American Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump

American Foreign Policy in the Age of Trump


Review: The Trump Phenomenon and the Future of US Foreign Policy (September 2016, published by World Scientific.)

Since President-Elect Donald Trump first announced his candidacy in June 2015, pundits and analysts have often struggled to untangle his rhetoric and pin down his foreign policy views. In hindsight, one line in Trump’s 2015 speech likely captured his most salient perspective on international affairs: “the US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” Regardless of its accuracy, this has been Donald Trump’s narrative: a vast foreign policy failure in which the US, pursuing unrecognizable goals and unrealizable hegemony, fruitlessly spills blood and treasure for other nations. Further, Trump’s narrative has clearly resonated with the American public, even as he and his staff have struggled to fully unpack or offer a remedy for it.

In their September 2016 book, The Trump Phenomenon and the Future of US Foreign Policy, Daniel Quinn Mills and Steven Rosefielde try to perform the necessary legwork to give Trump’s gut-level rhetoric a fuller intellectual structure. Drawing on their academic stature (Mills is Professor Emeritus of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, while Rosefielde is Professor of Comparative Economic Systems at UNC Chapel Hill), the authors seek both to formalize Trump’s critique of America’s foreign-policy status quo and offer the sort of detail-oriented policy solutions that Trump’s campaign and transition have been criticized as lacking. Though nominally nonpartisan, their work was published during the final months of the 2016 presidential election and is clearly meant to both solidify and amplify Trump’s political philosophy as it relates to international affairs.

Perhaps inevitably then, like the President-Elect himself, Mills and Rosefielde seem better able to attack Washington’s failures than propose viable fixes or alternatives; they meaningfully sketch the public’s discontent with and the legitimate shortcomings of contemporary foreign policy, and raise serious concerns about America’s direction in the world. But rather than explore these questions to determine meaningful solutions, the authors turn their intellectual guns unambiguously on the bugbear of the liberal establishment, veering from nuanced analysis toward anti-left rhetoric at the cost of viable foreign-policy thinking.

The failure of Cosmopolitanism
The authors broadly divide US foreign policy into two camps: the “Cosmopolitan” approach that has defined America’s global tack since World War II, and the “American Nationalist” alternative advocated by the authors and by Trump.

Mills and Rosefielde’s argument is strongest in criticizing the former. Under Cosmopolitanism, the authors charge, America has “sought to dominate the world, first as the protector of freedom and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as policeman of the world.” They see the problem with this approach as twofold. First, it leaves America as global defender of the status quo, a position that quickly slopes toward “Cosmopolitan overcommitment” as the United States is constantly drawn into engagements anywhere that stability might be threatened. The result is a diverse set of conflicts linked by nebulous ideological threads that rightly alienates the American working- and middle-classes. Second, driven by the “American elite’s” “wishful thinking” that (in denial of a multipolar reality) the United States can fully assert global hegemony, Cosmopolitanism continually places American troops into unwinnable conflicts. The overall outcome is policy failure abroad and political fracture at home.

Mills and Rosefielde quite convincingly outline these issues, which do seemingly plague American foreign policy: the United States’s penchant for intervention, confused philosophical justification, and unachievable goals have led the country into a pattern of costly, failed engagements abroad. As they write, “American interventionism seems less and less effective (as for example, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Cuba)…it seems often undertaken for the wrong reasons and without methods of exit in mind.” In fact, this criticism of Cosmopolitanism is probably the book’s greatest contribution to American foreign policy thinking: even if its conceit seems somewhat conventional, recent political movements have certainly necessitated its revision and restatement. (In parallel, Trump’s true achievement in the political arena may be forcing the foreign-policy establishment to question and defend some of its long-held principles.) But rather than expand this analysis through nuanced discussion, Mills and Rosefielde cast Cosmpolitanism’s failures in the dichotomous domestic lens favored by President-Elect Trump: in the authors’ view, blame always rests squarely on out-of-touch Washington elites, who ignore outsiders’ common-sense realpolitik in favor of their own deluded thinking.

In forcing such a simple narrative, Mills and Rosefielde badly damage their credibility. They ignore, for instance, the myriad situations in which the reverse has been true, and the establishment’s tempered approach to foreign policy has clashed with Trump and his supporters’ wishful thinking. In the Middle East, the President-Elect has rejected Obama’s measured stance toward ISIS, instead pledging to “bomb the sh*t out of ‘em”. In the Americas, “outsider” foreign policy has favored mass-deportation and border walls to the subtler measures proposed by Washington. In Asia, Trump supporters have cheered threats of “tremendous economic power over China” and potential trade wars, even as the establishment carefully avoids such outright antagonism. Trump himself during the campaign promised to “ignore career diplomats who insist on nuance” and, presumably, draw on the less-nuanced, populist voices that have defined his candidacy.

Clearly, then, even if Mills and Rosefielde are justified in questioning some stale tacks in American foreign policy, they are unambiguously wrong to suggest that the populist approach is always the “sane” alternative to establishment delusion. In doing so, they bundle America’s mistakes abroad and attribute them to a single cause, weakening their largely-valid prognosis (that useless, costly foreign intervention will continue to degrade American moral authority and global power) with an oversimplified diagnosis (that the “insider” anathema is completely to blame.) The unfortunate effect is to turn what could be a meaningful examination of American foreign policy through the lens of “Cosmopolitanism” into a political bludgeon serving Mr. Trump’s anti-establishment line.

Toward a new nationalism
Mills and Rosefielde advance Donald Trump’s as the best path away from Cosmopolitan dysfunction; they bill his and their ideology as “Democratic Nationalism,” defining it loosely as placing the domestic interests of citizens over those of foreign entities or political insiders. Under this broad umbrella, the book unfolds a set of foreign-policy alternatives built on the assumption that current failures stem from an incompetent or corrupt elite, and can only be corrected by its ousting: in their proposals, Mills and Rosefielde equate successful American foreign policy with non-establishment foreign policy, even if this means rejecting functioning aspects of current US strategy for outlandish populist alternatives.

The authors frame these proposals regionally. They offer a Democratic Nationalist approach to Asia (concerning China), Europe (concerning Russia, the European Union, and NATO), and the Near East (concerning Iran and “militant Islam.”) In each, the authors essentially hope to engage less and achieve more, in keeping with Trump’s 2015 proclamation.

In Asia, they quickly rule out America truly containing Chinese territorial ambitions through military force. Yet they also reject the idea of ceding China a regional “sphere of influence” in return for access to its markets, an approach the authors attribute to Hillary Clinton. The latter would actually seem to be in keeping with the Democratic Nationalist approach as defined by the authors, as it draws on a sober, realist calculation that places domestic well-being before anything else. But accepting it would require Mills and Rosefielde to acknowledge the viability of a foreign-policy proposal born in Washington, and thereby soften their anti-elite line.

Instead, cornered by their earlier demonization of Beltway policy, the authors propose a third option for America to counter China:  through “major American concessions” to Russia and admittedly “unlikely” cooperation with Southeast Asian Islamists, the authors suggest that the US lead a bizarre tripartite alliance to buffer Chinese expansion. Mills and Rosefielde offer no specifics as to just what these “concessions” would look like, how the US could justify alliance with Southeast Asian Islamists, or whether either group has indicated that American cooperation would be welcome in the region; rather, these elements are conspicuously absent as the authors abruptly finish their discussion of Asia and move onto other regions. It becomes clear that Mills and Rosefielde’s proposed Asian policy is far more the product of “wishful thinking” than their establishment alternatives, as the Democratic Nationalist approach runs up against what proves to be a recurring problem in the book: it is relatively simple to criticize current American foreign policy, but difficult to find the viable alternatives promised.

We see this issue come up again in the authors’ proposals for Europe. They determine Russian containment to be infeasible, drawing on Cold-War stereotypes that “Russian soldiers endure much more suffering than do Western soldiers” and therefore would leave the US ill-equipped to oppose conventional Russian military action; in light of this alleged Russian threat, the authors advocate that NATO soften its line against Russia and that the European Union reduce its regional influence, even to the point of both organizations’ dissolution. The authors do not seem to appreciate the inaccuracy of measuring Russia’s power through troop numbers and caricature in the 21st century, nor the consequences of abandoning critical US-European institutions. Instead, their sole impetus is to offer an alternative—any alternative—to the elite’s approach to Europe, a task that proves exceedingly difficult and seemingly distracts from the development of rational foreign policy.

With the Near East, Mills and Rosefielde’s thought process is similar, although their prescription is exactly opposite to that for Russia: drawing on overtly racist images of a Muslim invasion of the Western World led by refugees and terrorists, they advocate a policy of “terror and benevolence” toward the “Islamic World” (a rough amalgamation lumping together Iran and ISIS, since the authors claim there is little distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Islam.) As the authors themselves admit, their goal here is to simply negate what they deem Washington’s failed policy of  “measured military response” toward the region, rather than to determine the most effective foreign policy approach; accordingly, they offer no analysis of the obvious downsides of an aggressive stance in the Near East (which include the alienation of friendly states and expansion of radicalism’s appeal,) but as before shy away from critical discussion of their ideas. Mills and Rosefielde’s proposed policy again seems to be stated only in opposition to the establishment’s, and as a result the authors seem more invested in offering an anti-Cosmopolitan approach than a successful one.

Mills and Rosefielde’s outline for “Democratic Nationalist” policy abroad is muddled by its authors’ anti-elite motivation at home. In each of the three regions the book explores through this ideological lens, the authors suggest impractical solutions built not on realism, as they would claim, but on the belief that American foreign policy fails because of the elite and can only be fixed by outsiders. Seemingly, the trap here is a familiar one, which closely parallels trends observed in the development of Trump’s own administration: it is far simpler to attack and negate extant policies than to propose new ones.

An Unclear Path Forward
Mills and Rosefielde are too absorbed by the political moment to truly offer the Democratic Nationalist approach that they promise, and Trump’s iconoclastic rhetoric may similarly not lead to truly new governance. But Trumpism’s political prominence will outlive Trump’s own, and Democratic Nationalism, by this or another name, will prove an important guiding force in American foreign policy over the next decade even if Mills and Rosefielde fail to properly develop it here.

Perhaps most important is that these three figures have exposed and harnessed an anti-establishment current in America’s foreign policy, one with arguable validity and undeniable power. (Indeed, this same current seems poised to reciprocally influence other nations’ policies toward the United States, as populist and nationalist voices grow across Europe, Asia, and South America.) The “Trump phenomenon” in international affairs is here to stay and will eventually achieve a more coherent direction; it is essential, both for Trumpism’s adherents and the country as a whole, to determine just what this direction will be. Unfortunately, the answer remains to be seen from Mills and Rosefielde’s text.

Photo: Michael Vadon