Jerry Johnson and Debra Erikson on the Pros and Cons of Trump’s Foreign Policy
Below are contrasting views of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy by Jerry Johnson and Debra Erickson.
“America First and The First Freedom: President Trump’s Foreign Policy”
Approaching two years in the Oval Office, a clear pattern has emerged in President Donald Trump’s administration. It joins the best principles of America First and America’s First Freedom—the freedom to believe and to live one’s faith as codified in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Indeed, it is because the president has put such emphasis on projecting American strength worldwide that he has been able to deliver wins on religious freedom that have been highlights of the Trump presidency.
Christians seek to ground their views about good public policy on principles found in the Holy Scriptures. Yet one need not share those theological and spiritual commitments to find great wisdom in the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the purpose and role of government found in chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans.
Writing to Christians in the first century—and, it’s worth noting, those living under a pagan, totalitarian dictatorship—Paul nevertheless makes clear that God has expectations for government. In fact, one could argue that government is God’s idea. The importance of the nation-state and God’s will for the nations are both found throughout the Bible.
In Romans, Paul teaches that Christians must be good citizens by rendering submission to the governing authorities. But he also teaches that government rulers are “instituted by God.” They are deemed to be “ministers.” And, one of the chief purposes of government, according to Paul, is to punish those who do wrong: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (Rom. 13:4, CSB).
There can be no doubt what Paul has in mind. As “God’s servant,” the government wields the sword to bring “wrath” on the wrongdoer. God’s design is that government at its best will protect its citizens. For American government officials, that commitment is seen in their oath of office in which they swear to defend our Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Many criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for invoking this passage during the debate about immigration, but I find Paul’s teaching here to be persuasive—and I’m glad the Trump administration does, too.
Consider Trump’s buildup of the American military. Think about the White House’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. Remember the “fire and fury” talk on North Korea, then a summit, a tentative agreement, and ongoing diplomacy with that repressive state. Likewise, there was tough trade talk on NAFTA, followed by renegotiated “new and improved” trade deals with Canada and Mexico. How about the bold move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, despite dire warnings about its potential harm to the Middle East? While maintaining personal relations with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, President Trump has played hardball with Russia and China on policy. He has expelled Russian diplomats and flexed US military muscle once again in Eastern Europe. The president has sent the Navy to challenge China’s claim to international waters and imposed tariffs until the communist government agrees to reciprocal trade agreements. As the foundation of American First foreign policy, President Trump has revitalized American geopolitical power and projected that strength throughout the world.
An “America First” foreign policy keeps Americans safe. But it also provides leverage for the President to advance America’s first freedom—religious liberty. That the Trump administration has done so is demonstrably clear from several religious liberty wins, with none being more obvious than the freedom of Pastor Andrew Brunson.
Brunson, a North Carolina native, had suffered for his faith in prison and then house arrest in Turkey for two years. The pastor, who had lived in Turkey for decades, was arrested on dubious charges and it soon became clear that he was being persecuted and treated as a pawn by America’s NATO ally. While I have no doubt that previous administrations would have worked to resolve this untenable situation through strategic back channels and summit sidebar conversations, it is telling to see how the Trump administration acted. President Trump and his cabinet directly and emphatically engaged Turkey on behalf of Andrew Brunson. They let it be known that incarcerating this US citizen for his faith was unacceptable—an attack against one of us for our faith is an attack against all of us and our first freedom. President Trump even deployed economy-crippling sanctions to finally convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to effect Brunson’s release.
President Trump does not just project tough love on core freedoms to allies. He also ensures those nations that have long positioned themselves as America’s adversaries know that we mean what we say we believe. It is no accident that a precursor to the historic Trump-Kim summit in June 2018 was the release of three American Christians who had been long been detained by North Korea, one of the most dangerous places in the world for people of faith. It is also no small thing that Trump, against the advice of some realpolitik voices, purposefully raised religious persecution in his one-on-one conversation with the Kim Jong-un.
Perhaps the most powerful statement of the Trump administration’s commitment to religious freedom as a cornerstone for its foreign policy was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s work to organize the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. With 80 high-level foreign delegations in attendance, Pompeo and US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback delivered a message to those present and those watching from afar: America’s leadership really believes that religious liberty is a source of strength and stability for societies. Our leaders made the case that the flourishing of freedom is a win-win globally. It’s in all our interest, not just as an ideal but as a foundation for security and economic wellbeing.
The Trump administration has rightly used its “bully pulpit” to send a powerful message within our nation and to governments abroad that America’s first freedom is vital. It is an indispensable element of a principled and successful America First foreign policy. Indeed, this emphasis is needed now more than ever as affronts to freedom and human dignity grow more severe in many places around the globe. While no administration is perfect in its application of principles, I believe President Trump is off to a great start on the world stage. I pray for continued foreign policy success, both for the sake of the United States of America and for the rest of the world.
Jerry A. Johnson, PhD, is president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters
“Trump’s Foreign Policy: Realistic? Perhaps. Christian? Definitely Not”
One of the difficulties in evaluating Trump’s foreign policy is in determining the proper referent of that term: what does one mean when one speaks of Trump’s foreign policy? I see at least three—perhaps four—options.
First, one has Trump’s public pronouncements, which include his tweets, stump-style rallies, and formal speeches, the latter often at odds with the former. Second, one has his personal actions, including his weird behavior in meetings with foreign leaders. Third, one has the policies and actions of his administration, including on immigration, foreign aid, trade, military intervention, and diplomatic relations, some of which represent a clear break with his predecessors, others of which do not. Fourth, there is the argument that Trump’s policies are not his own, but rather standard Republican Party boilerplate, the work of various staffers (nefarious or benign), or cribbed from his friends at Fox News, such that there is no such thing as “Trump’s foreign policy.”
Alongside these options is the perspective that Trump’s rhetoric is one thing, but his policy is another, and it is the policy, not the rhetoric, that we ought to judge.
There is, in other words, a coherence issue.
For the purposes of argument, I will simply take all of it, whatever the origin, as “Trump’s foreign policy.” Inasmuch as he occupies the office of president, everything the current administration does receives authorization from him.
In the blog post that kicked off this discussion, Joshua Mitchell argues that Trump’s transactionalism is a more Christian alternative to both Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s approaches to foreign policy, because it is non-perfectionistic and non-moralistic. Rebeccah Heinrichs makes a similar argument in her piece: Trump is reorienting the country’s foreign policy in a better and more realistic direction.
But if Trump is not a progressivist, is it accurate to say that his foreign policy is therefore more Christian than that of his predecessors? To make his case, Mitchell appeals to Augustine’s magisterial account of political life in City of God, in which the City of Man, comprised of beings in revolt against God, is characterized by pride and a lust for domination. In contrast, the Heavenly City, now on pilgrimage toward its eternal home, is comprised of those united in love for God and neighbor.
The hallmark of Christian action, then, is that it is rooted and established in love. As is regularly argued in the pages of Providence, this love is not to be confused with sentimentalism or pacifism; rather, while being realistic about human sinfulness and the proximate nature of all political goods, it requires that all actions be motivated by caritas, or true other-regard.
So the key question to ask is, what does Donald Trump love?
To this, the answers are clear: he loves winners, power, strongmen, authoritarianism, bullies, law enforcement, and guns. He loves money and the trappings of wealth, and the more of it, the better. He loves the people who “love” him. But most of all, he loves himself. This man loves himself so much that he pretended to be his own publicist. His shamelessness about his long record of shameful behavior is very likely a result of overweening pride: there is never any reason to apologize for his actions because he can never be wrong.
His instincts incline to cruelty and self-preservation—as with his penchant for name-calling and ridicule of his political opponents and those he sees as “weak” or “losers”—and it seems that these same impulses guide his foreign policy as well, as with the internment of migrant children as a deterrent to prospective immigrants and his willingness to overlook human rights abuses if the price is right, as in the case of Saudi Arabia. In foreign policy more broadly, Trumps sees only a contest of power; he finds no place for caritas.
His foreign policy is realistic in that it is not utopian or clouded by optimism or moralism, but this comes not from any particular virtue: it cannot be moralistic simply because it is not clear that he has any moral aspirations at all. And because Trump does not acknowledge the reality of a moral universe, he cannot be a realist, either, for he does not see the world as it truly is.
So call Trump’s foreign policy welcome, disruptive, nationalist, overdue, or just plain bad. But don’t call it Christian.
Debra Erickson holds a PhD in religious ethics from the University of Chicago. She is co-editor of the forthcoming volume In Search of the Ethical Polity: Critical Essays on the Work of Jean Bethke Elshtain.
Photo Credit: Marine One, carrying President Donald J. Trump, approaches for a landing on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 7, 2018, following President Trump’s trip to Kansas City, Mo. Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.