Trump’s America: The End Of Exceptionalism

For all their differences, the new President and his predecessor are both committed to the same project: the US retreat from global leadership 

Alexander Woolfson

The paroxysms of hysteria surrounding each of Donald Trump’s presidential acts obscure a more important observation. Although neither man would appreciate the comparison, the paradox of Trump is that the key to understanding both his anti-establishment grass-roots appeal and his worldview lies with Barack Obama. The more troubling aspects of Trump’s foreign policy are the points of continuity with Obama and their shared disdain for 70 years of Pax Americana.

This is not to understate the differences between the two men, but, at a fundamental level, Trump is pursuing the next step in Obama’s retrenchment of American exceptionalism. Obama’s ambivalence about the uniqueness of America’s place in the world had dire foreign policy consequences. Despite this, Obama realised that he had to fashion his foreign policy within the rhetorical confines of American exceptionalism, even if his convictions fell far short. Trump has taken Obama’s ambivalence and turned it to outright opposition. In that sense Trump is first and foremost a problem, not only for the Republican party, but also for Atlanticists — who include both the present author and the Editor of Standpoint.

Despite Trump’s obvious positioning as the “anti-Obama”, without Obama there could be no Trump. “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.” The same narcissistic bombast that we expect from Trump was actually Obama’s self-assessment in 2008, as he burnished his anti-establishment, populist credentials. It is easy to forget that both Obama’s and Trump’s successes were based on their position as political outliers, pitching themselves against Washington consensus politics in the form of their own parties and in the form of Hillary Clinton. “The conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don’t make practical sense,” Obama proclaimed in 2007, adding: “I’m not running for president to conform to Washington’s conventional thinking — I’m running to challenge it.”

“We shall be as a city upon a hill,” proclaimed John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. “The eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop expressed what has come to be known as American exceptionalism, the belief that America is a different type of state. Other democracies tend to be defined by ethnicity, nationality, or religion; the United States embodies a set of principles about human liberty and exists in part to champion these values. Although it has been used to support a wide range of different foreign policy stances, belief in exceptionalism has animated American politics since the foundation of the republic. That sense of uniqueness has been enshrined as the pursuit, not just of self-interest but of democracy and liberty around the world. While the idea of American exceptionalism was always viewed as universally transformative, it was only in the 20th century that Americans changed how they saw their role, moving from passive beacon of inspiration towards a globalist foreign policy.

The Second World War and the subsequent threat of Communism persuaded Americans that their security depended on assuming world leadership, justified by a material commitment to liberty. This bipartisan approach to grand strategy equated US security with a stable international system. For a country long hostile to permanent alliances, the decision to join international institutions, such as Nato, was a remarkable conceptual leap. In the traditional game of great power politics, alliances were mainly superficial alignments that shifted. Nato changed that. It was kept alive through the maintenance of common values directed but held together by the US.

The major split in US foreign policy for the following 70 years, according to the commentator Walter Russell Mead, was between Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. The former emphasised international stability through a financial and security architecture that would lead to global economic revival. Wilsonians also supported the creation of a global liberal order, but they conceived of it in terms of values rather than economics: peace through the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. There were of course serious disputes between these factions, but they took place within a common commitment to the project of global order. Above all, they shared a common sense of American exceptionalism.

The project begun by Obama and continued by Trump was to break with this internationalist orthodoxy. The 2016 presidential race turned these aspects of Obama’s presidency into a goal common to the far-Left and the alt-Right. Hillary Clinton became emblematic of the elite liberal cosmopolitanism that blue-collar Americans felt had betrayed their interests, and the consensus values of both parties were defeated. Obama and Trump shared a similar narrative, diagnosing a malaise at the heart of their country and placing domestic economic regeneration at the core of their agenda. Although now largely forgotten, Obama’s solution was reflected in a campaign pledge to renegotiate Nafta unilaterally, a position that he reversed in office.

Obama and Trump belong to two older schools of thought on America’s place in the world. Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian. In broad terms Jeffersonians, following the example of Thomas Jefferson, believe that the US should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”. Both Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz tried this platform during the Republican presidential primaries. Donald Trump picked up on a different current in American politics — populist nationalism as pioneered by a later President, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians the US is not defined by an Enlightenment intellectual project with a universal mission. The main preoccupation is domestic. If they see America as exceptional, it is because of the commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. National security should be concerned with securing American physical and economic well-being and to interfering as little as possible abroad. The Jacksonian tradition is almost apolitical in conventional terms. However, some events do trigger intense political engagement by Jacksonians. One is war and the other is the perception of domestic attack, or rather oppression, by internal enemies, whether elites or immigrants. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians is quasi-isolationism unless moved to action through significant provocation. More importantly, both deny that American exceptionalism means that America possesses a “special mission” in the world.

It was this impulse that made Obama unusual. He embodied a mix of Jefferson and Wilson, preferring to reduce US overseas commitments while promoting democratic values where possible — an impossible contradiction. While he did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalist platform, once he was elected it became clear that anti-exceptionalism clearly shaped his “leading from behind” stance. The world’s challenges, as he put it, “can’t be met by any one leader or any one nation”.

Obama, in 2009, observed: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He was deeply critical of “free riders” relying on America to provide their security. His target was the Nato and Asian allies who failed to meet their defence spending commitments. His critique was justified, but it did call into question the strength of the alliance.

The reality of Trump’s electoral victory is that it happened because, for a large section of America, Obama failed to deliver his campaign promise of “change we can believe in” at home. Overseas, he leaves his successor a series of foreign policy disasters, change that was not needed. Senior Republicans and Democrats seemed united during the election in the belief that Obama left behind a much harder set of foreign policy issues than he inherited. Indeed, the range of threats is unusual, mixing state- and non-state-based actors in almost every region of the world and peculiarly linked across regions.

There is always danger in rushing to judgment, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have been marked by a degree of chaos uncharacteristic for a new administration. What most commentators have missed is that although this chaotic upending of political norms and challenges to the US constitutional order is a function of Trump’s personality, it is also a deliberate style of government. Under Trump, the Republican domination of government conceals an uneasy tension between the anti-establishment forces of the Trump coalition and more traditional conservatism, which has expressed itself in the bizarre incongruity of policy statements by Trump and the actions of his political appointees. So Trump’s suggestion that torture might be allowed back onto the battlefield has quietly been dropped. Neil Gorsuch, a staunch Republican, has been nominated to the Supreme Court, even while there is a serious risk of a constitutional crisis as Trump faces off against Republican judges opposed to his travel ban. How should we interpret this tension? Is Trump really a fairly standard conservative figure, trying to court the far-Right for electoral purposes, or does he represent a more extreme form of anti-establishment, personality-based politics?

Trump’s views do not easily map onto the foreign policy ideas of recent generations. When Trump uses phrases such as “America first” or “make America great again” he uses a seemingly familiar vocabulary, while actually drawing on ideas not used in American politics for almost 70 years. The core of Trumpism is more coherently articulated by Stephen Bannon, one of the few genuine ideologues in the administration. In his words: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” For Bannon, “the movement” isn’t just about electing one man, but a worldwide revolt of different nationalist groups opposing a globalist elite. “This whole movement has a global aspect to it,” he noted. “People want more control of their country. And they are very proud of their countries. They want borders. They want sovereignty. It’s not just a thing that is happening in any one geographic space.” In the place of exceptionalism, the emerging “alt-Right” favors a nationalism that sees America as a blood and soil country like any other.

As Bannon sees it, Trump’s election is part of a wider upheaval, the collapse of the divide between Left and Right. In its place has emerged a challenge to liberal technocracy from nationalist populism. Much of Bannon’s worldview has been divined from a speech he gave to a Vatican conference in 2014, in which he cited the Italian Traditionalist philosopher Julius Evola, whose critique of progress and equality inspired Italian fascists. There is a real question about the extent to which Bannon agrees with Evola’s Traditionalism. Certainly its electoral appeal was not lost on him.

Bannon is playing a dangerous ideological game. It is Vladimir Putin, not Donald Trump, who leads the way for those who oppose liberal democracy, liberty and materialism. Autocracies have always feared contagion and the presence of liberal democracies on their borders presents an existential threat for countries such as Russia. By undermining the US-led system of political, economic and military alliances, Trump is removing the constraints on the two major challengers to the democratic world order, China and Russia. America is in danger of becoming a cheerleader for global revisionist nationalism. The administration’s relationship with Russia continues to undermine its credibility. The National Security Council has been thrown into disarray by the shock resignation of Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor, after allegations that he had misreported his dealings with the Russian government. The White House press office has tried to spin this as a story about Flynn lying to his superiors. The reality may well be different. Flynn’s departure marks the start rather than the end of questions about the administration’s relationship with Putin, in particular what Trump did and didn’t know, or instruct Flynn to do, in the vital period immediately before he took the oath of office. The answer may or may not cost Trump his presidency but it certainly weakens America’s role as leader of the free world.

Trump’s anti-exceptionalism will exacerbate global instability, because Trump’s nationalism is inherently zero-sum and conflictual. He has said that he objects to the use of the term American exceptionalism because it is “insulting the world”. His candidacy was based on the assumption of US weakness: “We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again,” he declared. “We’re like a Third World country.” In other words the US was once great, but exceptionalism diverted the US because it meant supporting values, rather than seizing more wealth and power than others. Thus Trump’s criticism of the Iraq war was that the US did not seize Iraqi oil during the campaign.

In so far as Trump has expressed a grand strategy, three issues dominate his thinking. The first is radical Islam. His administration has adopted a notably less nuanced approach than either George W. Bush’s or Obama’s. For Trump it represents a civilisational threat that must be “eradicated” from the face of the earth, invoking a clash of civilisations. His conception draws no real distinction between Sunni jihadists such as IS, Shias or other Islamic sects, and includes Shia Iran, which often finds itself at odds with radical Sunni jihadists.

Second, Trump has elevated trade deals and trade practices of other countries to the level of a national security priority. This was at the heart of his election campaign. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Nafta have destroyed American manufacturing for Trump, who labelled such free trade agreements the “rape of our country”. The primary focus of his invective has been China; indeed Trump has stated that “we already have a trade war” with China. He posits economic and military dominance over the US as Beijing’s goal. A range of economic and military appointees have echoed the president, also expressing warnings about China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

Third, Trump claims that illegal immigration has cost American jobs, lowered wages and put unsustainable strains on the cost of living. He has raised this, too, as a national security issue, linking immigration to crime and terrorism. The latest targeted refugee and legal immigration ban was justified by Trump’s assertion that Muslim refugees were a “Trojan horse of radical Islam in the United States”.

In keeping with the idea of “America first” has been a focus on homeland security. The proposed US-Mexico wall, threatened deportation of illegal immigrants and the suspension of legal immigration from several Muslim countries are likely to be the first steps in a promised programme of measures. Equally, the first stages of protectionism have been put in motion — withdrawing the US from the TPP, pledging to renegotiate Nafta. Trump has threatened tariffs against China and “consequences” for US companies that move jobs overseas.

One of Trump’s key campaign promises was to make deals with any actors who appear to share American interests, regardless of whether they share or act in accordance with traditional US values. The obvious example is Russia. In Syria Putin has prolonged fighting to ensure Russia’s place at the negotiating table, restoring her prestige. As Putin sees it, by defeating Islamic terrorism together Russia and America would effectively repeat Yalta, forging a new world order, with Eurasia as a 19th-century-style Russian sphere of influence. It remains unclear what Trump might be willing to concede and whether his transactionalism is a precursor to an effective division of the world. Certainly, it remains unclear how a trade war with China would foster their co-operation in dealing with North Korea.

This line of fuzzy thinking has also been applied to US allies. Trump has taken Obama’s critique further, suggesting that allies should “pay up” or be cut loose. This is important because it reduces allies to being no more strategically important than other states, with a strictly conditional relationship. Trump expressed this most aggressively in his inaugural address:“[The US has] subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.” Again, this represents an inversion of previous foreign policy logic, suggesting that America’s alliances have weakened her.

With the possible exception of Nato, where he has softened his tone in response to pleas from Theresa May, Trump has expressed disdain for multilateral institutions such as the European Union. It would not be necessary for Trump to take any formal action to wreck Nato. If he merely repeats, as president, the suggestion that the United States might not defend states in Central and Eastern Europe that are threatened by Russia, it will send them scrambling to make other arrangements, including their own deals with Moscow.

Trump promises to bolster American military preponderance in conventional and nuclear forces. His stated purpose, in keeping with the Jacksonian tradition, has been deterrence rather than military adventurism or bolstering US alliances. He is an outspoken critic of regime change. He wants a strong military to eradicate terrorism and then to ensure isolation. In other words, the faults of the Obama doctrine have not registered with Trump. The notion that American exceptionalism and US leadership are intertwined has been abandoned. Most troubling is the abandonment of the sense that US leadership is as much to do with the defence of values as with raw power.

The most worrying aspect of Trump’s worldview is that he  believes America gets a poor deal from the liberal international order. Trump’s logic falls apart in supporting the international order’s disintegration. This is where analogies between Brexit and Trump are mistaken. There is at least a plausible case for arguing that Europe did impinge on British sovereignty, but the strongest criticism of the international order, at least from the Left, has always been that it was created in America’s image and to her benefit. Most presidents have seen the investment in international alliances and institutions as modest and certainly worthwhile to prevent the emergence of major wars.

Even if this refashioning of world order is ignored, the internal logic of Trump’s worldview is difficult to reconcile with any coherent foreign policy. It is hard to imagine a bargain that would allow Trump to harmonise his policies towards Russia and Iran with the desire to defeat IS. If Trump co-operates with Russia in Syria without preconditions, the US will effectively be complicit in propping up Assad, and in the process fuelling jihadism. Backing Russia and Assad also requires at least a tacit alignment with Iran and by implication with Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shia militias. This would only strengthen Iran’s regional ambitions.

Embracing Putin, diminishing Nato and the EU, and antagonising European leaders will only divide America and its most important allies. The transatlantic alliance has become the main body through which the US tackles most problems. Putin has been actively attempting to undermine Atlanticist security arrangements and interfering in European politics. American retrenchment will not only embolden him but also incentivise some European countries to push for the lifting of sanctions against Moscow. Both Putin and Europe are carefully monitoring the dependability of the US to honour its defence commitments. Although none of these individual issues might worry Trump, the loosening of international ties will weaken America’s hand. Trump currently has little desire to act unilaterally or to negotiate with Russia from a position of isolated weakness.

So far these contradictions have created a significant disconnect between provocative rhetoric and implementation. The areas where Trump has remained true to his campaign promises have mainly been domestic, staking out new territory on trade and immigration. The ripples have affected relations with Mexico and large swathes of the Muslim world. Equally, ties with allies such as Australia have suffered from Trump’s abrasive transactional style. Still, the early days of the new administration’s foreign policy look strikingly similar to Obama’s.

There is little doubt that Trump and Bannon are aware of the power of provocation and controversy. It is hard to understand policies such as the recent travel ban except through the prism of Bannon’s ideology. This was a domestic political manoeuvre rather than a national security priority and was not requested by any government agency. It was implemented in a rush at the start of a weekend and has already started to implode because of its legal and bureaucratic contradictions. It was never designed to be a durable measure. It seems more likely that its purpose was to create a political firestorm — liberal outrage exacerbating the divide with core Trump voters. In reality it has had a disastrous effect on Trump’s approval ratings. More importantly the media furore overshadowed the appointment of Bannon as a permanent member of the National Security Council — the first time a political adviser has assumed such a formal role.

In foreign policy such rhetoric has potentially lethal consequences. Already one flashpoint has emerged over Iran’s ballistic missile tests. The administration’s rhetoric means that, intended or otherwise, it has imposed a red line on Iran. The danger is that when, rather than if, Iran conducts further missile tests, Trump will be forced to respond. The worry is that the administration lacks the toolkit, short of military action, to back up its warnings.

The precursor to this was Obama’s infamous assertion of “red lines” in Syria. The mismatch there between rhetoric and action seriously undermined American power. Trump is repeating the mistake in his mishandling of strategy in Asia. His bellicose campaign rhetoric, suggesting he would abandon America’s longstanding “One China” policy, was compounded by a phone call with the Taiwanese president in December. Trump’s sudden policy reversal back to the “One China” policy weeks later will be interpreted by Beijing as a sign of weakness. The gap between what Trump says and what he does is dangerous because it significantly increases the chance of spectacular misjudgment by a great power. If Beijing misreads US willingness to defend Japan or Taiwan or Russia misreads US willingness to honour its commitment to Nato, the result could be war.

As this article goes to press, the Trump-Russia situation has erupted into full scale chaos. Flynn’s resignation appears to have exacerbated Trump’s position rather than drawn a line under it. It seems likely that there was repeated contact between the Trump team and Russian intelligence officials. It is hard to imagine that Trump did not know about this himself. Allegations of him lying are starting to surface, he is actively seeking to divert attention from the story. There are significant echoes of Watergate. Defence Secretary Mattis’s comments to Nato mark a serious strategic change, suggesting that America’s engagement with Nato is now conditional and no longer normative — this really is the end of the post-war security order. It is of course linked to the Administration’s relationship with Russia. His comments come at exactly the moment that Russia’s new, secretly deployed cruise missile significantly increases the military threat to Nato members. The missile violates a 1987 treaty on intermediate range missiles. Putin is testing Trump’s resolve with a masterful mix of strategic threat and political exploitation.

Trump is the first US president who seems to see the destruction of the norms of international instutions as in America’s interest. A fundamental division is emerging between Europe and Washington about how the world should be organised. So far, change has yet to be made permanent, as shown by the arrival in the Baltic states of US troops and armour. But the dangers of Trump’s approach are already apparent. This is far removed from Reagan and Thatcher’s global defence of indivisible values. The danger is that “America first” will destroy US credibility as the leader of the free world. Both Beijing and Moscow are readying themselves in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to fill the power vacuum. Trump’s vision for “making America great again” will make America less exceptional and more like any other country. America and international stability will pay the price. That, surely, is language Donald Trump understands.

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