Nationalism Makes for Bad Foreign Policy

What Trump Gets Wrong

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to American soldiers at an Air Force base in Sicily, May 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Consistency has never been U.S. President Donald Trump’s strong suit. Every week seems to bring another foreign policy reversal. But, in the swirl, at least one theme has remained constant: America, to paraphrase the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect around the globe. To be sure, Trump was not elected primarily because Americans worry about their nation’s standing abroad. But many citizens do share his belief that foreigners once respected the United States and no longer do.

That belief, however, rests on a romanticized and mythical past in which nations around the world listened and dutifully did America’s bidding when the United States spoke. It pictures a world that was once the United States’ sandbox, whose contents America could, and did, mold and remold at its pleasure. And it dreams that an America restored to its rightful greatness will inspire such respect again.

Such nostalgia is not only wrong, it is also deeply dangerous.


Trump is not the only champion of such nostalgic nationalism, but he is the most famous, and he has articulated this vision with unusual consistency throughout the campaign and into the presidency. According to his storyline, the United States suffered one “humiliation” after another in recent years because the United States’ rivals have little regard for it. Iran: “they have total disrespect for our country.” Russia: “Putin laughs at our leaders, and takes them to the cleaners again and again.” China: “by letting them take advantage of us economically, we have lost all of their respect.” But the underlying cause, Trump and like-minded thinkers assert, is that the nation’s leaders have given their foreign counterparts no reason to respect them. Rather than “proudly defend America at every single turn,” they have gone on needless “apology tours” and “bow[ed] to foreign powers.” They have negotiated weak trade deals that have failed “to fight for our families.” They have embarked on “politically correct wars” and, tying America’s soldiers’ arms behind their backs,

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