What’s a Christian to Make of Trump’s Nationalism and 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:
Descending into the details of US foreign policy during the first two years of the Trump administration can prove enormously frustrating. On the one hand, the good men and women serving the US in the offices committed to constructing and executing US foreign policy continue doing the good work they do under any administration, abiding by the laws and customs of international relations.
On the other hand, the president’s rhetoric and behavior toward allies and foes can be as erratic and impulsive as his behavior toward staff, the media, and Twitter antagonists. He vacillates from utter disrespect and repugnant behavior toward old allies to fawning admiration for “strongmen” whose interests do not seem to align with ours. And yet, beneath the bluster and impulsiveness, there are some elements of great predictability, of the sorts upon which Christians can reflect. In particular, unlike the foreign policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, President Trump has adopted a pattern of disrupting and challenging historical allegiances and of suppressing America’s globalizing impulses at the level of trade and military intervention, in favor of national reassertion through domestic investment and foreign disengagement.
These two trends are related: each challenges the internationalist commitments of prior administrations, as Trump’s foreign policy orders around a robust US national posture with any allegiances entrenched in clear and unquestionable US strategic gains. “Winning,” as he likes to say, appears the goal of Trump’s foreign policy.
The first branch of Trump’s foreign policy, the disruption of historical allegiances, serves to awaken allies and others to the priority of US success in all such arrangements. The US will not, he declares to allies, carry more than its share of the burden of NATO defense. To counter Iran, Russia, and Syria, the US will not do more than Middle Eastern client states, including Saudi Arabia. Allies will pay their fair share, prior treaties and arrangements will be subjected to new scrutiny, and the US will explicitly reassert American interests as the first priority of any future US activity.
All of this serves the second branch: a complete overhaul of the liberal-internationalist presuppositions of US educational, policy, and governing elites. In the least dramatic reveal since Al Capone’s empty vault, Trump just announced, “You know what? I am a nationalist!” Neo-conservatives and liberal democrats will not receive that as news. The presuppositions that peace and prosperity are served best through economic globalization and democratic expansion are not shared by the Trump administration; national good comes first, and expansionist, liberalizing tendencies are suspect.
Trump’s policies, foreign and domestic, all converge around his conception of American greatness, a conception shared by tens of millions of Americans. His opposition to immigration is of a piece with the move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Each stems from his intuition about the power of nations in politics, and each serves (he believes) to strengthen the US and Israel as nations. One must admire Trump’s intuitive grasp of the appeal of this conception that many politicians and political counselors have for decades missed or chosen to ignore.
What’s a Christian to make of these trends? Evaluating these two trends is hard enough without doing so through the lens of historical Christian thinking on politics. I approach this evaluation from a roughly Augustinian perspective, recognizing the diversity of Christian approaches to politics. Let me make one point about all this, a point I make at much greater length in my book. Today we are witnessing the reemergence of nationalist thinking.
The most articulate defense of that trend is Yoram Hazony’s book, reviewed by me in an upcoming issue of Providence. Hazony opposes nationalism to imperialism in the same way as Trump (though Trump uses the term “globalism” to get at the same idea): one must choose between the nation (and the nation-state) or the liberal political order which Hazony and Trump appear to agree is by its nature imperialist. For Trump and Hazony (and others), the nationalist – imperialist dichotomy also aligns with conservative-liberal, progressive-traditional, and similar contemporary political dualities. There may be some fuzziness on the edges of these “types,” but the point remains: one either is or is not a nationalist conservative traditionalist. And Trump chooses nationalism.
But nationalism versus imperialism is a false choice. This can be shown in many ways, I believe: one can appeal to non-imperialistic, non-national historical political arrangements that peaceably allowed nations to coexist and maintain their cultures, languages, and some measure of self-governance. One could point to the way nationalism is a historical phenomenon, arising at a particular moment and place (more or less central Europe, late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), and thus not a fixed eternal type. But, from a theological perspective, the dichotomy Trump’s foreign policy presupposes excludes the Gospel “historicization” of national claims. The Christian perspective distilled into the just war ethic sees the Hebrew and Christian scriptures displaying God’s work in time as a reconciling work at the service of all humanity: this work does not eradicate human communities and so is not anti-nation, but reveals nations as incomplete and contingent arrangements of humans that could be and have been arranged in other ways.
No tribe, no nation, no state, and even no empire expresses something of ultimate theological significance. Sure, nations serve genuine human goods: they are the places in which families grow, loves and attachments are formed, persons develop in virtue and experience anxieties and sufferings and joys and forgiveness. But national communities, states, and empires serve as the legitimate and historically necessary grounds upon which humanity strives toward the inclusivity shared by membership in the common human family. They are not ends in themselves but contingent historical realities theologically subordinate to the creator of all humanity and his revealed and natural laws. Nations are the theaters in which the dramas of human lives at individual and social levels play out, but they’re always in flux, always open both to greater or lesser inclusivity. All individuals, tribes, and nations stand subject to and judged by the law given by the creator of that family.
All political power therefore already exists under a judgment rendered by God. The exercise of political power operates to imperfectly express that judgment in real situations. The justice expressed by states, in other words, must conform within the limits of the humanly possible to a law superseding any state. Justice binds states to its service. Because of human sinfulness, the temptation of any community of any size, of course, is to see only justice in its own interests and injustice in the interests of its opponents. Any community can prematurely foreclose on the expression of justice or right available at any moment, and claim its justice as both the best that can be done now, and the best that can be conceived. The truth in the nationalist impulse arises when it reminds us of the different manifestations of justice required by different circumstances, and counsels us that sin leads us to regard our preferences as universal truths. Much recent foreign policy against which the Trump administration inveighs was of that sort: seeking to express local preference as universal truth.
The system of nations is thus a good, and the pluralism of distinct political communities is itself a consequence of sin and human difference and a check against the evils associated with “empire.” But it would be an enormous error to take note of that temptation and deny that even the international sphere is governed by God, and that the relationships of tribes and states and even empires are judged by God’s law, which expresses not merely the goods of nations but the common dignity of all his sons and daughters.
The common humanity of all informed the disciples’ impulse to obey Christ’s instruction that they bring the good news to the world. The common humanity speaks of diverse and legitimate political arrangements of human beings above the nation in greater conformity to the reality of that universality. These political arrangements include international political institutions like the United Nations and international law. Sure, these can be criticized for many obvious failings. Neither of these is perfect, of course, but each exemplifies the necessary yearning of politics toward greater compliance with God’s law.
From the Christian perspective, the danger facing nationalism is the same as the danger facing imperialism. Either can regard itself as the final word on human political arrangement. In so doing, both the nationalist and imperialist would utter a false word about the nature of God’s rule in the world. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.” We are not meant to be indifferent to the suffering and injustice experienced by fellow creatures of God.
International laws and institutions are attempts to capture the other side of God’s rule, the rule beyond the nations that illuminates for us rough paths toward our assistance of those in need of protection, aid, and perhaps even inclusion in our community. Even when some relative peace in a nation is achieved, there remain the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. God’s law continues to judge us by our response to them.
Joseph E. Capizzi is Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He teaches in the areas of social and political theology, with special interests in issues in peace and war, citizenship, political authority, and Augustinian theology. His latest book is Politics, Justice, and War: Christian Governance and the Ethics of Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump particiaptes in a Memorial Day Ceremony on May 28, 2018. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.