The two electoral shocks of 2016 – the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States – left observers aghast or elated.  For those who found themselves in the former category, the outcome of the Brexit referendum represented a crisis that dwarfed any other challenge the European Union had faced in recent years, while Trump’s victory was seen as a “profound shock to the west, one that calls into question the future of its democratic model and the liberal international order.”[1] For the latter group, Brexit was an enormous victory over an “arrogant, out-of-touch political class.”[2] Similar feelings could be found across the Atlantic, as Fox News claimed that the result of the 2016 presidential election was a “national rejection of both the traditional media and the Hollywood elite.”[3] The one shared sentiment among the majority of observers was surprise. Before polls closed on 23 June 2016, even Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a key figure in the campaign to vote Leave, said he thought Remain would win the EU Referendum.[4] Only a small minority had the prescience to know that the conditions for both outcomes had been building for some time.  Jonathan Haslam was among the few who thought that Trump’s election was “likely” due to “burgeoning blue-collar resentment and dissentient opinion among longstanding Democrats.”[5]

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At the time of writing, it is only six months since Joe Biden became President of the United States.  Yet there is already one notable contrast between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, that deserves more attention.  In a nutshell, Trump promised an overhaul of U.S. foreign policy but couldn’t deliver.  Biden is trying to overhaul it, only under the cloak of traditional language.  Any attempt to fathom the behaviour of both leaders must navigate this mismatch between words and deeds.

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Evaluating the significance and effects of economic sanctions is a serious challenge for scholars.  For one thing, appraising the outcomes of sanctions raises the question of perspective: from whose vantage point do we observe their use and effects?  While U.S. policymakers often change their approach to sanctions, to targeted countries the continuities in attitude are often more salient than the transfer of power in D.C. from one presidential administration to another.  At the same time, the impression among Western capitals and U.S. allies has been that the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 marked a serious strategic shift for United States foreign policy.  Any fully global assessment of sanctions must integrate these simultaneous perceptions of continuity as well as change.

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We cannot calculate President Trump’s “legacy” for United States foreign policy simply by describing his diplomacy while he was in power.  Virtuous fathers can fritter away family wealth, and Mafiosi can leave ill-gotten gains to charity.  It is still too early to know what long-term consequences might emerge, and it is difficult to sort out what trends would have prevailed even with a less disruptive leader.  Happily, a one-term presidency is less likely to leave durable wreckage in terms of our international reputation than eight years would have done.  My own admittedly non-impartial view is that Trump’s domestic legacy was more damaging and dangerous than his international one.  With his wanton disregard for truth, his use of social media to spread vituperation and contempt, whether for opponents or supporters who fell out of favor, his winking at practitioners of political violence, he simply trashed the norms needed for a functioning democracy – and that is not to mention the continual challenges to the 2020 election results.  Still, H-Diplo has asked about the consequences for foreign policy, and those remain the focus here.

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Throughout his years in the public eye, former president Donald Trump has frequently said things that reveal his belief that the construct of ‘race’ is a valid measure of human difference and human worth.  In countless public utterances, he has used racist, derogatory language to insult, belittle, and abuse non-white people.  He has also conflated whiteness with American-ness, implying that the United States is a racial community of white people whose non-white residents cannot be incorporated into the nation because of their race.  After all, he rose to national political prominence primarily through his prolonged racist campaign against President Barack Obama, claiming that Obama had been born in Kenya and was also a Muslim.  And his announcement in June 2015 that he would seek the presidency featured the defining comment of what might be called Trump’s “racial panic.” Speaking about immigration to a group of cheering supporters, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re not sending you.  They’re not sending you.  They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”[1]

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President Joe Biden has called the current moment an “inflection point,” both domestically and internationally.[2] In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, some forces within the Republican Party have made clear that they no longer believe democracy is in the best interests of their party.  Rather than adjusting their message and policies to broaden their base of support, many in the GOP have doubled down in support of baseless claims of electoral fraud to enact voter suppression laws in the hopes of increasing their odds of success at the ballot box in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.[3]

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“It’s the economy, stupid!” While this phrase was initially coined by Democratic Party nominee Bill Clinton’s campaign to emphasize the importance of a struggling domestic US economy in the presidential race of the early 1990s, today, it appears applicable to the international realm as well.[1] For several decades, IR scholars have drawn a separation between the economic and security realms.  Concretely, the established “neo-neo synthesis” in IR literature posits that whereas considerations about relative gains characterize the security relations between states, the prospect for absolute gains informs economic interactions.[2] Recent developments in international politics, however, are putting in question the continued relevance of the neo-neo synthesis in thinking about statecraft.  China’s growing economy, for instance, was long viewed through the lens of economic opportunity by American policymakers.  Today, in contrast, China’s economic rise is increasingly seen by Washington as a threat to (American) firms, workers, and consumers.[3] In a similar vein, narratives about weaponized interdependence – the practice of “leveraging global networks of informational and financial exchange for strategic advantage” – are becoming increasingly popular.[4] More fundamentally, policymakers and pundits have raised questions about the orthodoxies of “win-win globalization,” and the underlying assumption that increased economic interdependence promotes “peace and cooperation by increasing the cost of conflict between states.”[5]

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It starts, of course, with the wall.  From its earliest moments, the campaign of Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States was predicated on hardening the border between the United States and Mexico, and by extension, between the United States and Latin America—the border where, as Gloria Anzaldúa wrote more than three decades ago, “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”[1] Rubbing salt in those borderland wounds, Trump began his campaign with a call to seal the United States off from supposed horrors emerging from the south, rendering ‘drugs’ and ‘crime’ as external threats carried across the border by people themselves deemed ‘illegal.’

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In my 2017 essay I did not venture any predictions about how Donald Trump would behave as president, or the extent to which he would wish (or be able) to re-shape the character of U.S. foreign policy according to his own views.[1] Rather, I focused on the evident public appeal of his call to put “America First,” seeking to explain this and to assess the impact it might have on the character of U.S. foreign policy. I observed that the extensive scope of America’s security commitments went far beyond those needed to safeguard the nation’s core interests of physical security and economic wellbeing and that they were therefore intrinsically vulnerable to domestic criticism, especially whenever they became costly to uphold.  The commitments were the product of a broader conception of America’s vital interests as including also the existence of a stable world order in which its values as well as its interests would be respected. That the scale of America’s power brought with it a special responsibility for the maintenance of such a world order had become the orthodoxy governing U.S. foreign policy as a result of the two world wars and it had been solidified during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War had led to a questioning of the justification for these wide-ranging military commitments – by realist advocates of ‘restraint’ as well as by Trump – and, more recently, the lengthy and unsuccessful interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had created public and political resistance to involvement in further ‘foreign wars.’[2] This was the background of the apparent political appeal of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, which was likely to raise doubts abroad about the credibility of U.S. commitments, and thus weaken the country’s capacity to uphold its version of world order.

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Donald J. Trump is often viewed as an aberration, or at the very least as someone whose presidency signaled a decisive shift in U.S. politics.  A showman with little political experience, he was elected by a narrow margin on the back of “protest votes” by millions disillusioned by the established status quo.[1] Whilst some worry that he will set the stage for other celebrity policymakers, thereby degrading the office of the president, the greater danger is that politics will go on as per normal, but with ever greater legitimacy and space.[2] Politics as usual amounts to the reinforcement of a (post)colonial and capitalist structure, one which Cedric Robinson has so memorably and aptly termed “racial capitalism.”[3]

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