As the Trump administration’s second year in office rolls onward, what is the state of the transatlantic alliance? Writing for H-Diplo last year, I argued that Trump’s first year in office saw the emergence of a “Trumpian NATO policy.” In brief, this policy encompassed significant continuity with the substance of prior U.S. policy towards NATO, coupled with highly conditional U.S. rhetorical backing for the transatlantic relationship. As Trump—in a break from his campaign rhetoric—emphasized through mid-2017, NATO provided value to the United States, even as he suggested the United States might exit the alliance should its allies not agree to U.S. demands in intra-alliance discussions.
Donald Trump’s potential to be a disruptive force in both national and international politics was fully in evidence during the 2016 election campaign and has been more than realized since his inauguration. The extent of the eventual disruption that will mark his legacy will depend on a combination of intended and unintended consequences of his actions. The way he stirs the international pot may lead other states to look at problems with fresh eyes and consider possibilities that they might otherwise have dismissed.
As I noted the last time I took to this platform to express my views on the meaning of President Donald J. Trump for Canada’s relationship with the United States, there were at least a few reasons for optimism, amid the general sense of gloom and doom that descended upon Canadians in the immediate aftermath of the November 2016 election. Chief among those reasons was my expectation that, just as earlier Canadian forebodings about Ronald Reagan’s meaning for Canada and its relationship with its great neighbour to the south would turn out to be wildly misplaced in the years following the November 1980 American election, so too might the most recent bout of national neuralgia disappear, once Canadians got to know more about the new president, and grew, if not to like him more, then at least to dislike him a bit less.
I was intrigued by Rose McDermott’s piece on “The Nature of Narcissism”. As a narrative historian of international relations, I appreciated her call for analysis of the “influence of individual-level differences on international outcomes.” Central to narrative history is the reconstruction and analysis of the actions and interactions of individuals, as well as people’s goals, motivations, feelings, and experiences.
On 8 March 2018, National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong of the Republic of Korea (ROK) met with President Donald J. Trump at the White House to brief him on his recent talks with Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in Pyongyang. Trump learned that Kim had promised not to stage any further nuclear tests and take steps toward denuclearization. Chung emerged from the meeting to read a statement outside the West Wing announcing that Trump had accepted Kim’s proposal for the two leaders to meet in person. This news shocked people around the world because it constituted a sudden and dramatic reversal in a U.S.-DPRK relationship of intense mutual hostility. In December 2017, under U.S. leadership, the United Nations imposed the last of a series of crippling economic sanctions on North Korea after it launched a missile the previous month that Kim Jong Un claimed could reach any target in the continental United States. By then, Trump had threatened military destruction of the DPRK. On 8 August 2017, at his golf club in New Jersey, he warned that if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States, it would “be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” A month later at the United Nations, Trump repeated his threat. If the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” he declared. Mocking the DPRK’s leader, Trump then remarked that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.” A few days later, Kim Jong Un publicly read an official statement in which he called Trump “a frightened dog” and a “gangster fond of playing with fire.” He added that “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” using an arcane term for a mentally impaired elderly person.
In his January 2017 introductory essay to the America and the World roundtable, “President Trump and IR Theory,” Robert Jervis wrote, “…a Trump foreign policy that followed his campaign statements would be hard to square with Realism, although it would be difficult to say what alternative theory, if any, it vindicated.” We now have a lot more evidence about the extent to which Trump has defied numerous expectations regarding the power of external constraints to enforce consistency in policy across administrations. He has pulled out of the Paris climate accords; left the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade (TPP) agreement; pulled out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action designed to delay or prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation (JCPOA); and now seems more intent on saving Chinese jobs at China’s ZTE Corporation than American jobs in the coal belt. Although he maintains a core of unfailing support among his base, he has defied the policy prescriptions of establishment republicans as well as populists in many arenas from trade and immigration policy to tax policy, respectively. Even more uniquely, he has consistently fought against his own bureaucracy, particularly in the realm of criminal justice and intelligence, attacking both communities with consistent fury on Twitter as though he himself were not head of these agencies.
In 1965, four years after leaving the White House, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower published the second volume of his presidential memoirs, which covered the years 1956-1961. In it he recounted how his administration responded to the shock of the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Eisenhower stressed in particular how pleased he was with his designation of James Killian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the nation’s first presidential science advisor:
Cyber-threats seem to be everywhere these days. In the past two weeks alone, we have learned that Russia has hacked into critical infrastructure sectors upon which citizens depend for daily survival, including nuclear, water, and aviation; that Iran has stolen massive amounts of data and intellectual property from professors around the world (such activities have previously been attributed primarily to China); and that the self-professed lone hacker who claimed to have provided stolen Democratic National Committee e-mails to Wikileaks, was actually working for the Russian military intelligence agency to meddle in electoral politics. Finally, after months of concern about Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns, new revelations about how big tech companies like Facebook furthered these efforts, have amplified profound questions about the future of representative governance, national sovereignty, and self-determination.
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.