Can America's foreign policy values survive trump?

The current geopolitical moment is a fascinating and consequential one for the question of whether a state’s foreign policy can truly be values-based. For the past 70 years, the United States of America has loudly proclaimed its commitment to upholding the liberal world order that it played a leading role in creating. It has claimed to do this by pursuing a foreign policy based on the values of democracy, free trade, collective security, and free and unfettered access to global commons (specifically in the maritime and cyber domains). America’s leaders have maintained a strikingly bipartisan public commitment to these ideals since World War II. And although America’s actions have not always lived up to these values – we have a checkered past of supporting anti-democratic regimes, for example – it is undeniable that the USA has expended tremendous amounts of blood and treasure in pursuit of these liberal ideals.

Diplomatically, America supported the establishment of the UN and NATO, and has provided the lion’s share of funds for the operation of each. From 2014-2016, the US provided $14.1B to the UN and other multilateral organizations per year, contributing far more than any other country in absolute terms.[1] The US spent 3.61% of its GDP on NATO in 2017, again, far more than any other alliance partner.[2] Economically, a trend towards more open trade has endured through partisan changes of power, with the WTO, NAFTA, and (until recently) the TPP all projects where America led the way to bring down trade barriers. Militarily, the United States has started two major wars (the Afghan one having now extended for 17 years) on the premise of replacing authoritarian regimes with democracies, stationed troops around the world to act as safeguards against rogue states, and used its navy to defend freedom of the seas globally. America’s leaders have freely admitted that the US stands to gain from the promotion of these values, but the country’s post-WWII foreign policy has always been premised on the belief that maintaining the liberal world order benefits the rest of the world as well.

In two short years, the administration of Donald Trump has upended these seventy-year-old commitments and trends. Trump has openly criticized virtually every aspect of the liberal world order that the USA has committed so much to upholding.  Diplomatically, he has conducted a volt-face, questioning the value of America’s commitments abroad and seeming to align America with authoritarian regimes. He has denigrated time-honored US alliances with NATO, Germany, South Korea, and Canada in favor of glowing compliments of dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, the leaders of countries who until recently were considered foes of the US by the entire bipartisan foreign policy establishment.

His economic rupture with America’s stated values is just as striking. The Trump administration seems to hold views on the operations of the global economy that have been out of the mainstream since at least a hundred years ago. He has thrown away the liberal consensus that free trade is ultimately good for all sides in favor of a neo-mercantilist worldview. Rather than working, as his predecessors have done, to bring down trade barriers, he has begun erecting them with abandon. He views trade deficits as money that America “owes” other countries, and has instituted tariffs to fix this alleged problem. Trade wars, universally regarded as damaging and only to be instituted in dire circumstances, are “good and easy to win” according to Trump.[3]

Although it is surely alarming to most of the international community, this striking reversal of American rhetoric on foreign policy values presents a fascinating test case for the concept of a values-driven foreign policy. There is no question that the rhetoric emanating from the top has changed. But will policy change along with it? So far, trade appears to be the only area where Trump’s new worldview has had any tangible impact on American policy. He has imposed a 10% tariff (scheduled to rise to 25%) on $250B worth of Chinese products, which is certainly a concrete action.[4] Yet even that may be temporary – Trump hasn’t actually scrapped any trade deals yet (in fact, he recently renegotiated and essentially renewed NAFTA under a different name), and Congress has quietly reduced tariffs on some Chinese items even while Trump raises others.[5] Militarily and diplomatically, US policy has by and large continued along the same track that it was following before Trump’s inauguration. Despite a stated intention to draw down American military commitments abroad, Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is not discernibly different from that of President Obama. Trump has actually increased US commitments in Syria, ordering a missile strike following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons – an action from which Obama refrained. And although he has made many headlines courting dictators and insulting allies, Trump has not yet substantially changed US diplomatic commitments or postures abroad. The only significant departure from his predecessor is his cancelation of the Iran nuclear deal, which Republicans always opposed in what is essentially a disagreement about what tactics would best preserve the American values-based order.

Of course, rhetoric does matter and the mere fact that Trump has publicly renounced so many long-held American values must count as evidence against the contention that America’s foreign policy really is values-driven. However, recent news stories, including an anonymous op-ed written by a senior administration official, have mooted the concept of a “two-track presidency”.[6] This view holds that while Trump himself hopes to change the direction of American policy, the American policy apparatus that he nominally controls is working to constrain his impulses and keep American actions abroad generally in line with our traditional values. The eventual policy outcomes are still to be determined – and that is what will make the next few years so interesting to scholars of international relations.

The American midterm elections this November will be crucial. If Democrats gain control of both chambers of Congress, they may be able to stall most of Trump’s policy agenda. However, due to the gradual erosion of Congressional authority in favor of the Executive in the foreign policy arena, Trump may still be able to steer American foreign policy farther from the values it once espoused. Thus, the Presidential elections in 2020 may be even more consequential for the question of whether a values-based foreign policy can endure. If Trump governs until 2024, he may be able to root out the resistance within his administration and enact his preferred foreign policies. In addition, he will have demonstrated electoral success that will likely steer the Republican party more irrevocably towards his worldview and produce more Presidential candidates that espouse it.

The eventual outcome of the next six years will also be instructive for those interested in the broader question of whether a state’s form of government affects the interaction between its values and foreign policy. If the US were an autocracy, Trump would have an easier time dictating foreign policy according to his exact whims. Functioning democracies have institutional inertia and bureaucratic checks that slow this process. The next six years will reveal just how strong these checks are in the world’s strongest nation. We are currently bearing witness to an experiment in the interaction of values and foreign policy on the grandest possible scale.


[1] John McArthur and Krista Rasmussen, “Who actually funds the UN and other multilaterals?” The Brookings Institution, January 9, 2018, available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/01/09/who-actually-funds-the-un-and-other-multilaterals/

[2] Ivana Kottasova, “How NATO is funded and who pays what,” CNN Money, March 20, 2017, available at https://money.cnn.com/2017/03/20/news/nato-funding-explained/index.html

[3] Thomas Franck, “Trump doubles down: ‘Trade wars are good, and easy to win’,” CNBC, March 2, 2018, available at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/02/trump-trade-wars-are-good-and-easy-to-win.html

[4] Jim Tankersley and Keith Bradsher, “Trump Hits China With Tariffs on $200 Billion in Goods, Escalating Trade War,” The New York Times, September 17, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/17/us/politics/trump-china-tariffs-trade.html

[5] Andy Sullivan, “U.S. Senate quietly votes to cut tariffs on hundreds of Chinese goods,” Reuters, July 27, 2018, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-congress-trade/u-s-senate-quietly-votes-to-cut-tariffs-on-hundreds-of-chinese-goods-idUSKBN1KG35R

[6] “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” The New York Times, September 5, 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

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