When Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election on 7 May 2017, many in Europe and North America breathed a collective sigh of relief. Macron’s victory seemed to confirm an incipient anti-populist trend that had been set earlier that year in the Netherlands and Austria. In the aftermath of the Brexit-vote and Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the United States, Macron seemed to have stopped the populist bonfire in its tracks, turning France—rather surprisingly—into a paragon of democratic wisdom, political moderation, and optimism.
The debate about American foreign policy has always divided along two dimensions. How close in or far out should America protect its security? And for what moral or political purpose does America exist and participate in world affairs?
‘Nationalists’ adopt the close-in approach to American security, generally confined to America’s borders and the western hemisphere. They dominated American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Realists’ venture further out to anticipate and counter threats in distant regions–Europe, Asia and the Middle East–before they reach America’s shores. They formulated the containment doctrine during the Cold War, permanently stationing for the first time American forces in Europe and Asia. Both nationalists and realists focus on security, not the spread of human rights and democratic regimes. They accept the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be.
The impact of American culture abroad has become obvious to travelers, and not only a source of income for shrewd marketers of the nation’s consumer goods, but also, of course, a subject that has generated lively scholarly interest and a formidable bibliography. Whether in movies or in music, whether on television or on the internet, no nation in history has bestridden the planet as the United States has; and the political ideas emanating from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have enjoyed an even longer (and more salutary) influence. For close to a century, the appeal of such a culture has been a force to be reckoned with; in recent decades, in much of the world, American programs and American products—enhanced by American power—have been close to inescapable. By now they are so often entwined with local habits and values that the foreignness of the New World has become internalized. During a recent visit to France, I noticed a teenager wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the following slogan: Liberté, Egalité, Beyoncé. But how might the most striking qualities of American society be identified and understood? What are its laws of historical motion?
When future historians write the story of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 2017 is likely to go down as the Year of Sound and Fury. With the arrival of the Donald J. Trump administration, the first two-thirds of the year witnessed an array of nominal zig-zags in United States policy towards the transatlantic alliance that would have been inconceivable for any other U.S. administration. Unsurprisingly, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to make sense of the shifts, with members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment particularly scathing in their evaluation of Trump’s moves.
During his campaign, Donald Trump made a number of bombastic assertions. For students of international law, the declaration that he would authorize the use of torture was among the more alarming, so there were signs of hope when he took office and appeared to backpedal. Soon after winning the election, President Trump sat down with the New York Times and implied that the winds of public opinion might cause him to shift his position on torture. While James Mattis, his Defense Secretary, had persuaded him that torture was not “useful,” Trump concluded that his decision would depend on whether “Americans feel strongly about bringing back waterboarding and other tactics,” and if so, “I would be guided by that.”
As a recent Washington Post article argued, the role of working-class voters in electing Donald Trump has likely been exaggerated. One of the problems with much election analysis, suggest the authors, is that it has used educational levels as the determinant of who belongs to which class. Yet if one uses household income levels under the median of $50,000 a year as the primary criterion, then only about thirty-five percent of those who voted for Trump were working-class. In other words, a majority of Trump supporters were relatively undereducated (lacking college degrees) but were either middle-class or affluent in terms of income.
It is hard to think of anyone better qualified to write an early history of Barack Obama’s foreign policy than Derek Chollet. For over six years, Chollet served the Obama administration with distinction, in senior positions at the State Department, White House, and Defense Department. He is also an accomplished author who has written numerous well-regarded books on the history of American foreign policy. Chollet’s most recent book is The Long Game: How Barack Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. It is a lively and insightful insider’s account that, in the time since its publication in 2016, has proven as controversial and thought-provoking as Obama’s statecraft itself.
Addressing the threat of terrorism, both real and perceived, would be a top priority for any president, but it is especially important for Donald Trump’s administration. Despite the dearth of Islamic State or other foreign-directed mass-casualty attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, polls from earlier in 2016 showed that 73 percent of Americans saw the Islamic State as a “very serious” threat to the United States, and another 17 percent saw it as “moderately serious”—a rare priority that crosses political lines. Almost 80 percent believed the Islamic State has assets in the United States and can “launch a major terrorist attack against the U.S. at any time.” Exploiting these concerns during the presidential campaign, Trump regularly warned about “a major threat from radical Islamic terrorism,” and tweeted (the forum used for all serious discussions of policy) that “We better get very smart, and very tough, FAST, before it is too late!” President Barack Obama, he claimed, had boxed U.S. generals in with a “strategy that is destined to fail.”
In the first half year of the new Trump administration, United States-Russian relations sped through a series of phases only to end suspended basically where they were on Election Day, 8 November 2016—badly damaged, friction-laden, and immobile. Whatever muddled hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage may have had for better times with Trump in the White House and whatever obscure intentions President Trump may have had of improving relations, the two sides remain mired in the new Cold War into which they had plunged in the last years of the Obama administration. Their leaders were like figures in straitjackets: the more they struggled, the more their straitjackets tightened. Straitjackets, it might be noted, of their own manufacture, although each was of a different design. Trump was hamstrung by a Congress angry over the Russians’ interference in the presidential election and the possibility that Trump’s people had helped them, and in any event, persuaded that he meant to ‘go soft’ on Putin. Putin’s constraints were self-imposed. Much as he may have wished to ‘normalize’ the U.S.-Russian relationship, his jaded view of what drives U.S. foreign policy left him unwilling or, worse, unable to do his part to make progress possible.
In his recent commentary in Foreign Affairs, Elliott Abrams invites us to view the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. foreign policy as somewhat ordinary. Trump challenged Washington with iconoclastic rhetoric and arrived in office with a circle of ‘believers.’ He promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of old Washington hands and pursue policies that place ‘America First.’ Still, much of the Republican establishment expected Trump, once elected, to ‘pivot’ from candidate to president. They assumed Trump would eventually rise to the challenge and to the requirements of the office. Inevitably, he would come to understand the enormous U.S. interests at stake, the awesome responsibilities of the presidency, and the broad obligations of leading the nation. At the very least, he would defer to those who knew their way around town, and the world. The result: Trump would leave the campaign behind and adopt a familiar policy approach.