In November 2016, I wrote an essay for H-Diplo on the possible impact of the Trump administration on U.S.-UK relations. My first paragraph included the following sentences: “If Trump himself knows what he truly plans to do – as opposed to what he would truly like to do – he has hidden it from the rest of United States. Although the British government has a long tradition of adjustment to whichever government is in power in any given country of interest, adjustment needs an object or action or policy to which to adjust. Thus far, President-elect Trump has not felt the need to provide any of them,” other than the slogans promising to put America First and Make America Great Again.
Author: Kathleen Burk
In early March 2018, evangelical leaders from around the world descended on Charlotte, North Carolina, for the funeral of the renowned preacher, Reverend Billy Graham. President Donald J. Trump joined the mourners. While there, Trump had a face-to-face conversation with Graham’s grandson, Edward. Graham the younger was an Army Ranger and had served for sixteen years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bitter about America’s endless wars, he fumed about the futility of propping up weak regimes overseas with lukewarm support at home. Trump, following a long tradition of skepticism about foreign entanglements and always in search of evidence for his convictions, found a confirming mouthpiece.
My interests in global politics were sparked at a young age while growing up in north central Iowa. Farming communities are keenly aware of events in world politics that can affect the price of crops, land, and equipment. My parents were informed and engaged in politics and got me interested in participating in and studying politics at a young age. My mom helped organize local caucuses, usually at neighbors’ farmhouses, and she volunteered at a voting site at the fertilizer plant where my dad worked. We bumped into political candidates in nearby cities and we experienced incredible access to political candidates as the first caucus state for presidential elections. We moved to the “big city” when I was 16 and I lived across the street from a retired schoolteacher (Vivian, also my daughter’s name), who invited to me her house for coffee to discuss politics. I didn’t fully appreciate those early access points to the study of politics and international relations (IR), but my background profoundly shaped the questions and theories that I found compelling in my academic journey. It is perhaps fitting that I am now the F. Wendell Miller Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, a named chair that was funded by an Iowan farmer.
Four years ago, we wrote that Donald Trump’s presidency could spell the end of an already weakened liberal international order. Now that the Trump presidency is in the rearview mirror, what can we make of what transpired for U.S. foreign policy and the global order? In this essay, we review what we wrote four years ago, survey the Trump administration’s foreign policy record, and assess how the Biden administration may – and may not be – constrained by Trump’s foreign policy legacy.
After a year of Donald Trump in the White House, and drawing on the lessons of the turn inward (by Herbert Hoover and even Franklin D. Roosevelt) during the Great Depression era, I argued that his hyper-nationalism in trade policy was inimical to U.S. economic and diplomatic interests. His vocal and staged protectionism shirked decades of internationalism and threatened peace and security, as well as profits. Such economic nationalism hurt the United States, and the world, in the 1930s, and it could do so again. That turned out to be true.
At the beginning of my career, I had strong ideas about what I wanted to do and research, none of which outlived the realities I met. Unexpected adventures, enormous opportunities, huge historical shifts, and serendipitous encounters helped me ‘learn the scholar’s craft.’ The drive of my own intellect may have been the least important factor. So I adapted. I have a willful temperament, and that was difficult, but luck and key mentors helped. Along the way I have never been bored.
Candidate Trump, and then President Trump, advocated for a dramatic change in the direction of American foreign policy, which he labelled “America First.” His vision stood in stark contrast to the liberal internationalism (LI) pursued by most presidents since World War II. For Trump, unilateralism would replace multilateralism; retrenchment would replace global engagement; pursuit of short-term, transactional American interests above all else would replace international cooperation. These dramatic changes in direction were to be accomplished through many smaller steps taken in relation to each issue area and across many countries.
By the time he lost his bid for reelection, President Donald Trump had fulfilled many of his campaign promises regarding international law. On trade policy, he abolished the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced it with a revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and he launched a tariff war with China in hopes of making a better deal on bilateral trade. On climate change, he pulled out of the 2016 Paris Accord, as promised. As far as we know he did not fulfill his vow to defy domestic and international prohibitions on torture, as his main military advisers counseled against it, and he listened for a change. Reflecting an animus against arms control treaties with Russia, even longstanding ones negotiated by Republican predecessors, Trump withdrew the United States from the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, and he expressed eagerness to resume testing of nuclear weapons, an action that would violate the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, had the United States ever ratified it.
Historians seem to have a problem with Trump. I do not mean by this the dominance of partisan hostility to Trump in the ranks of the historical profession, or even the way in which many historians have been offended by the way in which the president has treated history as a resource to be exploited, rather than a reality to be respected or understood. The more substantial problem posed by Trump is that for many historians he simply should not exist. The possibility that the conclusion of the evolution of the United States across the half-century since the 1960s could be the election – albeit against the weight of individual votes – of a man who boasts of his distaste for the goals of racial equality, wider health-care provision, and a narrowing of income differentials, seems to many historians to be somewhere between an institutional outrage and an absurd accident of history. But the political is supplemented by the personal. Trump’s swagger, and his disregard for bureaucratic procedure and legal constraints, stands as a refutation of deeply-held assumptions among historians about how the democratic politics of the U.S. are supposed to work. The complexity of institutional procedures, the careful reconciliation of competing interests, and above all the prestige of the presidency as the symbol of democratic legitimacy, have all been bulldozed by a man whose personal qualities – or lack of them – seem like an insult to the historical narrative.