As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump broke not only from the Republican Party but also from the bipartisan consensus on the direction of recent U.S. foreign policy. Calling the Iraq war a terrible mistake and lamenting America’s nation building expeditions, Trump evinced little interest in maintaining the traditional form of American leadership of the liberal international order. He threatened to pull the United States out of NATO, complained that the United States was being taken advantage of by its trading partners, and argued that immigration was a terrible threat. Instead, Trump’s “America First” vision called for a reassertion of American nationalism on the economic front as well as in foreign affairs.
Since Trump took office, it has become clear that “America First” was more campaign slogan than coherent vision of American grand strategy and foreign policy. As president Trump has steered a course that has maintained some of the worst aspects of previous foreign policy – namely the pursuit of primacy and frequent military intervention – while managing to make a new set of mistakes all his own.
This book provides an assessment of Trump’s America First doctrine, its performance to date, and its implications for the future.
Since World War II the United States has maintained an active foreign policy agenda, deeply engaged in both the economic and military domains. Many observers over the past few years, however, have begun to voice doubts about public support for the critical pillars of American internationalism. Some have argued that the American public has lost its appetite for military intervention after more than 15 years at war in the greater Middle East. Others have suggested that Donald Trump’s election revealed weakening support for free trade and for the global alliance system the United States built after World War II.
Many observers have worried, in particular, about whether younger Americans will be willing to take up the mantle of global leadership. This question matters a good deal in light of the fact that the Millennial Generation, those born between 1981 and 1996, is now the largest generation of Americans. Like the Baby Boomers before them, Millennials have already had an outsized impact on American culture. As they age and begin to take leadership positions in business, government, and across society, their views – not those of their parents and grandparents – will be decisive.
In order to understand where foreign policy attitudes are headed, we employ a generational perspective to analyze a wide range of survey data collected by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs since 1974. The findings reveal that generations share many opinions about international threats, foreign policy goals, and the best approaches to engaging the world. Yet, each generation from the Silent Generation onward entered adulthood somewhat less supportive of expansive American internationalism, with more recent generations expressing lower support for militarized approaches to achieve foreign policy goals.
Do arms sales cause war? Or do wars cause arms sales? Critics of arms sales often argue that selling weapons abroad fuels conflict. And indeed, one can point to one or more sides using American weapons in many recent conflicts including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Skeptics argue, on the other hand, that weapons don’t start the fire and that conflicts would arise whether or arms exporters like the United States sell weapons abroad.
The debate has important implications for foreign policy.
In the past two years, Congress has tried (and failed) twice to halt American arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to that country’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war. This level of concern is historically unusual. Arms sales rarely spur much debate in Washington, where they are viewed as a critical tool of American foreign policy. The traditional refrain holds that arms sales promise leverage over recipient countries, help the United States support allies and manage regional balances of power, and generate economic benefits to boot. With some exceptions, few have challenged the wisdom of American arms sales practices.
In a recent study for the Cato Institute, however, we argue that the government’s approach to arms sales is misguided.
On Wednesday June 13 the Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault to seize Hodeidah, the site of Yemen’s main port. The port, currently held by Houthi fighters, is the primary channel through which humanitarian aid reaches millions of at-risk Yemenis, who have suffered from four long years of civil war.
The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die.
The coalition had sought direct military assistance from the United States, which has provided weapons, intelligence, and logistical support throughout the war. The Trump administration declined, however, and encouraged the coalition to give the United Nations time for diplomacy. This remains the right approach. As tragic as the situation in Yemen is today, continued American support for military intervention is the wrong answer.
Although President Trump may lack a coherent strategic vision for international affairs, his general disinterest in the rest of the world and his strong feelings about “getting a good deal” have led him to propose, on repeated occasions, the withdrawal of American troops from abroad.
The puzzling question is that if Trump’s feelings on this issue are so strong, why has he repeatedly deferred to his advisers over Afghanistan, South Korea, and Syria? In each case Trump wanted to bring U.S. troops home and in each case his advisers talked him out of it.
I’m excited to announce the publication of U.S. Grand Strategy in the 21st Century: The Case for Restraint. The edited volume is an effort to assemble a more complete “brief” of the grand strategy of restraint, a vision for U.S. foreign policy that has been gaining steam over the past decade but remains under-appreciated and poorly understood by many.
This book challenges the dominant strategic culture and makes the case for restraint in US grand strategy in the 21st century.
Grand strategy, meaning a state’s theory about how it can achieve national security for itself, is elusive. That is particularly true in the United States, where the division of federal power and the lack of direct security threats limit consensus about how to manage danger. This book seeks to spur more vigorous debate on US grand strategy. To do so, the first half of the volume assembles the most recent academic critiques of primacy, the dominant strategic perspective in the United States today. The contributors challenge the notion that US national security requires a massive military, huge defense spending, and frequent military intervention around the world. The second half of the volume makes the positive case for a more restrained foreign policy by excavating the historical roots of restraint in the United States and illustrating how restraint might work in practice in the Middle East and elsewhere. The volume concludes with assessments of the political viability of foreign policy restraint in the United States today.
Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign marked a sharp departure from the fundamental tenets of liberal internationalism that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Trump’s tirades against free trade, NATO allies, immigrants (legal and otherwise), and his general disinterest in engaging with the world unless there was money in it for the United States horrified the foreign policy establishment of both parties.
Would Trump’s presidency usher in rising support for nativist and protectionist policies and calls to turn inward, away from the international arena?
A wide array of poll data from Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests the answer is no. A large majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy and his America First policies are among the most unpopular elements of his foreign policy.
We Washingtonians rightly get criticized for being hyper focused on politics. While D.C. natives gossip about the ups and downs of the powerful elite, most Americans are worrying about their marriages and mortgages. The disjuncture is even greater when it comes to foreign policy, an area in which public interest and knowledge are particularly limited. As many scholars have pointed out, to some degree this dynamic is the result of “rational ignorance” on the part of the public. Given the many other priorities citizens have in their private lives, the benefits of following policy debates closely is quite limited so long as people are generally confident that more knowledgeable people are paying attention.
Taken too far, however, public apathy toward foreign affairs could become a problem for a democratic system…