In the wake of the Singapore Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, BBC reporter Anthony Zurcher claimed that international politics had suddenly been “turned upside down”. Trump, too, claims he is breaking with the past, while his critics castigate him for breaking faith with a traditional, US-led world order, eroding alliances and coddling adversaries.
These claims are hyperbolic. They reflect some of the worst hallmarks of the Trump era: a political climate of lurid spectacle and theatre, an unhealthy preoccupation with optics over hard material commitments, a neglect of the constraints on the presidency, and a shallow account of the past. Proper scrutiny of US foreign policy suggests something very different: that US grand strategy quietly persists.
An influential and cohesive class of foreign policy experts – described by former the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, as “the blob” – still dominates and defines discussion of US national security strategy. This prevents government from seriously reevaluating the fundamentals of US statecraft, and in turn makes it harder still to overhaul it. Thanks to this elite, Trump the unorthodox demagogue may be able to inflict damage and sow doubt, but he’ll ultimately find it hard to change the fundamentals.
The bottom line about this presidency so far is that even though candidate Trump threatened to govern as an “isolationist”, President Trump is doing no such thing. For all that he threatened to tear up alliances, wind up nation-building wars, and tolerate or even encourage nuclear proliferation, his administration is fundamentally doubling down on “primacy” – the idea that the US should secure a position of global dominance. And as a brief tour through theatres long classed as critical power centres by American governments reveals, the same old pattern is holding.
For all that Trump’s diplomatic approach to North Korea is bizarrely improvisational by his predecessors’ standards, the goal is entirely traditional: to reverse North Korea’s nuclearisation, both to keep a rogue regime acquiring a deliverable bomb and to keep latent US nuclear allies from losing faith in the US nuclear umbrella, and maintaining America’s freedom of action.
While the world watched the remarkably brief Singapore summit, the US strengthened its efforts to contain China’s bid for hegemony in Asia, warning of its ability to attack artificial islands in the South China Sea and threatening to sail warships through the Taiwan Strait.
Despite high-profile frictions at the G7, Trump has increased, not lowered, America’s hard commitments to NATO. Trump increased American deployments to NATO’s eastern flank, raised the budget of the European Reassurance Initiative by 40%, and approved sales of Patriot Missiles to Poland and Romania and lethal arms to Ukraine, to aid their efforts against Russian-leaning separatists.
His administration has not ended America’s opposition to Russian adventurism, but instead reinforced it; despite complaints about Trump’s antagonising with allies, Washington’s ties with Eastern European states are now tighter. Trump has strengthened, not diminished, America’s commitment to NATO’s war in Afghanistan. Trump has twice bombed Russia’s main Middle Eastern client, Syria, and he has appointed critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin to every major national security post.
As in NATO, so too in the Middle East. Trump strongly backs Saudi Arabia, a longtime US client state and bulwark of American dominance in the Gulf, and has strengthened US alignment with Israel. Despite railing against American entanglement in the Gulf when he ran for office, Trump has increased US troop and civilian personnel deployments to the region by 33%. While Trump’s decision to back out of the Iranian nuclear deal sparked intensive debate in the US foreign policy world, both sides of the debate desire continued US primacy in the Gulf, one preferring Iranian denuclearisation after severe economic sanctions, the other favouring a more general confrontation to curtail Iran’s geopolitical influence.
As for trade, Trump’s imposition of tariffs may be brusque and unwelcome, but it is not a departure from the postwar “order”. The US practiced protectionism in varying degrees, unapologetically, under Reagan, Bush and even Clinton; since the global financial crisis of 2008, the US has been what global law firm Gowling WLG called a “long-term and prolific proponent of protectionist policies”.
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Today, Trump’s personal international relations preferences as he expresses them remain largely consistent with his campaign rhetoric: a suspicion of alliance commitments, a transactional view of America’s alliances and trading relationships, and a sensitivity about the world exploiting the US goodwill. Yet so far, his administration has mostly maintained a traditional foreign policy in deeds, if not words.
Presidents cannot ultimately make foreign policy by diktat; for their own survival, they must delegate, and must maintain enough of a stable group of advisers. And these advisers all emerge from an environment principally hospitable towards traditionalism. The pool of experienced talent is mostly filled of believers in American primacy; even when Trump sacks hawkish primacists, he appoints even more hawkish ones.
In any case, lamentations for the passing of a rules-bound, free trading, democracy-upholding superpower are based on an ahistorical fantasy. Before Trump, US behaviour internationally was mixed: at times coercing allies, bargaining with tyrants and undermining democracies.
The upshot is that Trump has not altered the general architecture of America’s power position. Change is possible, but only through the combination of shocks severe enough to challenge the status quo, and only with a president willing to bear the costs of overhauling it. Until then, the fundamental principle of American primacy is here to stay. Trump has not deviated from America’s commitment to primacy. Rather, in brazen terms, he offers primacy without euphemism.