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.
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.” 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.
Donald J. Trump made no secret of his resentment toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 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. 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. 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.
…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.
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. 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.
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.” 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.”
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. 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.
I suppose it goes without saying that any account of Donald Trump’s presidency, whether concerned with foreign or domestic affairs, must now begin with the grim and brutal events of January 6th, 2021. The insurrection at the United States Capitol was clarifying. We can now see just what Trump stands for, in the last instance. His actions that day, or in the months preceding the assault, may or may not fit the legal definition of “incitement,” but they fall squarely in that moral region. Incitement, they reveal, was the motivating force at the heart of his entire campaign for semi-absolute rule. He stoked the fears of the disconnected and precarious, supercharging our fragmented media ecology of misinformation, ginning up a mob to install himself as what his most fervent supporters call “GEOTUS,” or God Emperor of the United States. Trumpism is, it turns out, what it always appeared to be. It is a corrupt cult of personality riding on a sea of lies. It is a long con expertly worked to pervert and subdue democracy by manipulating resentment and fear—and all to satisfy one man’s vanity.
“Israelis and Palestinians have both suffered greatly from their long-standing and seemingly interminable conflict,” begins Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People, the Trump administration’s 181-page policy document on the subject, informally called “The Deal of the Century.” To resolve the conflict, it identified and proposed to solve two problems: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and that between Israel and the Muslim world. The latter solution manifested itself in the so-called “Abraham Accords”: bilateral economic, cultural, and trade agreements establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, that were signed in 2020. Not by coincidence, Bahrain hosted a “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in June 2019 at which Gulf states and President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner discussed pooling investment for Palestinian economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the latter two of which host large refugee camps. Six months later, in January 2020, Peace to Prosperity was published, offering what it called a “realistic two-state solution,” meaning that Palestinian self-government was limited by the “Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River.” Although referring to a “Palestinian state,” the document acknowledged that it would lack “certain sovereign powers.” In the place of actual sovereignty, it proposed a three-pronged “Trump Economic Plan.”