Inaugural lecture on Trump’s foreign policy
MAASTRICHT. In her inaugural lecture on January 30th, professor of Foreign Policy Analysis & Transatlantic Relations Roberta Haar analyzed U.S. President Trump’s policy in an historical context. This is an abbreviated version of her lecture, entitled: Is the Trump phenomenon a symptom or the cause for shifts in US foreign policy?
Let’s start with what I mean by shifts. The first one is that the U.S. is retreating from its global leadership role and its support of the international system that it put in place after the Second World War. Add to this retreat that U.S. foreign policy has become more circumspect, a change already evident under President Barack Obama, but certainly under Trump’s America First approach to the world. However, Trump’s transactional foreign policy points to a zero-sum view of the world, which he thinks plays out primarily in economic competition.
Indeed, Trump’s worldview distinctly does not support the global system or America’s traditional role with the result that Trumpian foreign policy is accelerating the overall decline in the relevance of international organizations and the foundations of the international order.
The second piece of evidence that U.S. foreign policy is shifting relates to Trump’s condemnation of European defense commitments. This is not a new phenomenon, with the burden sharing debate vexing the alliance since the 1970s. In fact, every president asked the Europeans to contribute more with their unfair funding ultimately resulting in dwindling public support in America—a point that Trump capitalized upon.
What is further different from past appeals is Trump’s emphasis on the purely quantitative with no consideration of the qualitative aspect of the alliance. Trump’s vision does not include the benefits of having allies. Trump said as much in his May 2017 address at NATO Headquarters, where European leaders were noticeably shaken. While Trump is plainly a part of a greater trend, he also is visibly escalating the rhetoric in ways that have destructive effects on America’s standing and interests.
The Return of Realpolitik
The third sign that U.S. foreign policy is shifting relates to the return of power politics in the world. Realpolitik is back! The sovereign state is again the most important actor on the world stage. This is something that certainly predates Trump, emerging with Russian adventurism. In this back-to-the-future world, 2014 was a watershed year with such events as Russia seizing Crimea and destabilizing the Donbas region of Ukraine, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East.
You could argue that these deep structural changes are more important in understanding the transatlantic relationship than the preferences of any sitting president. In this line of thinking, the individuals who rise to office are a reflection of that wider context. Meaning, Americans voted for Trump because he is the best leader to meet the Realpolitik of our age.
If this is true, Europeans must get busy because building a proper defense will be daunting. Defense means deterrence and deterrence means an ability to project power, which in turn means a substantial investment in armed forces to the tune of hundreds of billions over the next 15–20 years.
In the consideration of these shifts it is perhaps more accurate to say that Trump is both a symptom and a cause. Moreover, that Americans chose Trump in 2016 because they were responding to these trends and an environment that fostered the rise of political insurgents who defy their own parties. Insurgents emerge in times of political and economic upheaval when the U.S. electorate tends to turn to Radical Reconstructionists, like George McGovern in 1972, who won the Democratic nomination with his anti-Vietnam war stance. McGovern’s insurgency ultimately had a catalyzing and unifying effect on those foreign policy intellectuals who left the Democrat Party and became neoconservatives and who found a new home in the Republican Party during the Reagan years.
Like McGovern, Trump won the primary race and secured the Republican nomination by opposing party professionals, in particular foreign policy specialists, over such topics as whether free trade is beneficial for the American economy, whether the U.S. should adopt a more isolationist stance and whether the U.S. should accept more migrants. There were 122 Republican foreign policy experts, who signed two different “Never Trump” letters before the election, with some Republican elites arguing that Trump engineered a hostile takeover of their party.
The result is that Trump will affect foreign policy for years to come. Trump will change Washington more than Washington changes Trump. By May 2017, retired Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said that the Republican Party was an ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around. Today, we do not have a Republican Party with a man in the White House—we have Trump’s Party that happens to be called the Republican Party.
What are Europeans to do?
What does this mean for the EU? I will venture three scenarios that Europeans might follow in their transatlantic relations. The first is to oppose and delegitimize Trumpian foreign policy and hope that the next president will return the U.S. to its postwar role. Joe Biden articulates this idea when he declares that Trump is an aberrant moment in time.
If Biden were to win in 2020, a degree of internationalism might return but I am skeptical because the other two Democratic candidates that have voiced views on foreign policy, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, agree with Trump. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s new strategic thinkers also advocate restraint, something that a President Hillary Clinton was sure to find deplorable. It also means that Trump is no longer an insurgent and Trumpian foreign policy is the new norm.
Where does Europe fit into a U.S. strategy of restraint, could European leaders oppose and delegitimize such foreign policies? This brings us to consider the second scenario, a plan that advocates trying to work around Trumpian policies. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, there were some initial signs that this was possible with Trump’s initial cabinet choices clearly picking up where Obama left off in the reinvigoration of NATO. Add to this that official documents all restate America’s understanding of the value of allies and strategic partners, reject isolationism and reaffirm the benefits of America’s leadership. However, it is a worry that Trump appears not to know the contents of his official documents and the authors all left the Trump administration by January 2019. The obstacles of working around the policies of the largest military and economic power on the planet means that this pathway holds about as much promise as the first.
There Is No Alternative to the U.S.
The third scenario that Europeans might follow is to acknowledge Trumpism while at the same time acknowledging that Europe’s security and prosperity still depend on keeping transatlanticism alive. That means that Europeans must find a way to deal with Trumpism, because it is here to stay. At least, until the next insurgent.
The full text of the lecture is available here