Tell us this cannot happen, the Japanese said to their American friends, listening to Republican Party nominee Donald J. Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump attacked Japan as an economic predator, disdained American allies as free riders, and broadly rejected the U.S. grand strategy that had benefited Japan tremendously. Friends in Boston and Washington D.C. (and New Hampshire) assured the Japanese that Trump was unelectable, and that under a Hillary Clinton presidency, Japan would resume its place as a valued American ally. Trump’s election was thus a profound shock to Japan—the latest in a long line of shokku from the United States to jolt Tokyo.
Donald Trump made immigration and refugee policy central to his presidential campaign. According to Trump, radical Islamic extremism and the massive refugee flows out of the Middle East combined to created unacceptable risks. Following the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, the Trump campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump insisted that his proposal would buy time to review and improve the process for screening new arrivals. He mocked the idea that U.S. procedures for vetting refugees were sufficient to stop terrorists from entering U.S. soil, and he promised to take swift action upon entering office.
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has prompted deep reflection, even soul-searching, by scholars of international affairs. For the historians among them, the natural tendency is to connect the past to the present, and even the future. What major historical continuities in U.S. Middle East policy is Trump inheriting from his predecessor? Will his administration represent a continuation or a break from these policies? Thinking ahead four or even (dramatic pause) eight years, what legacies will the Trump administration leave?
Trying to make critical sense of the current state of foreign affairs is treacherous business for anyone, but for an historian it comes close to pursuing a death wish. Even with all the advantages of hindsight, the past remains shrouded to varying degrees, while decoding the present is like trying to see through a blinding sandstorm of events. But if there is much that remains unclear, at least the basic frame of mind of Donald Trump’s presidency is known. Recently, Stephen K. Bannon, the President’s Svengali, looked forward to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” in America. Given the tenor of Trump’s comments on international issues over the past year—about foreign trade, NATO, China, nuclear weapons, Russia, the Middle East, etc., etc.—the dismantling of the American-led world order that has been in place since the end of World War II is also a real possibility.
These are tough times for historians. I’m referring not just to the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wilson Center, but to the more profound psychological sense that I have experienced, as President Donald Trump has overtaken the news cycle, of freefall. I am grappling for a toehold.
In 1993, the Czechoslovakian poet-and-playwright-turned-president Václav Havel declared that “the fate of the so-called West is today being decided in the so-called East.” Havel warned that “if the West does not find the key to us…or to those somewhere far away who have extricated themselves from communist domination, it will ultimately lose the key to itself. If, for instance, it looks on passively at “Eastern” or Balkan nationalism, it will give the green light to its own potentially destructive nationalisms, which it was able to deal with so magnanimously in the era of the communist threat.”
A famous Jewish joke tells of a pauper who used to buy food and drink on credit, without ever paying his bills. Finally, after one year of default, the innkeeper refused to serve him. The pauper, his face red, banged his fist on the table and said in an ominous tone: “if you leave me no choice, I’ll do what my father did.” The guests went pale. The innkeeper, too, was nervous about the threat. “And what did your father do?” he asked. “Well of course,” answered the pauper. “He went to bed hungry.”
Donald Trump’s presidency will be an ideal case study for a question that is as old as the discipline of international relations: do individuals matter? Structural realism has long held that variation among individual policymakers has little impact on the behavior of states compared to structural features of the international system, such as the distribution of power. Almost all other research programs, including classical and neoclassical realism and constructivism, by contrast, hold that policymakers’ beliefs exert a significant and independent influence. Trump’s election is almost tailor-made as a test case for these longstanding academic disputes between partisans of Kenneth Waltz’s first and third “images.”
One hundred years ago this month, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was agonizing over whether to enter World War I. Just a few months earlier, Wilson had won re-election partly by campaigning on a policy of neutrality, which he was now preparing to abandon, along with the slogan ‘America first.’ But now, for the first time in more than 80 years, a U.S. president has taken it up again, to promote a foreign-policy stance that directly controverts the doctrine Wilson embraced.
How did this happen? Donald Trump—a real estate mogul with a television show and no political experience—is America’s forty-fifth president. “Those that did not foresee” his ascendancy “are going to find it hard to discipline themselves to a balanced projection of his forthcoming first term,” Jonathan Haslam declared in a recent ISSF/H-Diplo essay. I’m in that group; maybe you are too. Polls aside, no major newspaper or magazine endorsed Trump’s candidacy, and a big chunk of the Republican Party establishment actively resisted his nomination. The GOP’s previous standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, said Trump was a charlatan, and Speaker Paul Ryan kept the candidate at arm’s length throughout 2016. Neither George W. Bush nor George H.W. Bush supported Trump, and President Barack Obama campaigned against the GOP nominee while enjoying an approval rate that hovered near 60%. Trump’s victory was unexpected because it was improbable.