US foreign policy has its flaws. But it is less odd than it looks
America’ 45th president inspires confusion with his foreign policy. The former vice-president Dick Cheney responded to its characterisation as “Cheney-esque” (meaning, in a pundit’s words) “aggressive, unilateral and militant,” by complaining that it “looked a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”
Amid the fog of intellectual war, Colin Dueck offers in Age of Iron a calm, cogent and timely clarification. His lucid guide to the dynamics shaping modern US statecraft is doubly notable. As a leading foreign policy scholar and adviser to Republican presidential campaigns, the professor is a serious figure within the Beltway. Yet, in July 2016, he lamented that: “In all probability, Donald Trump’s foreign policy would be a disaster for the United States, for American allies overseas, and for the GOP by association.” Yet he now defends this “least philosophical or ideological of presidents”, as well within the misunderstood American mainstream. Although not primarily a defence of Trump, the author’s intellectual journey is as instructive as his monograph.
“Conservative nationalism,” Dueck argues, is the oldest US foreign relations tradition,
. . . a democratically oriented and civic form of patriotism: a love of a particular place, maintaining that the world is best governed by independent nation-states, and that only within the context of such states can a free citizenry experiment with constitutional forms of self-rule.
Neither fascistic, undemocratic, nor inherently opposed to “doing good” abroad, its priority is preserving US sovereignty and self-government. From Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush, conservative nationalism adapted to the overseas engagement that underpinned America’s rise to globalism, marginalising and muting its distinctive themes.
But 21st century diplomatic, economic and military frustrations have generated a nationalist resurgence, elevating Americans’ material interests over their ideals. Unwilling to surrender sovereignty to global governance institutions or indulge allied free-riding, the nationalist impulse relies on deep forces reminding Americans that a president’s primary responsibility “is to look out for the safety, freedom, and prosperity of American citizens, not to act as a kind of progressive transnational pontiff”. As such, it will outlast Trump. Wilsonian liberalism represents the historic exception, not the norm.
Whatever its historical claims, Age of Iron offers a corrective to intellectually lazy dismissals of Trump as “right-wing”. Trump is no isolationist, instead occupying an opaque ground between the non-interventionism of a Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky; and the reflexive hawkishness of the former National Security Adviser John Bolton or a Lindsay Graham (a Republican from South Carolina). Re-orienting rather than destroying the “liberal international order,” in rebalancing America’s commitments and redirecting the ship of state, the president’s policies disappoint not only those “realists” seeking a more comprehensive drawdown of US personnel, bases and activism abroad but also internationalists keen on a more forward-leaning role. The constellation of influences sustaining Trump—non-interventionism, hawkish or hard-line unilateralism, and conservative internationalism—require careful assessment.
Dueck deftly demonstrates how nationalism has long been the fulcrum of the Republican coalition, at times uniting with internationalists, at others gravitating towards unilateralists or non-interventionists. After 1945, nationalists paid much more than lip-service (figuratively and literally) to institutions such as the UN and Nato, to military interventions waged for national interests defined expansively rather than narrowly, and to extending alliances even when the risks and rewards were not well-aligned. Throughout there have been suspicions: of outsourcing sovereignty, constraining US autonomy, and fighting to the last American for allies unwilling or unable to contribute seriously to their own defence. Multilateralism, alliances and force projection, even during the Cold War, were means to ends, not ends in themselves.
Despite Trump’s egregious errors—such as the October withdrawal of US forces from Syria—resurgent nationalist sentiment means that foreign policy may help his 2020 re-election campaign. Few voters focus on international affairs. When they do, they care chiefly about direct threats to American lives. Trump can plausibly claim to have delivered what he promised: pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris Agreement, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, challenging China, tackling IS and reshaping the American imprint in the Middle East. Above all, he can highlight an achievement most Americans welcome: no new wars of choice. To paraphrase Obama in 2012: “Al-Baghdadi and Soleimani are dead; American sovereignty is alive.”
Moreover, even if Trump loses, anyone anticipating the return of the “internationalist” foreign policy they once lamented as “imperialist” should think again. Despite hyper-partisanship, a new consensus is arising by default, in which the US increasingly acts as a global power without global interests: more insular, protectionist and non-interventionist. The leading Democrats’ foreign policy platforms, such as they are, suggest that will continue. Censuring Trump for abandoning democratic idealism is unlikely to win votes in Michigan. Elizabeth Warren’s Trump-lite economic populism offers little comfort for free-traders in Europe or Asia. It might seem premature to cast Trump’s approach, in its essentials, as more blueprint than interlude. But, shorn of the melodrama, mismanagement and narcissism, Trumpism sans Trump may not just survive, but emerge more disciplined and effective.
Three themes merit fuller treatment. The Ukraine imbroglio is one of many gambits that suggest the real story is less “America First” than “Trump First”: electoral, familial, even financial gain skews the national interest. Second, Trumpism mires the country in a strategic limbo between projecting power and withdrawing from the world. Tensions from North Korea to Iran risk eroding US credibility. A serious national security crisis could collapse the entire edifice. Third, the administration rightly insists America faces fierce great-power competition. But it does not respond as it should, by restoring fiscal order at home and enhancing alliances abroad. A statesman leaves office with his country more wealthy, powerful and influential than when he entered. As Dueck predicted three years ago, that is unlikely to be Trump’s legacy.
The emphatic conclusion of post-Cold War US foreign policy is that although the optimal formula for global peace is democracy, open markets and liberalism, Washington cannot impose it. In its crude fashion, Trumpian statecraft rejects both an imperial America that remakes the world and a cosmopolitan America remade by the world. Such “vulgar realism” privileges deals over ideals, diminishing the strategic value of US support for democracy and human rights.
Yet it also heeds Henry Kissinger’s caution that American universalism established a destabilising, adversarial element in international politics by framing every non-democratic government as inherently illegitimate. Trumpism may yet emerge as an imperfect vessel by which conservative nationalism forges a more “normal” nation: an unexceptional superpower that eschews exporting the self-evident truths it still holds to be universal. In that respect, Trump is no Reagan Mark II. But he nonetheless offers something more than Obama 2.0.
Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism
By Colin Dueck
Oxford, 228pp, £19.99