What made Truman unique among US presidents

Understanding Trumpism: The New American President's Foreign Policy

The article asks about the Trump administration's foreign policy priorities. He comes to the conclusion that the new US president has no strategic guiding vision, apart from the vague conviction that the liberal world order is of no use to the United States. Rather, at the heart of Trumpism is an effort to win the support of the president's political base, which is dissatisfied with the direction the country has headed. This primarily requires a message of strict nationalism, anti-elitism and criticism of globalization. That seems to be working.

This article looks at the foreign policy priorities of the Trump Administration. It arrives at the conclusion that the president does not have a grand strategic vision, aside from a vague conviction that the liberal world order is not benefiting the U.S. Instead, at the heart of Trumpism is an effort to mobilize and maintain the support of the president's political base, which is displeased with the direction of the country, around a message of staunch nationalism, anti-elitism, and anti-globalization. It appears to be working

1 Introduction

“America first” is the catchphrase Donald Trump himself uses to describe his foreign policy. It is reminiscent of the pre-Cold War creed of some conservative nationalists who appealed to the United States not to get drawn into the problems of Europe and East Asia and to focus on its national interests. In a way, "America first" is a fitting catchphrase for Trump's goals. He downplayed (if not consistently) the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and alliances with Japan and South Korea. He has also sharply criticized the liberal world order. In Trump's view, the network of security alliances, free trade agreements, and international organizations that the United States has built since the beginning of the Cold War era is good for other countries and members of the globalist elite, but bad for many Americans - especially American workers.

Overall, however, the historical parallels of “America first” are more misleading than illuminating. This has to do with the fact that, despite all the superficial similarities with the thirties and early forties, the framework conditions of Trump's term in office are completely different. The United States is not an emerging world power that could stay out of the conflicts of Eurasia due to its geographical isolation, as politicians could credibly (if not necessarily correctly) claim before World War II. Rather, they are a superpower that is in gradual decline in relation to rising powers like China or resurgent powers like Russia. Time and space have also shrunk dramatically, so problems and threats anywhere in the world can affect the United States in minutes or even instantly. Even the myth of Fortress America can no longer be maintained.

Cultural and economic resentments also function differently in the contemporary United States. While a large part of the population suffered massive prosperity losses during the Great Depression of the 1930s - unemployment reached 25 percent and remained in double digits for the entire duration of the crisis - these are more limited today. Certain regions and certain populations are far worse off economically today, and wages for most Americans have stagnated. On the other hand, many communities have benefited from globalization, and this has more popular support than many commentators often want to admit. Scientists disagree on how much this decline in prosperity contributed to the resurgence of blatant racism and aggressive nativism among culturally conservative whites, but this debate is in some ways irrelevant. The point is that many Americans are angry and firmly believe that politicians don't care. This offers unexpected opportunities for a new type of politician, and it represents a break with traditional statecraft.

Despite the almost unanimous condemnation by liberal intellectuals, Donald J. Trump's insanity in foreign policy has method. Unlike all US presidents since Harry Truman, he of course does not appear as the leader of the free world. But if you look closely enough, "America First" makes a kind of perverse sense, at least from Trump's perspective. To understand this, we need to look at three factors: the nature and origin of the President's worldview, the political context in which it emerged, and its primary goals for the years ahead. Only then can we begin to gauge the likely consequences of the President's policies.

2 The quirks and origins of Trump's statecraft

Given his incoherence and inconsistency in interviews and public statements, it seems reasonable to assume that Trump has no real convictions. But this is not entirely true. In fact, he has expressed a number of very specific concerns several times over the years.[1] At the center of his worldview is the conviction that the United States is doing badly in the liberal world order. The United States, he claims, has provided military protection to countries like Germany and Japan while these countries have large trade surpluses. The United States paid the bills for the security of other countries, while Berlin and Tokyo got rich. Worse still, all of this was done at the expense of the American worker who, adjusted for inflation, suffered dramatic wage losses if he was lucky, or whose job was relocated abroad if he was unlucky. Trump has promised to end this state of affairs by making agreements with allies and trading partners that would be more beneficial to America. If necessary, he would also impose punitive tariffs and even seize strategic resources such as oil fields.

This aspect of “America first” earned Trump the derision of experts. Mercantilism is an outdated concept, they claim, and if the United States embraced it it would destabilize the world economy. Many nations would suffer significant prosperity losses, including the United States in the long run. While this analysis is most likely accurate, it misses, to a certain extent, the essence. Even if the president understood the likely consequences of his vision - which he presumably does not - he will not change his mind. That's because Trump sees no connection between the interests of the United States and the survival of the liberal world order.

Instead of the conservative or liberal internationalism that characterized the foreign policy of all its predecessors after World War II, nationalism is therefore the overarching theme that connects the various aspects of Trump's worldview. But it's not a principled, conservative nationalism of a personality like Senator Robert Taft. Rather, it is an emotional, reactive, nostalgic nationalism. His campaign slogan was "Make America Great Again".

Some have drawn parallels between Trump and Andrew Jackson, the 19th century president who forcibly displaced Native Americans, portrayed himself as the pioneer of the common (white) man, and fought with the establishment on issues such as the Second Bank of the United States .[2] While Trumpism clearly exhibits some Jacksonian traits - including its disdain for elites, aggressive patriotism, and appeal to white townspeople and rural dwellers - it differs from the Jacksonian worldview in key ways.

Most importantly, Trumpism has been specifically formulated as a rejection of globalization and internationalism - neither of which were a concern in Jackson's day - and evokes a mythical past where life was better and easier for white workers. The only way to bring prosperity back to the working class, Trump has insisted time and again, is not to enter into new trade deals, to stand up to trading partners who allegedly have taken advantage of the United States, such as China and Mexico, and to existing deals like renegotiate or terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The reference to the Jacksonian tradition does not provide any relevant clue about this aspect of Trumpism, and the same could be said about conservative nationalism. Far more illuminating in this regard are the teachings of another conservative worldview: paleoconservatism. While there is no consensus on the exact contours of this school of thought, most scholars would agree that it is based on belief in traditional societal values, rejection of a federal power center, a paranoid fear of foreign influence, and an aggressive, if non-interventionist, fear Variety of nationalism is connected. Perhaps the best-known paleoconservative is Pat Buchanan, a former Richard Nixon speechwriter who ran for the presidency in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that he adopted the slogan “America first” too.[3]

This means that Trump's political beliefs are not unique. They draw on a particular intellectual tradition, albeit one that has so far had only limited influence on national politics. This begs a question: why has Trump - who, aside from his focus on trade issues, has held a variety of political positions over the years - embraced a number of ideas that have not historically resulted in electoral success? To understand this, we need to look at how the political landscape has changed in recent years and how Trump capitalized on that change.

3 The Political Context: Dwindling Support for the Liberal World Order

After the Second World War, elites in the two major political parties supported an internationalist foreign policy for decades. They believed it was in the interests of the United States to promote the liberal world order. The population, whose standard of living was steadily increasing, largely shared this belief. Those who challenged this popular belief, such as the John Birch Society, were branded extremists.

This has changed in recent years, as many have begun to question the bipartisan consensus for greater international engagement. For example, most Americans - and a clear majority of Republicans - believe that the global economy is damaging the United States. All in all, the Democrats are still supporters of an internationalist foreign policy. And even if overall support for security alliances is still relatively strong, the most enthusiastic supporters of Trump tend to reject foreign engagements and commitments within the framework of NATO, refugee or foreign aid.[4]

What are the reasons for this dramatic development? First of all, white workers are facing a multi-faceted crisis. One facet is its economic situation. White workers have been hardest hit by the profound structural change in the US economy in recent decades. The destruction of jobs in a number of traditional industries resulted in the decline and impoverishment of entire regions in the Midwest and Southeastern United States. But de-industrialization did not only have economic effects; it also led to growing pessimism about the future and falling life expectancy.[5]

This crisis set the stage for a profound change in American political culture, which took place on several levels. On the one hand, there is the flare-up of blatant racism and various forms of white nationalism. Second, the Republican Party has radicalized. Political scientists have concluded that political polarization has increased primarily because the Grand Old Party (GOP) has moved to the right.[6] Annoyed that party leaders appear to represent the interests of wealthy donors and large corporations only, conservative voters and activists are now distrusting Republican politicians and demanding radical changes, particularly in immigration and trade policies.

As a result, the GOP, which was once a center-right party, has become very conservative, with a number of consequences. One of them is increasingly extreme behavior. This also includes the threat of closing the state administration or provoking state bankruptcy in order to force political concessions from the Democrats. Another problem is the promotion of conspiracy theories. Almost 75 percent of Republican voters doubt that Barack Obama is a US citizen.[7]

Trump did not create these circumstances, but he is the first politician to skillfully exploit them for his own ends. In fact, despite his amateurism, his presidential campaign was specifically designed to capitalize on the radicalization of the GOP and the desire of conservative voters for an atypical politician with a different agenda. And even if Trump's rhetoric has become significantly more radical in 2016 compared to what he said a few years ago (for example, he told CNN in 2012 that he did not believe in deporting large numbers of illegal immigrants), this did not seem to bother the people who voted for him. They like his harsh language and tendency to abuse and the fact that he appears to have been intent on delivering on his campaign promises on immigration, trade and terrorism. As voter polls have shown, the vast majority of voters who prioritized these issues voted for Trump.[8]

Low approval ratings are currently a cause for concern for Trump. More important, however, are the data that suggest that his political base is satisfied with his performance.[9] Their continued enthusiasm for Trumpism, as well as the same level of support - enthusiastic or not - from the same Republicans who voted for him in the 2016 election could be enough to secure him a second term.

4 Trumpism: Foreign Policy as a Continuation of Domestic Policy

Trump's foreign policy is not based on a grand strategy - just the conviction that the liberal world order has brought little benefit to the United States. Rather, the central guiding principle of his policy is the need to win and maintain the support of his political base. For this reason, it should have come as no surprise that he appointed his closest advisor, white nationalist Steve Bannon, to the Main Committee of the National Security Council in January 2017 while serving as the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the United Downgraded chiefs of staff (a measure he has since reversed). In the final spurt of the election campaign, Bannon was responsible for putting the finishing touches to Trump's message about the globalist elite. As such, he is much more important for the president's political future than the man at the top of the secret services or the highest-ranking soldier.

Once we understand the specifics of Trumpism, we can begin to draw some conclusions about its likely actions over the next four (or eight) years. It is safe to assume that the predictions that Trump would "normalize" once he assumed the awe-inspiring responsibility of the presidency will not be correct. There are influential members of the Trump administration who want to steer him in the direction of a traditional foreign policy in the sense of conservative internationalism. But it is to be expected that Trump's instincts (which he believes are infallible) and his lack of discipline and intellectual openness will ultimately frustrate such efforts. The catastrophic outcome of his meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2017 made this clear when he was used to acting aggressively and uninformed.[10]

It can therefore be assumed that Trump will be primarily concerned with delivering on the promises of his radical campaign rhetoric, particularly in the areas of immigration, trade policy and counter-terrorism. This is because many of his particularly aggressive and / or disastrous policies and tendencies are the basis of the attraction he exerts on his political base. Indeed, he has initiated measures to build a wall on the border with Mexico. He is carefully examining the option to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico and China, and he has publicly pilloried companies that move jobs abroad; He has also banned nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries (although these decrees have been overridden by federal courts), and barely a week in office he approved an operation against an al-Qaeda base in Yemen. However, in April 2017 - which amazed many observers - he had a Syrian air force base attacked with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which had previously used chemical weapons against cities that are in rebel hands. This step did not mark a turning point in politics, it only showed that Trump is an aggressive nationalist and neither an isolationist nor a pacifist.

Although the commando has received widespread criticism, we can expect an increase in targeted anti-terrorism operations by special forces and air forces in the Middle East in the coming years. However, it is unlikely that large contingents of US troops will be deployed to the region (although Trump has occasionally said that this is a possibility) because the political costs would be substantial. It is noteworthy that Trump's version of "America first" when it comes to combat missions abroad is inherently contradictory. On the one hand, it is permeated with aggressive rhetoric about unfriendly nations and often implies the use of massive military force against threats. On the other hand, it is critical of the most recent interventions, such as the war in Iraq, which have become unpopular and have involved a massive deployment of ground troops.

The explanation for this contradiction lies in the nature of Trumpism. Militant rhetoric goes down well with his supporters. But the sons and daughters of the culturally conservative white workers who make up its base make up a high percentage of the troops sent overseas, and so they bore the brunt of the long deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is unclear how this contradiction will play out in the event of a military conflict, but the most likely scenario - because it would probably be politically most viable - is that there will be a lot of combative rhetoric and threatening gestures, and maybe air force operations again, but not a major one Use of ground troops.

This should also be the case with Iran. We are going to see a lot of aggressive rhetoric, but ultimately the president will very likely follow a course similar to that of the Obama administration. This also includes refraining from major military operations against the Islamic Republic. This has to do with the fact that despite the tough foreign policy stance allegedly taken by advisers like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Trump's campaign promise to "tear up" the nuclear deal, a prolonged military confrontation with Tehran would not solve any of the region's problems (and Mattis is against terminating the agreement). It would also force the government to divert a lot of time and energy from its domestic agenda.

Indeed, one of Trumpism's greatest strengths during the campaign - namely, that foreign policy challenges were formulated in ways that popularized the grassroots - is a heavy burden when it comes to practical policy. It is one thing to use populist phrases about the withdrawal from NATO and the humiliation of China in the election campaign; it is quite a different matter to implement this policy in a way that does not lead to disaster. While the US government will continue to press other NATO members to increase their defense spending and show less interest in multilateral action such as the intervention in Libya in 2011, more aggressive US demarcation from the Alliance is unlikely. While we must also expect a more confrontational relationship with China - especially on trade policy - it would be astonishing if the president took a course that led to war. In fact, he has already dropped his threat to no longer recognize the one-China policy.

Perhaps the most difficult to predict is how relations with Russia will develop. The President would no doubt like to bring about a rapprochement. If he succeeds in this, it could pave the way for cooperation in several fields, for example in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. However, improving relations with Moscow is hardly paying off domestically. Rather, it has already become a burden for him. It is one of the few issues on which some Republicans have expressed their willingness to put him in his place, and if Trump did indeed have improper relations with the Russian government - mind you, an allegation that has not yet been unequivocally proven - it could even jeopardize his presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that the president, after signaling during the election campaign that he would lift US sanctions and also do nothing to prevent Russia aggressively pursuing its interests in his immediate neighborhood, has now become more cautious in this regard.[11]

The frequent U-turns and controversies that have accompanied the positioning of the new US administration vis-à-vis Moscow, and other initial political challenges, are no accident. They are the product of a chaotic and highly politicized decision-making process on national security issues. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. There are several reasons for this. One is ideological: Trump and many of his closest advisers, including Steven Bannon, believe national security decision-making has been captured by the elite political culture it seeks to destroy. This leads to a distrust of traditional procedures and a tendency to politicize hitherto apolitical institutions such as the National Security Council.[12]

Ignorance and inexperience exacerbate the problem. When a newly elected president with little past foreign policy experience took office, he was assisted by a staff of advisors that included at least a few veteran government officials. But that was largely not the case for the Trump White House. Regarding his ignorance of world political affairs and his lack of willingness to learn - his national safety briefings have been drastically simplified and abbreviated[13] - came the fact that he had difficulty finding top advisors. Many Republican foreign policy experts did not support him and as a result were either blacklisted or refused to work in his government.[14]

5 conclusion

Global leaders are, and should be, concerned about the direction of US foreign policy during the Trump era. A dangerous mixture of belligerence, ignorance and impulsiveness have determined the actions of the president so far. His indifference to the state of the liberal world order - apart from trade policy, where he resolutely opposes it - casts doubt on future relations with allies in Europe and Asia. And given his worldview and the way he runs the national security apparatus, there is little reason to believe that this will change significantly in the foreseeable future. Of course, some members of the government, such as Secretary of Defense Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, are doing their best to reassure allies and repair the worst of the damage.

But they have limited influence, mainly because other members of the government often counteract their efforts. For example, before Pence's trip to Europe in February to express his support for transatlantic relations, Bannon told the German ambassador to the United States that he believed the European Union was doomed. Such counterproductive behavior should come as no surprise to us. Instead, we should factor it into our planning for the next few years. Inconsistency, the politicization of diplomacy, and a lack of respect for long-standing allies are, after all, natural by-products of Trumpism.


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Published online: 2017-6-12

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin / Boston