Donald Trump’s Christian Foreign Policy
While history is the ultimate judge of a president’s policies, penultimate praise and timely criticism attend every leader. Many presidents who are deemed by their contemporaries to be failures, upon reflection, are rendered successful by successive generations. Conversely, some presidents are lauded in their day only to end up despised or forgotten in the days ahead.
Mario Cuomo, the late governor of New York, once remarked that politicians “campaign in poetry and they govern in prose.” While poetry is difficult to assess and is often in the eye of the beholder, prose quickly forms patterns and a body of work which can stand scrutiny. As we approach the two-year mark and the midpoint in Donald J. Trump’s first term as president, we at Providence wish to examine the emerging trends within his foreign policy.
Whether history will determine this president’s governing prose to be prudent or problematic is unknown, but until that verdict can be rendered, we offer these essays to give perspective.
Other articles in this series include:
What does a properly Christian foreign policy look like? From Augustine’s City of God (AD 426) onward, there have been disagreements, often substantial. Leaving Augustine behind for a moment and focusing on own day, what should we make of President Donald Trump, the man currently driving US foreign policy? Is he Christian at all? What would count to make him so? Growing up in New York City, Trump’s pastor was Presbyterian Norman Vincent Peale, whose 1952 blockbuster book, The Power of Positive Thinking, stood in marked contrast to anything Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Søren Kierkegaard, or Karl Barth ever wrote. In Peale’s world, there is error but not sin; and because there is no sin, there is no need for forgiveness, either divine or mortal. So, too, in President Trump’s world today. Can there be a Christian if there is no sin?
Is Pride What Animates Us, or Love?
A properly Christian foreign policy, Augustine reminds us, begins with internal vigilance. War is “stern necessity,” he writes. Pride makes war into something more; it turns our entanglements with foreigners into the “lust for domination.”
Pride is not the only Christian problem. So, too, for lack of a better word, is moralism―the superimposition of a merely mortal schema upon the created world whose providential meaning man cannot wholly grasp. Pride arises from the brokenness of man. Moralism arises because while made in the image of God, man presumes to know what God himself wants to accomplish. The foreign policy supplication during the Obama administration was no less a species of moralism than was the democratic triumphalism during the George W. Bush administration. Both presidents presupposed that man can know God’s providential plan and help it along.
If a foreign policy animated by pride leads to the lust for dominion, and one animated by moralism misses the mark of God’s providential plan, what might a properly Christian foreign policy look like? Augustine is also helpful here. In City of God, Book XIX, he provides an account of a plural world of nations, each with its own laws and customs.
When Christ returns (at the “harvest” famously depicted in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matt. 13:24-30), the world of plural nations will come to an end. Until that time, no cosmopolitan world order, constructed by man, can prevail. Man’s task is to live in God’s plural world, guided by the promise of the world’s redemption and unification. Man must wait in hope and in faith for the delivery of that promise.
The “Globalist” Experiment
The “globalist” experiment of the past generation has misread Christian hope and faith. That experiment has not sought to live with the ineradicable tension between dwelling in the nations that are our inheritance and longing for the unification promised at the end of time. Rather, it has sought to resolve the tension by repudiating the nation altogether. The Augustinian view was that we must live within, and defend, our nations—but also that we know our nations are, finally, not enough. We must aspire toward a higher coordination between nations, but with the somber knowledge that such higher coordination will be fragile and fleeting—until God intervenes at the end of time. The much talked about “arc of history” does not conspire to bring about “global norms” with which we can rest contentedly, and which provide the moral self-satisfaction we need to roundly dismiss those who doubt them.
Collectively, we cannot fully know the “arc of history.” That means not only that the nation is fragile, but also that coordination between nations—NATO, multilateral trade agreements, the UN—is doubly so. That is why nations must always be involved in the double-task of wondering if such coordination is in their interests and in making every effort to fortify them if they are. Let us aim for more, but let us do so from the firm grounding of the plural nations within which we find ourselves. That is the insight that globalism obscured; that is the insight we must now recover.
The debate about President Trump’s character is interminable not least because of the paradox first elaborated in the Hebrew Bible; that good men are capable of bad acts and bad men can be used to do good things. Let us leave this matter aside, and ask instead which is more Christian: the experiment with globalism that seems now to have faltered, or the somber return to nations that seeks, modestly yet earnestly, to fortify transnational alliances where they are possible, but reject them where they are not.
I do not doubt that this approach—President Trump’s approach—is frightening to those who sincerely believe they know what God’s arc of history entails politically. President Trump does not have that moral confidence. Absent moral confidence, his “transactionalism” is an attempt to figure out, often in very undiplomatic ways, which transnational alliances are substantive and durable, and which are not. Hence, his “disruptive” words about NATO, NAFTA, the UN, etc. Say what you will about his words, what he is doing is returning us to where we always have been: living in a world of competitive nations, which can and should aim for cooperation where possible, but which should not be deluded that man can bring about the cosmopolitan kingdom that “globalism” sought to establish.
Joshua Mitchell is a professor of government at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age.
Photo Credit: President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk with Col. Casey D. Eaton, Eighty-Ninth Airlift Wing commander, and his wife Lisa Eaton at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland on May 10, 2018 as they prepare to greet three Americans who were freed from North Korea on May 9, 2018. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston.