Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait and American victory in the Gulf War. Many Americans remember Desert Storm as our “good war,” when a global superpower led a coalition of 34 countries to expel an invader from a small and defenseless state. It was an internationalist war, waged “for the rights and liberties of small nations,” as President Woodrow Wilson said of America’s entry into World War I, and in some ways it represented the apogee of what then-President George H.W. Bush called the new world order: a post-Cold War era of international cooperation and global stability underwritten by American military strength.
But the internationalist system is slowly coming apart, largely as a result of President Obama’s foreign policy. Although he professes, as most world leaders do, to be a liberal internationalist, President Obama has spent his time in office dismantling a post-Cold War system sustained by American hegemony. He has done this under the guise of correcting what he considers to be George W. Bush’s disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has enabled him to go about revising the post-Cold War international order using the language of liberal internationalism.
Although they would never admit it, Obama and Donald Trump agree that America should not guarantee a rules-based global international system. The difference between them is that Obama wants to pull back because he doubts American strength, but Trump wants to pull back because he thinks we’re so strong we don’t need an international system at all.
Trump’s Dangerous Isolationism
Also unlike Obama, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is honest about his disdain for the international system; he rejects it outright. As Thomas Wright noted recently in Politico, “Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II.” That’s what Trump means when he says, as he often does, that “America doesn’t win anymore,” that we get beat by China and Mexico on trade, we cut a terrible nuclear deal with Iran, we’re not winning against ISIS.
Under President Trump, he says, we’ll start winning again. He’ll “cut the head off ISIS and take their oil,” start a trade war with China, negotiate a great deal with Russia, and build a wall along the southern U.S. border. At the GOP debate last week, he even floated the idea of unilaterally deploying 30,000 troops to Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIS.
But there’s a reason you never hear Trump talk about multilateral action or international coalitions. He believes these things hamper the United States, that we “get beat” when we work with other countries.
It’s easy to scoff at this stuff. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he’s concerned about the GOP campaigns because when it comes to foreign policy, “the solutions being offered are so simplistic and so at odds with the way the world really works.” Trump’s views might be simplistic, but they represent a conscious rejection of the existing international order and at least a partial return to pre-WWII (or even nineteenth-century) American foreign policy, in which America pursues its national interests and leaves other powers more leeway to pursue theirs.
And it’s not just Trump. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have cast aspersions on internationalist foreign policy, arguing America shouldn’t engage in “nation-building” or go around toppling dictators. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, in contrast to Hillary Clinton, a staunch liberal internationalist, wants to pass more of the burden of fighting terrorism to other countries, like Russia, and although he doesn’t say so openly, he would likely reduce America’s military to something resembling a well-equipped home guard in order to pay for his expansive domestic welfare agenda.
The Bush Wars Shook American Confidence
That such views are moving toward the mainstream of American politics is only possible now because the Republican Party has not adjudicated the Bush years. No GOP candidate has admitted what Bush got wrong, affirmed what he got right, and laid out a vision for the future of American global leadership.
The reason the candidates haven’t done this is because there is little incentive to do so. Outsiders like Trump and Cruz (and Sanders) are appealing to a vague but widespread dissatisfaction among all voters with the state of American foreign policy. Many Americans are frustrated with Obama’s lack of leadership in dealing with the rise of ISIS and the European migrant crisis. At the same time, they believe the Bush wars were a mistake.
Hence the lack of public support for putting troops on the ground in Syria when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013. Obama responded to this by disastrously backing off his “red line” ultimatum. Jeffrey Goldberg’s long essay in the latest issue of The Atlantic chronicles that process in great detail, and one comes away from the article with a strong sense that Obama doesn’t quite grasp the consequences of American abdication under the pretext of multilateral action.
On the GOP side, foreign policy debates have devolved into “isolationist” versus “interventionist”—an oversimplification that masks deep and longstanding divisions in the party and the country at large. The debate stretches back more than a century, at least to Theodore Roosevelt, who believed that global peace and stability secured by an international system was beyond the purview of American foreign policy. He thought we could expect to do no more than secure peace for America by vigorously protecting narrowly defined national interests—or, in his famous words, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
America’s Founding Tradition of Restraint
This view has a long pedigree. George Washington famously warned against “foreign entanglements” and believed the new republic should maintain a posture of neutrality abroad, especially as the French Revolution was roiling Europe. Peaceful commercial relations, not political ones, were to be the overarching goal of American foreign policy. We should have “as little political connection as possible,” to foreign nations, Washington said in his farewell address. “So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
In 1821, John Quincy Adams invoked Washington’s rule with the famous lines that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” The idea was to mind our own business, but to mind it hard.
Roosevelt interpreted that principle in a way that looked a lot like the aggressive foreign policy of the major imperial powers. When Cuba revolted from Spain in 1895, he supported going to war to keep European gunboats out of the Caribbean. Afterwards, he supported occupying the Philippines as a kind of western outpost in the Pacific, with an eye on securing American interests in China. Roosevelt believed that “decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis” was the only way to preserve peace and a place of prestige for America in a world teeming with competing empires.
The GOP’s New ‘Jacksonian’ Streak
But Roosevelt’s seemingly muscular foreign policy stemmed from the twin belief that America should not take on international responsibilities it is unable or unwilling to back up with military force, and that there are serious limits to the use of American power abroad. One could arguably say the same about Obama.
The notion made sense at the turn of the last century because America wasn’t a superpower, but it also resonated with Americans’ sense that their country was a peaceful republic, not a marauding empire. As we’re now seeing, it retains a certain appeal today.
Max Boot has suggested that a new populist or “Jacksonian” foreign policy is emerging in the GOP that rejects regime change and nation-building but isn’t afraid to use the military to “kill the terrorists and then come home,” as Cruz said in December. Boot, quoting a 1999 essay by Walter Russell Mead, argues this is a foreign policy characterized by low regard for international law and institutions, opposition to humanitarian inventions or interventions designed to promote democracy, and a willingness to fight all-out if America is attacked.
By adopting such views, writes Boot, Trump and Cruz “have turned their backs on decades of Republican foreign policy, which has been internationalist, pro-free trade, pro-immigration, pro-democracy, and pro-human rights.” GOP primary voters, Boot claims, must choose whether “to continue the traditional, Reaganesque foreign policy that has been championed by every Republican presidential nominee for decades or to opt for a Jacksonian outlook that is as crude and ugly as it is beguiling.”
We Need A Vision for America’s Future Foreign Policy
Indeed, Jackson’s world—and Teddy Roosevelt’s—is gone and will never come back. An international order guaranteed by American hegemony is both our reward and burden for winning two world wars and the Cold War. It’s a bell that can’t be un-rung. Today, America faces more varied and complex foreign policy threats than at any time since the end of World War II. We desperately need a president with a strategic vision for American foreign policy in the twenty-first century that embraces strong American leadership abroad.
But no GOP candidate—not even Sen. Marco Rubio, the GOP’s foreign policy whiz kid—will be able to do that in a way that allays voters’ fear of American adventurism until Republicans can come to terms with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explain what went wrong, and make a compelling case that an America-led international order is good for us and good for the rest of the world.
Until conservatives can do that, candidates in both parties will continue to argue, without saying so outright, that America should step back from its place in the post-Cold War order, just as Obama has done. Trump just does it with a lot more bluster.
John is a senior correspondent at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.