Every 20 years or so—the regularity is a little astonishing—Americans hold a serious debate about their place in the world. What, they ask, is going wrong? And how can it be fixed? The discussion, moreover, almost always starts the same way. Having extricated itself with some success from a costly war, the United States then embraces a scaled-down foreign policy, the better to avoid overcommitment. But when unexpected challenges arise, people start asking whether the new, more limited strategy is robust enough. Politicians and policy makers, scholars and experts, journalists and pundits, the public at large, even representatives of other governments (both friendly and less friendly) all take part in the back-and-forth. They want to know whether America, despite its decision to do less, should go back to doing more—and whether it can.
The reasons for doubt are remarkably similar from one period of discussion to the next. Some argue that the U.S. economy is no longer big enough to sustain a global role of the old kind, or that domestic problems should take priority. Others ask whether the public is ready for new exertions. The foreign-policy establishment may seem too divided, and a viable consensus too hard to reestablish. Many insist that big international problems no longer lend themselves to Washington’s solutions, least of all to military ones. American “leadership,” it is said, won’t work so well in our brave new world.
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With minor variations, this is the foreign-policy debate that the country conducted in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. And it’s the same one that we have been having for the past few years. The rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia jolted the discussion back to life in 2014. Presidential debates in 2015 and 2016 added issues (from Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to his Asian trade pact) and sharpened the controversy.
Those of us in the foreign-policy business are always glad to have our concerns get this kind of prominence. Down the decades, these debates have tended to produce a consensus in favor of renewed American activism. Yet each version unfolds in its own way. The global turmoil of 2016 meant that nobody could be completely sure how this one was going to turn out.
We still don’t know. The advent of Donald Trump—his candidacy, his election, and the start of his presidency—has given our once-every-two-decades conversation extra drama and significance. Some commentators claim that Trump wants to cast aside the entire post–Cold War order. To others, he is repudiating everything that America has tried to achieve since 1945. Still others say he represents a break with all we have stood for since 1776 (or maybe even since 1630, when John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony “a city upon a hill”).
That we talk this way is but one measure of the shock Trump’s victory has administered. The new president is raising questions about the foreign policy of the United States—about its external purposes, its internal cohesion, and its chances of success—that may not be fully answered for years. Yet to understand a moment as strange as this, we need to untangle what has happened. In this cycle, America has actually had two rounds of debate about its global role. The first one was driven by the 2016 campaign, and Trump won it. The second round has gone differently. Since taking office, the new president has made one wrong move after another. Though it’s too soon to say that he has lost this round, he is certainly losing control of it. In each case, we need to understand the dynamics of the discussion better than we do.
Like its predecessors, the 2016 debate began with a negative premise: America wasn’t doing well enough in the world. In the ’50s, and again in the ’70s, the worry was that the United States had ceded the strategic initiative to the Soviet Union. By the mid-’90s, the U.S.S.R. was no more, but Americans came to feel that they needed a better way of coping with the conflicts of the post–Cold War world. Existing policy did not seem good enough.
Last year was no different. Of the 20-odd Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, none fully embraced the Obama administration’s version of retrenchment. As always, the critiques varied. Some urged doing more; others, less. Among the Republicans, the more-to-less spectrum ran from Marco Rubio to Rand Paul (with upwards of a dozen contenders in between). Among the Democrats, it went from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders (with others in between whom no one can remember). Candidates of both parties seemed more open than they had been in years to the idea of rethinking what America stands for—and should be trying to do.
Eager as they always are in election years to shape the candidates’ views, scholars, experts, and former officials produced a flood of books and articles. Their common theme: the growing obstacles America faced in getting its way abroad. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other post-9/11 military campaigns had shown the costs and risks of overreliance on force as an instrument of foreign policy. The greater assertiveness of competitors like Russia and China, the slowing of the global economy, the seeming intractability of problems like terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change—these realities made U.S. goals still harder to achieve.
But a shared diagnosis hardly meant shared prescriptions. While experts lined up along the same more-to-less spectrum as the candidates, predicting who stood where was not as easy as you might think. Among analysts within the academy, a do-less faction was strong, as always. Veterans of previous Republican administrations stressed that their do-more views did not mean support for “boots on the ground.” Within the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, eight years of Barack Obama had opened up divisions over trade, the use of force, and human rights. Some who had worked for Obama argued that his downsizing strategy had gotten most things right; others argued that he had let U.S. influence shrink. For them, a world of fraying order made a large American role more necessary than ever.
And the public? Polls suggested that it, too, was open to new approaches—but unsure how to choose among them. In May 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of voters wanted the next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. In the same poll, Pew found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored policies that would keep the United States “the only military superpower.” Not for the first time, it seemed that Americans wanted to have it all.
So how did candidate Donald Trump fit into—even hijack—this right-on-schedule foreign-policy debate? His anti-immigrant talk, angry denunciation of free-trade agreements, and embrace of the pre–World War II slogan “America First” led many to treat him as the campaign’s extreme outlier—an old-fashioned isolationist. But this was never the right label. It failed to capture the novel mix of positions Trump had settled on—and it grossly underestimated his ability to dominate the discussion.
Trump rode to victory as the candidate who promised to do both more and less than Obama. He offered the voters a resolute call to arms and relief from the burdens of global leadership. The problem with American foreign policy, he suggested, was not a simple case of too-costly overcommitment. It was the result of something more ominous: the ill will of friends and foes, and the moral culpability of our own leaders. Sinister forces—especially religious ideologues—threatened our safety. Intellectual confusion—the dreaded “political correctness”—made it hard to name our enemy. Allies and trading partners cheated us at every turn. Waves of foreigners were taking our jobs. Futile wars had left the military “depleted.” In its weakened state, the United States no longer commanded respect.
It’s hard to think of an American political figure who has ever put forward such a dark view of the world—or such a despairing picture of policy paralysis. To fix matters, Trump did not offer a conventional “Come Home, America”–style program of isolationism. Instead, he promised kick-ass confrontation. We had been “losing” for too long. The right response, the way to start and keep “winning,” was not to get out of the game but to play it better—smarter, harder, tougher. Trump was the candidate who, claiming to know more about isis than the generals, would “bomb the shit” out of it. (With no inhibitions, either: What, he reportedly asked expert briefers, was wrong with using nuclear weapons against terrorists?) He had more experience negotiating business deals than the trade lawyers did, and knew how to cultivate the kind of personal relationships with the world’s high rollers that professional diplomats could only dream of.
Trump dominated the election-year debate by proposing a more hopped-up version of foreign-policy activism than the usual advocates of activism, and a fuller kind of disengagement than those who wanted to scale down. The combination—radicalism at both ends of the spectrum—seemed the essence of his appeal. Sure, other do-more candidates wanted to increase spending on defense, but they cluttered their message with commitments to help others—friends, allies, and those who “shared our values.” And do-less candidates wanted to pull out of trade agreements, but not to cut foreign aid. For Trump, American policy was supposed to serve only American interests.
Best of all, Trump suggested, his entire approach would be free. The famous boast that Mexico would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall echoed many of his other pronouncements. Seizing Iraq’s oil—the “spoils” of war, in his term—would help defeat terrorism. Allies would finally be made to “pay their bills.” The Pentagon budget increases that Trump promised would be funded, he claimed, by “ending the theft of American jobs.” Yes, we could be “great again”—and on the cheap.
Such a blend of much more and much less could easily have seemed incoherent, or crazy. But the two halves of Trump’s formula worked together better than critics appreciated. He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will. Trump embraced Bernie Sanders’s economics without George McGovern’s geopolitics. Of self-identified conservative Republicans, 70 percent told Pew last year that they wanted the U.S. to retain its global military dominance. “Make America Great Again” was a slogan aimed right at them.
Trump’s more-and-less strategy also helped him with those who wanted a bristly, muscular America but did not want endless military involvements. Rejecting “nation building” abroad so as to focus on the home front was Trump’s way of assuring voters that he knew how to avoid imperial overstretch. He offered supporters the glow of a Ronald Reagan experience—without the George W. Bush tab.
There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton. She offered up her own version of a mix-and-match foreign policy. To neutralize Sanders’s challenge from the left, Clinton backed away from her previous endorsement of the Obama administration’s East Asian trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To attract Republicans and independents who felt Obama had been too passive internationally, she promised “safe zones” in Syria that would protect civilians and adversaries of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like nafta and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.
Clinton was doubtless trying to dispel suspicion that she was the continuity candidate in the race—that she wouldn’t change Obama’s foreign policy all that much. But in competing for voters who hated the status quo, she had little chance against Trump. Clinton had the more thoughtful, balanced policy, and Trump almost surely had no real grasp of how his own international strategy fit together. Even so, he got people out of their seats.
In both the primary campaign and the general election, Trump showered all his rivals, Republicans and Democrats, with schoolyard taunts. Yet he always treated Barack Obama as his true opponent. On issue after issue—immigration, trade, alliance commitments, nuclear weapons, China, Syria, isis, Iran, Israel—Trump positioned himself, with greater consistency than any other Republican candidate, as the anti-Obama. He disagreed with every element of the president’s foreign policy.
This pattern may even hint at an explanation of Trump’s odd stance on Russia. By 2016, Obama’s relationship with Vladimir Putin had long since unraveled. The sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, beefed-up U.S. troop deployments in eastern Europe, opposition to Russia’s intervention in Syria—all of these policies were a problem for most Republicans. Could they really prove that they were tougher on Putin than Obama was? Trump had his own, ingenious solution to the puzzle. His perverse admiration for Putin—the claim that the two of them would “get along very well”—preserved Trump’s purity as the candidate who did not agree with Barack Obama on a single thing.
Had Donald Trump run for president in 2012, the entire case he made about America’s desperate position in the world probably would have flopped. In that campaign, foreign policy was widely considered one of Obama’s strengths, and he coasted to reelection—just as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, two past presidents brought in to clean up unsuccessful wars, had done.
As Obama’s second term wore on, however, the global landscape changed. A series of new problems made his policies look more ragged than commanding. Americans’ personal regard for their president was up, but they felt his international standing was down. (In 2012, 55 percent of respondents told Gallup that they thought Obama was respected abroad; by 2015, that number was just 37 percent.) In this new environment, Trump was able to make his critique more compelling than anyone else’s. Though his views—and his way of presenting them—were shocking, there was a kind of brilliance in the way he seized the moment.
Elections often settle our cyclical foreign-policy debates. Not in this case. The discussion has now gone into overtime, and Trump is faring far worse than he did in the campaign. His crude and contradictory ideas have proved hard to implement—and hard to sell to audiences more skeptical than his campaign-rally crowds. His opponents have the rhetorical advantage and seem likely to hold it.
Trump’s problems go far beyond the familiar idea that politicians campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose. He has had to confront the enormous difficulty of advancing a platform that promised simultaneously to do more and less. Writing in his diary, Richard Nixon, who had tried a similar strategy himself, recalled Churchill’s views of its challenges: “One can have a policy of audacity or one can follow a policy of caution, but it is disastrous to try to follow a policy of audacity and caution at the same time. It must be one or the other.”
In this spirit, many analysts found it hard to believe that Trump would stick to his more outlandish policy ideas and impulses once he took office. Weren’t they just a little too nutty to survive in the real world? A Saturday Night Live skit soon after the election gave this forecast a wide audience. As the rattled president-elect, Alec Baldwin reversed one ambitious campaign promise after another. Mass deportation of immigrants? “Let’s not do it. Scrap it.” Obamacare? “No change.”
The hope that Trump would yield to reason gained further strength from his selection of sober-minded Cabinet secretaries—General James Mattis to run the Pentagon and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state—and the choice of H. R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as national-security adviser. As administration spokespeople backed away from Trump’s statements on many issues—China, nato, mass deportations, the Iran nuclear deal, a two-state formula for Israeli–Palestinian peace, and others—the voices of good sense seemed to be carrying the day.
Trump is not the first president to have assembled a divided team of advisers, or to face the near-united opposition of senior Cabinet officers. (Lyndon Johnson would have stories to tell Trump about how he handled such problems.) What makes the new administration’s predicament unique is the apparent commitment—still very much in place—to pursue a more activist foreign policy while reducing the costs and risks of America’s global leadership role. To start “winning” again at last.
The tension between the two halves of Trump’s policy is not merely one of logic, but one of institutions. Activist policies are necessarily inclusive—to work, they depend on the resources, technical expertise, coordinated implementation, and support of the national-security bureaucracy. By contrast, downsizing requires central control of policy—fewer hands on the tiller, careful steering, quiet diplomacy, and conceptual discipline.
Yet in the administration’s early going, Trump and his advisers have gotten things exactly backwards. The initial version of their “Muslim ban” was precisely the kind of activist measure that called for the laying-on of hands by multiple agencies. Instead, it was hatched virtually in the dark by a few brand-new White House aides. As for rapprochement with Russia—whether it makes sense or not—the entire idea calls for confidential talks out of the usual channels, in which each side’s flexibility and interest can be carefully explored. Despite Trump’s clear personal interest in outreach to Putin, he may have already lost the chance to make the initiative work. He has let so many of his own officials criticize it—and allowed so much congressional opposition to build up—that his options are drastically narrowed.
No president with any knowledge of government at all would have bungled these matters the way Trump has. Even inexperienced presidents have adjusted more adeptly to the exercise of power. The Obama administration’s first-year fulfillment of a campaign promise—the controversial 2009 decision to add troops in Afghanistan—was almost a textbook case of good process compared with Trump’s. Obama got bureaucratic buy-in where he needed it: His advisers came together in backing the decision for a “surge.” At the same time, he maintained personal oversight of the issue he cared about most—a tight timetable for the withdrawal of the extra troops, which most of his team hated but no one openly opposed. Obama’s early decisions helped him gain control of policy. Trump’s have helped him lose it.
A president trying to change policy can also hurt himself if he misunderstands America’s power position—and is misled by his own rhetoric. When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 finally obliged Jimmy Carter to toughen his strategy toward Moscow, his administration quickly came forward with a raft of additional measures: a new “doctrine” for Persian Gulf security, outreach to China, suspension of strategic arms control, and more. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national-security adviser, even appeared at the Khyber Pass with a dagger and a machine gun. With tensions (and tempers) running high, my old boss Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged the president and his advisers to recognize that they had badly misjudged the balance of power—and could not know for sure how the Soviets would respond to their show of strength. It was crucial, he said, to make no false moves. Nothing would be worse than to pick a new fight and lose it.
President Trump probably needs to learn the opposite lesson: Don’t pick fights that the U.S. has already won. Trump painted a picture of extreme American weakness convincing enough to win him the White House. But he will keep making mistakes if he believes his own assessment. With net migration from Mexico at its lowest levels since the 1940s, and with not a single person since at least 1975 (and maybe ever) having been killed in terrorist acts on U.S. soil by nationals of the countries on the administration’s “Muslim ban” list, Trump has the freedom to decide which problems he most wants to solve. His actions have to be broadly consistent with the message that got him elected, but he has nothing to gain from urgent and disruptive measures to address vulnerabilities that do not exist. Such moves will not reverse the decline Trump fears; they will accelerate it.
Ronald Reagan, Trump might recall, defeated Carter by pointing to the danger of Soviet military advances. In office, however, Reagan was acutely conscious of the communist system’s flaws and sought to exploit them carefully. He wanted a big military buildup, not a war. Advisers who didn’t understand this fell out of favor. Secretary of State Alexander Haig confided to Reagan early on that it would be easy to turn Cuba into “a fucking parking lot.” The president ignored him.
There may be no more important indicator of how isolated Trump has become in the post-election round of foreign-policy debate than the routine way in which critics berate him for undermining what they see as America’s supreme foreign-policy achievement—an international order variously described as “open,” “liberal,” and “rules based.” Whatever the value of these labels, the critics are right that, after World War II, the U.S. repudiated beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and every-man-for-himself security policies. They’re also right that Trump seems strangely attracted to such approaches. Despite the stupendous results of American strategy since 1945—victory in the Cold War, spreading global prosperity, an era of sustained (if uneasy) peace among major states—the president is clearly convinced that the United States has paid for almost everything and gotten almost nothing in return. In order to shift the cost-benefit analysis back in our favor, he seems determined to challenge the policies and practices that have cemented America’s vast power and influence in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In doing so, Trump has unified people who disagree about many elements of U.S. foreign policy and who recognize the many shortcomings of the so-called liberal international order. Experts, scholars, and former policy makers do not have a single view of the institutions that embody this order. nato enjoys strong support in most quarters; the European Union, considerably less support; the United Nations, far less than that—and even supporters disagree about how the United States should make use of these forums in the future. Whether they lean Democrat or Republican, or reject both parties, the best experts and analysts take for granted the need to rethink, and to do better. It’s good that they disagree about the big choices America faces—about globalization, terrorism, military spending, foreign assistance, democracy promotion, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, climate change, the rise of China, the future of Iran, Putinism, and much more. Trump, unfortunately, has gotten the very people who should be leading our debate to put their differences aside.
This unity comes at a cost. A once-every-two-decades debate is an opportunity to measure American policy against all the ways in which the world is changing—and the ways in which U.S. responses have fallen short. It’s a chance to come to grips with the vulnerabilities of the liberal order. To do so means thinking about narrow practical questions and broad conceptual ones. Can America’s leaders manage, explain, and defend this order better in the next decade than they did in the last? At a time when the power of the U.S. is, in relative terms at least, slowly declining, will rules that have long depended on that power continue to matter? Americans have never much liked applying the rules to themselves. What will happen when others feel strong enough to evade them too?
These are, in one form or another, the questions that the candidates, experts, and voters were supposed to wrestle with in last year’s campaign. Because of Trump—and the very necessary pushback against him—serious discussion of America’s role in the world has been virtually suspended, and no one can say when or how it will start up again. One thing is for certain, though. We can’t wait another 20 years to resume the debate.