Trump’s Foreign Policy and the Sowing of Illiberal Disorder
| Trump's Foreign Policy: A Symposium
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:
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Providence published “A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy”, endorsed by 51 of this journal’s editors, contributors, and supporters, myself included. Drawing upon biblical principles and church doctrine, it illuminated the moral foundations – and obligations – of U.S. global leadership. The declaration counseled for the prudent use of American power to “cultivate the Garden” of international society and “encourage, grow and defend institutions of ordered liberty,” including free enterprise, self-governance, and mutual security. It warned against a “reactive, populist approach” which would have the United States “withdrawal from world leadership.” And it urged the next president to “encourage a culture of liberal order around the world.”
Since his victory in that election, President Trump’s foreign policy has fallen far short of this high moral standard. The culture he has encouraged abroad is neither liberal nor ordered. His reckless disregard for norms and institutions designed to promote peace, prosperity, and democracy has caused a constitutional crisis in the world order without peacetime precedent. It has stoked fears, burned allies, fueled adversaries, sparked arms races, ignited trade wars and doused democratic hopes to the detriment of American national security interests and values.
Several of the president’s international security, economic and diplomatic policies run counter to the spirit of Providence’s Christian declaration. He has eroded trust in NATO by calling into question America’s commitment to the alliance, abetting Russian incursions and emboldening European demagogues. He has summarily and unilaterally withdrawn from U.S. nuclear arms agreements with Iran and Russia, undercutting his own negotiations with North Korea and tempting others to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He has punished adversaries and allies alike with trade tariffs, stunting economic growth at home and abroad and undermining partnerships upon which our security depends. He has coddled autocrats and castigated democrats, abdicating American leadership of the free world and raising grave concerns about potential conflicts between his private interests and U.S. national interests.
But more damning from a Christian perspective than this litany of destabilizing, protectionist and anti-democratic policies is President Trump’s “America First” worldview. In his 2017 National Security Strategy, he defined this philosophy as a “balance of power that favors the American people” and that “prioritizes their security, their prosperity, and their interests.” As such, it is not an unreasonable approach; prioritizing one’s own national interests is not the “theological heresy” that some have argued. His worldview lacks a coherent conception of the common good, a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” as our framers urged, an appreciation for the interdependence of our nation’s security and others’, or a sense of responsibility to upholding a liberal world order. Instead, he envisions a self-correcting system of self-serving independent nations where competition trumps cooperation and American leadership means little more than asserting American sovereignty. “Sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world,” the strategy asserts.
President Trump expanded upon this salvific concept of sovereignty in his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this year. In a sweeping statement, discounting millennia of human history and last century’s tragic experience with extreme nationalism, he argued that “sovereign independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered.” “We must protect our sovereignty and cherished independence above all,” the president argued. “When we do, we will find new passion for peacemaking rising within us. We will find new spirit flourishing all around us, and making this a more beautiful world in which to live.”
Sovereignty is the subject and title of a trenchant book by Providence contributor and just war historian James Turner Johnson. In it, he draws a distinction between the contemporary concept of sovereignty – born of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and based on a “legalistic paradigm” prohibiting external interference in the internal affairs of territorially prescribed nation-states – and an ancient one, as defined by St. Augustine and other church fathers. The classic notion of sovereignty, Turner argues, parallels the development of just war doctrine and centers on the moral duties of leaders, or “princes” (souverai in the old French). As the “servant[s] of God” who do “not bear the sword in vain,” per Romans 13:4, temporal rulers are expected to pursue justice and uphold order, not just for their subjects, but for the international system as a whole. Sovereignty conveys rights and responsibilities; leaders who shirk the latter forfeit the former.
This classic, Christian concept of sovereignty informs Providence’s declaration. It confers upon powerful states “special stewardship responsibilities” for upholding a liberal world order.
“The United States would be irresponsible if [we] refused to put our power in the service of the common good,” the declaration professes. “We are unembarrassed about the pursuit of American security because upholding it is the first function of government. However, we believe much more than American security is at stake. All nations can and should join the collective effort to foster accountable governance, free entrepreneurship, and mutual security.”
A Christian foreign policy concedes the necessity of nation-states in a fallen and divided world and celebrates the diversity and creativity a mosaic international order can foster. But it does not genuflect at the altar of sovereignty. As the Czech Republic’s first president and poet Vaclav Havel once said, “human life, human freedom, and human dignity represent higher values than state sovereignty.” Amen.
A disruptive foreign policy, such as the Trump Administration’s, is not necessarily disordering, and may even be warranted, especially when the status quo is unstable or unjust. But to be justified morally, it must be creatively destructive, replacing the old order with a new one. In wielding his world-order wrecking ball, however, the president offers only uncertainty and unpredictability in its wake. The selfish sovereignty he champions does not represent a new order, but the negation of order. Despite asserting that his is a foreign policy of “principled realism,” he has all but abdicated U.S. leadership in defending the principle of sovereignty when under threat beyond our shores. For example, in response to Russia’s systematic attempts to undermine the territorial and electoral integrity of democracies along its borders – and even ours – the president has publicly and repeatedly equivocated. Bismarck famously complained that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Does President Trump believe the Baltics are worth the bones of a single American airman? Despite being stalwart NATO allies, Latvians, Lithuanian and Estonians, unfortunately, have reason to doubt.
President Trump’s foreign policy is still young, and could yet mature to cultivate a more constructive alternative to world order. He could yet seize the mantel – and meet the responsibilities – of global leadership. Such progress would require a reversal in thinking, however, one his Administration has shown no signs of considering. The president’s sudden decision this month to withdraw American troops from Syria only reinforces the view his is an exit strategy for U.S. global leadership, leaving chaos in its wake. After conquering Carthage, the Romans famously (if apocryphally) salted the soil under the ruined city to prevent life from ever taking root again. “Carthago delenda est.” President Trump’s foreign policies and philosophy appear destined to have a similar impact on the liberal international order. His plowshare is salted, sowing seeds of illiberal disorder that future generations will reap – and rue.
Matt Gobush is a contributing editor to Providence, and previously served on the staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and the U.S. Senate. He currently serves on the Standing Commission for World Mission of the Episcopal Church. Matt works in the private sector and lives in Virginia with his wife and five internationally adopted children.