Trump’s Foreign Policy and the American Story

by Heather Marie Stur

NATO summit

U.S. President George W. Bush, seated next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, addresses world leaders during the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at Practica di Mare Air Force base near Rome, Italy. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump offered little substance regarding his national security strategy or his worldview. In interviews, debates, and speeches, he called NATO “obsolete,” promised to expand the U.S. armed forces, and pledged to defeat ISIS. His website states a commitment to fighting “radical ideologies that direct and inspire terrorism” and deterring nuclear and cyber attacks. It’s too early to tell what a “Trump Doctrine” will look like, but foreign policy and military analysts have already begun to speculate about how Trump will approach international relations. Is he a realist who will privilege national interest over ideology? Might he usher in a twenty-first century version of the Peace of Westphalia, in which “national sovereignty” is central to the global order? What will a Trump presidency mean for the future of liberal internationalism?

As I’ve pondered these questions since the election, I’ve found myself thinking about the foreign policies of Trump’s predecessors and wondering how his vision might compare. Trump’s statements about NATO speak to the broader issue of how, and to what degree, the U.S. should be involved in international affairs. Trump has suggested that alliances need not be permanent, and he has threatened to reevaluate the U.S. role in NATO if members don’t abide by a 2002 agreement to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense. President Obama has also called upon NATO members to spend more money on defense, but he has not threatened to dismantle a nearly 70-year-old alliance that made the transition from the Cold War world to the post-Cold War era. The only time NATO members invoked Article 5, which calls for collective defense, was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in support of the U.S. NATO militaries subsequently served in the war in Afghanistan. Looking farther back in time for a comparison, Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, repudiated Wilsonian internationalism in his rejection of the League of Nations. In his “Return to Normalcy” speech, he argued that in the aftermath of the Great War, the U.S. needed “not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” A significant difference between Harding and Trump, though, is that Harding also worked to limit defense spending and arms proliferation, whereas Trump has called for a major expansion of the U.S. defense budget in addition to suggesting that the U.S. does not need its long-standing allies.

Trump’s proposal to spend big to fight a vague enemy reminded me of the ideologically driven foreign policies of Harry Truman and George W. Bush, both of which resulted in lengthy wars. For Truman, the nebulous global threat was communism. During his administration, the State Department issued NSC-68, a paper arguing that because the Soviet Union was “animated by a new fanatic faith” and determined “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world,” the U.S. must embark on a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear weapons. The commitment to paying any price to stop the spread of communism inspired U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, a conflict that cost the U.S. dearly in blood, treasure, and national morale. Bush’s vague conflict was the global war on terror. Central to the Bush Doctrine was the idea of “preemption”: because terrorism exists, and because weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, the U.S. was justified in launching preemptive attacks on perceived security threats. Bush’s policy led to the 2003 Iraq War, and Iraq remains mired in sectarian fighting and ISIS violence. Trump has said that the U.S. must build up its armed forces in order to counter Islamic extremism, especially in the form of ISIS. He recently offered the position of national security adviser to Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who has said that the U.S. is in a “world war” with “radical Islamic terrorism.”

eleanor-roosevelt-japanese-internment-camp

Eleanor Roosevelt at Gila River, Arizona, at Japanese-American Internment Center. Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Foreign policies have domestic ramifications, including the persecution of citizens whom elected officials have deemed security threats. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese Americans, and in the first decade of the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated accusations of communist influence in the government and in Hollywood. The “red scare” that resulted from HUAC activities inspired a “lavender scare” which targeted gay government employees based on the absurd notion that homosexuality was a mental illness, and thus gays and lesbians were more susceptible to communist influence. In the 1980s, a Congressional committee found that racism and xenophobia, not concrete security concerns, had motivated Japanese internment, and in 1988, President Ronald Reagan authorized reparations payments to surviving prisoners. With reparations, U.S. lawmakers acknowledged the injustice the federal government had done to Japanese Americans, but Trump supporters and advisers have stated that Japanese internment set a precedent that would justify the registering of Muslims in the U.S.

Donald Trump and his supporters have made provocative statements and insinuations that suggest a Trump Doctrine might borrow from what historians have judged to be the more objectionable pages of past presidents’ playbooks. Central to Trump’s persona since he entered the presidential race has been his defiance. As president, will he show his defiance by dismissing cautionary tales about the consequences of his predecessors’ policies? Will he scoff at the notion that singling out all Muslim Americans as potential security threats undermines the protection of civil liberties that theoretically sets the U.S. apart from rogue states and terrorist groups? On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush gave a speech in which he described American exceptionalism: “The attack on our nation was also an attack on the ideals that make us a nation. Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality. More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight.” Even when rhetoric has not reflected reality, American politicians have invoked the “city upon a hill” metaphor to argue for the nation’s moral superiority. It remains to be seen how Trump’s approach to national security will change the story we tell ourselves and the world about America.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). She is currently writing Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam (Cambridge, forthcoming).

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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