Trump Might Be a Traditional President After All
Many expected the insurgent presidency of Donald Trump to be accompanied by a revolutionary foreign policy that broke with the record of American internationalism since 1945. On the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, Trump promised an “America First” doctrine that distanced Washington from its traditional allies, treated trade as a weapon of statecraft, and stepped back from a global stewardship role.
But the world looks different from the Oval Office, and governance imposes compelling imperatives on the commander-in-chief of a superpower. Early tests on China, North Korea, Russia, and Syria suggest that a president who relishes unpredictability may yet revert to some traditional tenets of American foreign policy and regain strategic initiative — after years in which his predecessor relinquished it to others.
Most presidents learn on the job and course-correct with experience. The dovish Jimmy Carter took office at the height of détente, only to intensify the contest against Soviet power after Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan. The hawkish Ronald Reagan pursued an expansive military buildup to roll back the Soviet empire, but entered into historic negotiations with the Soviet Union’s leaders. Bill Clinton condemned the “butchers of Beijing,” only to embrace a strategic partnership with China that allies worried was a tad too cozy. George W. Bush decried nation-building abroad, only to undertake the most ambitious effort to do just that in the Middle East. Barack Obama promised American labor unions he would not pursue any new trade agreements — only to become a late champion of the most far-reaching U.S. trade initiatives in a generation: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
American presidents adapt to reality because American national interests endure. They include preventing any hostile power from dominating Asia, Europe, or the energy resources of the Middle East; sustaining an open international economic and political order, not subverted by spheres of influence that exclude the United States; protecting free access to the global commons, especially the maritime sea lanes that carry 90 percent of global trade; nurturing alliances that magnify American power and influence; and promoting democracy and human rights, because the ultimate source of global security is a world in which power is bounded by law and pluralistic institutions.