Everyone saw the photo of President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel glaring at one another during the G-7 summit in Quebec in June 2018.  Trump, seated, looked stubborn and impetuous; Merkel leaned forward across the table in stern disapproval.  The photo went viral after being tweeted out by the Chancellor’s press chief, Steffen Seibert – an indication that Merkel herself may have approved this framing.[1] Fifteen months earlier, the Chancellor’s staff had publicized more amicable photos of the Chancellor’s visit to Washington, but the gaping rift between the U.S. and Germany was becoming impossible to gloss over.[2] The exceedingly poor personal chemistry between Trump and Merkel was, of course, one major source of tension.  Even the President’s attempts at levity, such as when he famously tossed Starburst candies at the Chancellor, came across as sour and ill-tempered.[3] But a broader review of recent U.S.-German dust-ups suggests that the damage was compounded by the “swaggering” demeanor of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the brusque comportment of the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell.  In their own distinctive ways, all three men trampled on German sensibilities – and all of them put the U.S. on a course toward withdrawing from strategic assets in Germany, a profoundly destabilizing prospect for European security.[4]

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Washington’s foreign policy community had a love-hate relationship with President Donald Trump.  They hated many of his foreign policy ideas so much that hundreds of Republican former officials and foreign policy experts signed open letters arguing that “he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.”[1] Trump was indeed at odds with the D.C. establishment on many core foreign policy issues, from NATO funding to his proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many pinned their hopes on the notion that principled appointees like former general James Mattis – the so-called “adults in the room” – could constrain Trump’s worst foreign policy impulses.[2] The 2020 Biden presidential campaign even explicitly cast its foreign policy in terms of ‘restoration,’ that is to say, of fixing the wrongs done by Donald Trump.

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How has the Trump presidency affected the status of the United States as the leader of the current international order?  When Donald Trump assumed the presidency on January 20, 2017, few could have predicted what the next four years would mean for U.S. standing in the world.  What was almost certain was that Trump’s approach to foreign policy would be different from his predecessors and that he would likely not be guided by the same rules, norms, and priorities that had shaped U.S. foreign policy after the Second World War.  Four years later, we are in a position to take stock and think about the impact the Trump administration had on America’s role in the world and the challenges and opportunities it has revealed.  In one sense, Trump’s foreign policy did not represent the radical departure that many feared when he first took office.  While his rhetoric was mostly devoid of the outward commitment to liberal ideals that is characteristic of U.S. foreign policy discourse, there were no major wars, the U.S. did not wholly abandon its key allies, and the multilateral institutional order remains mostly intact.  Nevertheless, the change in style and tone of his foreign policy represented a perhaps small, but not insignificant, change in U.S. foreign policy.  Trump openly chastised allies, curried favor with dictators, and withdrew from international agreements.  His brash, personalistic style eroded democratic norms at home and abroad.  In short, Trump’s diplomatic style and choices have affected the standing of the United States in the world.  Specifically, they worked to make America unrecognizable to the most important members of the international community for upholding American status, close allies and friends.  As a result, questions have arisen about the norms and values that underpin American identity and thus about the status of the United States as the leader of the international order going forward.

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Donald Trump’s final disgraceful weeks in office displayed him at his narcissistic worst, encouraging the storming of the Capitol by his supporters, and leaving a legacy of damaging claims about the electoral process that will take time to dispel.  Though the manner of his going was shocking it was not surprising.  Inflammatory rhetoric, extravagant promises, and disdain for convention, had all been present in his election campaign.  They were at the fore in his January 2017 inauguration address.  And so it continued.  In the essay I wrote in the summer of 2018 I noted Trump’s “embrace of nationalist impulses, his contempt for his political opponents and the rule of law, his incessant boastful, malevolent, and false statements, his lack of empathy and curiosity.”[1] There was no drift back to the center.  His strategy for a second term involved enthusing his supporters by continuing as before rather than reaching out to doubters.  It almost worked.

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Donald J. Trump made no secret of his resentment toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC).[1] As the Republican Party’s presidential nominee he tweeted hundreds of times about China’s unfair trading practices.  As president he railed against China as a currency manipulator, dubbed COVID-19 “the China virus” and labeled China an enemy of the United States.[2] But for all of Trump’s bluster – and the tariffs, sanctions, and export controls – it is misleading to paint Trump’s China policy as altogether deviant.  In truth, the slide toward greater antagonism was, and is, a widely anticipated development in a relationship that is recognized by elites on both sides as a strategic rivalry.[3] That rivalry has historical and structural roots, and is far bigger than any one president. Trump’s bombastic presidency consequently should not, and likely will not, reorient PRC elites’ fundamental views of the U.S.-China rivalry.

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…it is now impossible to read a great deal of writing on international relations published in the US, including new books like these, without noting the prevalence of a bland indifference toward—if not total neglect of—questions of race, social justice, and hierarchy.[1]

What are the legacies of President Donald Trump’s years for how we think about foreign policy and security?  Many might point to the “American first” frame the former president championed, which has increased attention to national security and American advantage.  Less obviously, though, the Trump presidency’s acceleration of polarization, racism, and dysfunction has generated greater scholarly awareness of the way that racism, sexism, and other tools for exclusion, which are designed to advantage some and dismiss others, have shaped many conceptions in the field.[2] This latter trend, which I focus on below, has generated attention to the interconnections between human security, international security, and national security that promises a more realistic analysis of the U.S. role in the world and better strategies for managing its various relations.

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In his video address before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020, President Donald Trump summed up his views on the COVID-19 pandemic: the world must hold China accountable for covering up the virulence of the virus; the United States had effectively mobilized its resources to meet the challenge; and the world’s leaders should follow the example of the United States by putting their own citizens first and rejecting the pursuit of “global ambitions.”[1] The president’s remarks, coming at a time when the virus was ravaging the world, and in particular the United States, were jarring but unsurprising. For several months, the president had blamed mounting U.S. deaths on collusion between China and the World Health Organization (WHO).  He had also announced that the United States, which provided approximately 15 percent of the WHO’s total funding, would withdraw its financial support and terminate its participation in the organization over the WHO’s failure to undertake a set of unspecified reforms.[2] And just prior to his UNGA appearance, the president confirmed that the United States would not participate in the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), an initiative sponsored by the UN and several international organizations to help vaccine manufacturers ensure equitable access to safe and effective vaccines for all countries.[3]

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International relations is not, as former president Donald Trump would like us to believe, purely transactional. States, particularly great powers, often do things that follow a political rather than an economic logic.  Great powers provide public goods for their allies, even if those allies sometimes free ride. They maintain a network of bases and military forces stationed in foreign countries, and offer allies and friendly states various trade deals.[1] President Trump’s business approach to international relations often overlooked or ignored many of the nuanced norms of international politics. This was particularly visible when it came to the arms trade, where Trump’s focus on the bottom line ignored the political consequences of arms sales, which are one of the many tools in the foreign policy repertoires of states, and are often used to express political alignments. For example, in 2019 the U.S. sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine to express support for Ukraine and against Russian aggression, a message which was sent and received even though the missiles were never intended to make it to the front lines.[2] Trump’s transactional approach ignored the political-signaling function of arms sales, which will have lasting effects on U.S. political relationships.  The Biden administration will need to quickly consider how best to adjust U.S. arms sales policies to align with its foreign policy goals and reassure allies of continued U.S. commitment.[3]

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In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a press release on the proposal to move the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from the list of endangered species to the list of threatened species.  Efforts to protect the woodpeckers’ habitat, primarily on easily controlled military bases, have been underway for more than 30 years, so there was nothing remarkable about the proposal or press release, except for the campaign ad at the end.[1]  Rather than just summarize the proposal and the Endangered Species Act, the release heaped praise on the Trump Administration, reporting that in its first 3.5 years it had delisted more species than the three previous administrations had in their first terms.  The release also emphasized that in proposing the down-listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “guidepost for the multi-year, public process was President Donald Trump’s overarching effort to reduce regulatory burden without sacrificing protections for the environment and wildlife.”[2]

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If one tries to imagine the future of U.S. foreign relations following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, two broadly opposed possibilities present themselves.  Trump’s single presidential term may have been an historical hiccup or parenthesis – “an aberrant moment in time,” as President Joseph Biden hopefully put it – following which there will be a resumption of a normal internationalism in which the U.S. returns to its seat at the head of the table, i.e., business as usual.  The second and more likely possibility – a more pessimistic scenario – is that the Trump administration sounded the opening bell of an extraordinarily challenging new era.  This eventuality presents rather different choices for American policymakers.  One option would be to continue down the nationalist path charted by Trump.  Another would be to create a turbocharged version of internationalism – a crisis internationalism, if you will – to address the formidable problems of globalization that lie in store.[1] Whether and how a crisis internationalism will be adopted will require a workable consensus to address the looming threats to globalization.  The need for energetic action is glaringly obvious to some people, but not everyone agrees.  The nationalist direction may be taken by default because, if nothing else, the Trump years made clear that gaining the approval of the American public for more vigorous internationalist policies will be extraordinarily difficult for policymakers to pull off.  It may in the end prove to be impossible.

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