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.” 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.’
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. 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.’ 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.
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. 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.” 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. 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.
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.