more powerful bloc against Beijing; he has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords, arguing they are inadequate, yet has made no progress on alternatives.
Trump is instead a mishmash of his instincts. Those instincts pull in contradictory directions: to restore the American supremacy of the 1950s, to revive the winner-takes-all style of the 1980s, and to reject the imperial restraints now holding the country back. Trump’s instincts cry foul at the very system of global leadership that America built—its institutions and alliances, military commitments and defense accords. At the same time, he demands more acknowledgment of American might, for the ease of the ’50s, when America did what it wanted and the rest of the Western world did what it was told.
Trump’s critique of the U.S.-led world order—however chaotic, unintentional, and incoherent—is not the only thing he has revealed.
There is also the emptiness of his official agenda, and the lack of any desire to build a strategy. To revisit the core early texts ostensibly articulating Trump’s foreign policy is to travel to a world that bears little resemblance to reality. Take the National Security Strategy, a document of seriousness, intellect, and thoroughness which calls for “principled realism” to advance American influence. Does Trump believe any of it? Is he in any way principled or realistic in his foreign policy? Does he even seek to advance American interests, or simply make it worth America’s while financially? Those we spoke with said Trump would do a deal with China tomorrow if Beijing agreed to buy America’s soybean crop for the next decade, which would bolster his stock among midwestern farmers and, by extension, his reelection chances.
The entire document, in fact, is awash with arguments that, although coherent and credible, do not match Trump’s worldview. The paper states that America’s allies and partners “magnify” its power. Does Trump really agree? It says the U.S. “will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected.” The opposite has happened. It states: “We encourage those who want to join our community of like-minded democratic states.” Trump has declared his desire for Russia to rejoin the G7, welcomed the autocratic Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán to the White House, and bonded with Kim Jong Un. It adds: “There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people.” Trump ignored the beheading and mutilation of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, congratulated Vladimir Putin for his rigged election victory, and has quite literally morally equivocated between the U.S. and Russia.
Bolton told us Trump never knew what he meant by “America first.” “It was a slogan,” he said. Bolton recalled a campaign speech Trump gave at the Nixon Center that easily fit within the broad outlines of Republican Party foreign policy. “But did he mean what he said at that speech?” Bolton asked. “Had he thought about it? Did he remember what he said 24 hours later? I don’t know.”
A second revelation that Trump has brought to light is one of American decline itself. To be clear, Trump seems to grasp the raw potential of American power in a way that Obama did not. Should Trump pull American troops out of Afghanistan, for example, no European country would be able to stay—none has the military capacity to do so without American cover. This tangible power has been showcased throughout Trump’s presidency: in the “mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan in 2017, in the extraterritorial financial sanctions imposed on any business working with Iran after the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal, in the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
And yet, although the world of 2020 might still be dominated by the U.S.—and will be for decades more—it is not 1950s-style domination any longer. Trump has been unable to impose his will on Iran, which has not capitulated despite the economic blockade. The European Union has not given Trump what he wants on tariffs, nor has Germany scrapped its planned oil pipeline with Russia (which the U.S. has complained about as European double-talk, demanding action against Moscow, while working with it on strategic energy infrastructure). China has not given way on trade, or anything else. Instead, Trump’s bellicosity has fueled demands in Beijing, Brussels, Berlin, and Paris for greater autonomy from American power—for China to use its own technology so that it can avoid reliance on Silicon Valley, and for Europe to develop its own defensive capabilities, pushed by France and Germany, so it can find its voice in world affairs.
A third revelation of Trump’s tenure is the nakedness of the world’s carping about the U.S.—allies’ demands for American protection and moral leadership, while nevertheless making deals with American adversaries. He revealed the emptiness of NATO’s promises to share the burden of defense or to make the sacrifices necessary to construct real alternative bases of power. His finger-pointing, naïveté, and vanity revealed that the G7 was outdated and in need of reform; that Russia remained the only truly existential nuclear threat to the U.S.; that China was abusing the system; that Europe must do more; that Britain and its leadership must stop whining and make a choice on trade; and that the Middle East has been a disaster, largely of American making.
Ultimately, Trump’s power is tied up with his candor—his inclination to say the same thing to world leaders that he says to Sean Hannity. In the words of one of his most senior former advisers, who listened to his calls with other leaders, Trump saw the world in terms of strength and weakness. Anyone who asked for things—traditional allies such as Britain, France, and Germany—was weak and therefore not worthy of respect. But the brutal reality is that he is only saying explicitly what was implied before. Until America’s allies are no longer the demandeur in the relationship, the power can reside in only one place.
Finally, Trump has revealed his own lack of curiosity, rigor, and strategic foresight. All of his other revelations do not mean he has any of the answers to America’s long-term or immediate foreign-policy challenges.
From the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. has seen its manufacturing base diminish and the balance of power and wealth drift across the Pacific toward China. Faced with this reality, Obama’s proposed Asian pivot is understandable and defensible. And so too is Trump’s demand for burden sharing as America grapples with a more powerful adversary. The corollary of both strategies and demands, however, is the sharing of power alongside the financial burden. This is the contradiction at the heart of Trumpism: between righteous grievances and longing for lost supremacy.
This “declinist” account is not accepted by those who have surrounded Trump. Nor is it accepted by Trump’s most bitter critics. Indeed, mainstream Republicans and Democrats remain united by a shared belief in American leadership. Both sides in the U.S. today are complicit in the fairy tale that American supremacy is everlasting and cannot be questioned.
This is Trump’s greatest legacy in the realm of foreign policy. To debate whether his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was the right decision; or whether slapping tariffs against European allies was outweighed by his confrontation of China; or indeed if that confrontation was carried out in the best way possible, in some way misses the point. To question if his strategy worked (or if it made sense), if he had a vision for the world, if his demands were coherent, is worthwhile, but belittles his impact.
Perhaps Trump was found wanting over the past four years. But in his demands, questions, and threats, he also showed how the American-built foreign policy consensus—of engagement with China; of subsidizing allies’ defense; of military interventionism in faraway lands; of unabashed advocacy for free trade—was found wanting, too.