Understanding American Foreign Policy in the Era of Trump

It has been very interesting and enlightening to read comments about American foreign policy from my international LinkedIn connections and followers. A lot of head scratching going on. I value their comments because it is always enlightening to hear and consider comments that are so “foreign” (pardon the pun) to what we hear on a daily basis in the United States. These folks teach me a lot and I value their insights and perspectives.

As an American, all I can say is that I feel your pain! I have been studying, observing, and commenting on American foreign policy since the 1980’s and can identify with the frustration that many overseas observers experience when trying to figure out what the United States is up to. In many ways, no matter what the foreign policy establishment in this country may argue, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what the United States is doing in the foreign policy arena. I think we can all agree that the Trumpian approach to foreign policy is, to say the least, “unique.”

I think the problem lies in the perception of Mr. Trump as a “traditional” American president and that his actions are compared to other “traditional” American presidents in much the same way that his rogue 2016 campaign was compared to more traditional presidential campaigns. Mr. Trump and his approach to foreign policy does not conform to this description and to analyze his actions using this paradigm leads to the consternation that many feel. Throughout his entire life, Mr. Trump has lived by his own perception of the rules of the game, he does what he does and is what he is. This contrarianism is what drives his appeal and creates the loyalty of his base. This contrarianism is also what governs his approach to foreign policy.

Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy mirrors the “drain the swamp” approach he takes to American domestic policy. In this case, globalism and the post World War II international order is the “swamp” that Mr. Trump wants to drain. Mr. Trump believes that the United States has been taken advantage of by other countries, especially in the areas of mutual defense and international trade. He believes that the postwar alliance system and past international trade and finance agreements have put America at a disadvantage and that they have been used by other countries to detract from American exceptionalism and have weakened the United States, a perception of weakness that Mr. Trump abhors.

Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy is oriented toward, if not predicated upon, satisfying his electoral base, sometimes at the expense of overall national interests. Mr. Trump, in many ways, practices the politics of collateral damage. He has built his political base of support on those who consider themselves on the margins and unheard, particularly voters who see themselves as” collateral damage” in the transition of the American economy brought about by globalism, particularly the decline in manufacturing. “Make America Great Again” and “America First” are direct responses to his political base. They are cries to rally around Mr. Trump’s efforts to redress perceived wrongs and to reestablish American exceptionalism based on “traditional” American values and interests both at home and abroad.

Mr. Trump might also be the most transactional president in recent memory. American foreign policy has become the “art of the deal” with winners and losers, a zero sum game. In his mind, the perception must be that America must always be the winner. Yes, as President of the United States, Mr. Trump must act in what be believes to be the best interests of the United States. All leaders must do this. Where Mr. Trump takes it a step further is that he seems to believe that international politics cannot be governed by “win/win”, that American interests are best served by an “either/or” approach. We have seen this in his approach to mutual defense. Either pay your fair share, or we……………… . There never seems to be an appreciation of the greater strategic picture (Syria) or an appreciation of the implications of such binary decision making.

President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is unique and doesn’t follow many of the approaches that past American presidents have taken when dealing with other nations. It is oriented toward reestablishing a perhaps bygone era of American exceptionalism. One can argue about the methodology Mr. Trump uses to accomplish his goals, but the underlying philosophy is “rock steady” and is unlikely to change. History will judge whether this was the correct approach, but it is what it is. Let’s just hope that any damage done isn’t irreversible.

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