Despite all the lies and distortions, President Donald Trump has spent his first week in office assembling a coherent and well-planned framework for foreign policy. It is hiding in plain sight—frequently missed in the storm of tweets and the attacks on domestic enemies. Read as a whole and in detail, with attention to their larger single-minded purpose, Trump’s executive orders are the blueprints for the most significant shift in American foreign policy since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The latest drafts of executive orders, several of which the president will reportedly sign Friday at the Pentagon, are bold and breathtaking in their reach. They are strategic and transformative. They are also poised to destroy the foundations for the last 70 years of American-led peace and prosperity. The orders question the very ideas of cooperation and democracy, embodying an aggressive commitment to “America First” above all else. So much for the “defense of the free world,” and the “march of freedom”—obvious soft-headed “loser” ideas for the new team of White House cynics.
Trump is launching a direct attack on the liberal international order that really made America great after the depths of the Great Depression. It is a system of multilateral trade and alliances that we built to serve our interests and attract others to our way of life. Through the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, among other institutions, the United States led a postwar capitalist system that raised global standards of living, defeated Soviet communism, and converted China to a market economy. Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe and a web of alliances in Asia and the Middle East, the United States contained aggressive states, nurtured stable allies, and promoted democratic reforms when possible. American power is unmatched around the world because it can work through consensual relations with partners in every region. None of our rivals have as many friends, and none of our rivals can count on as much support abroad.
That was true, and essential for American security, until this week. With his barrage of executive orders, Trump is taking America back to the historical nightmares of the world before December 1941: closed borders, limited trade, intolerance to diversity, arms races, and a go-it-alone national race to the bottom. His executive order on “rebuilding the U.S. armed forces” calls for “peace through strength,” but this document and the others he signed offer nothing but unilateralism and militarization: more military spending, more nuclear weapons, more use of torture (which is illegal), and more promises to destroy ISIS and other terrorist threats. The executive orders promise to curtail American participation in international organizations, prohibit whole categories of foreigners from entering our country, and limit exchanges of ideas and goods. This is not a United States any president from Roosevelt to Reagan would recognize.
Coupled with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership trade negotiations, build a “huge” wall on the southern border, and impose high tariffs on imports, the United States is left with a foreign policy that cuts it off from the relationships that fueled its growth for 70 years. Where will the markets and brains come from, when America is isolated and reviled? Where will the capital to fund its debt come from, when it is in deep conflict with the countries that buy its bonds (especially China)? And, most significant, how can America anticipate and prevent foreign threats when it gets little help from others? Trump’s executive orders are making the United States an international pariah, which raises the costs for every element of its security and economy. Self-absorbed islands never prosper, and they usually decline fast.
The Trump team seems driven by its perception of enemies more than its analysis of national interests. If the president and his advisers thought seriously about the historical sources of America’s strength, they would not be so quick to destroy the liberal world order that it built. They would also think through the implications of the alternative order they are trying to create. It sounds courageous to say the United States will jettison pesky allies who do not “pay their share” and shut potential terrorists out of our country, but do those angry actions really serve its interests? Do they make America stronger, safer, and more prosperous? Almost certainly not.
By signing a series of militaristic executive orders at the Pentagon, Trump is sending a clear message that his definition of the national interest is purely focused on short-term chest-thumping and job hoarding, even as his actions will destroy more jobs in the near and long term. He shows no interest in nurturing a sustainable global economy, a livable planet, or the spread of democracy. The executive orders reveal his deep antagonism to all of these things, and the basic wisdom of American history. His actions are all about appealing to his less-than-majority base of supporters within the United States. He is intent on showing that he is boss, with “tremendous” support. The nation be damned.
We are far from the dismal day when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For all of America’s current troubles, the United States is safer and more prosperous than anyone could have predicted in December 1941. It is, however, destroying the sources of its improved position in rapid succession. Each of today’s executive orders is another demolished column. When the roof caves in, America will be left weak, isolated, despondent, and defeatist—more like France in 1940 than America in 1941. Republicans in Congress were correct to speak out against President Barack Obama’s excessive use of executive orders. It now falls to those same critics to stop President Trump’s global destruction by presidential pen.
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