In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
If President Donald Trump manages to win reelection, many things will not change. His narrow worldview will continue to shape U.S. foreign policy. His erratic approach to leadership, his disdain for allies, his fondness for dictators—all will remain throughout a second Trump term.
But beyond the realm of policy, a Trump victory would mark a sea change for the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. It would signal to others that Washington has given up its aspirations for global leadership and abandoned any notion of moral purpose on the international stage. It would usher in a period of disorder and bristling conflict, as countries heed the law of the jungle and scramble to fend for themselves. And a second Trump term would confirm what many have begun to fear: that the shining city on a hill has grown dim and that American power is but a thing of the past.
Trump’s first term provides a guide for what would follow. Under his leadership, the United States has disengaged from some major international commitments, including the Paris climate accord, and cooled its relations with NATO allies. It has set a course of confrontation with China and pursued an incoherent policy vis-à-vis Russia—Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin clashes with congressional and bureaucratic hostility to Moscow. The administration’s exceptionally close relationship to Israel, coupled with partnerships with the Gulf Arab states, has sped up a transformation of Middle Eastern politics. The question of Palestinian statehood has faded away, with the focus shifting to the creation of counterbalancing coalitions against Iran and Turkey. Concern about human rights is now purely instrumental, a convenient lever in realpolitik and domestic politics. U.S. officials largely ignore Latin America and Africa and view most relationships with Asian countries through the prism of trade.
Trump and his advisers have had a crude but for the most part coherent worldview, captured in the slogan “America first.” They know about the connotations of this phrase from the 1940s, when it was the name of a movement to keep the United States out of World War II, but they do not particularly care. They have no intention of engaging in projects to expand liberty or even merely defend it, although they are perfectly capable of using human rights as a cudgel against China. They have a distaste for international organizations, including those the United States helped create after World War II. Unlike most of their predecessors, they do not see leadership in these institutions as an instrument of U.S. power but as a limit on it. (The Chinese have precisely the opposite view, hence their increasing involvement in the UN.) The Trump administration sees the world as an arena for brutal commercial and military competition in which the United States has no friends but only interests.
A second Trump term would permanently tarnish the United States’ reputation for stability.
This general outlook does contain some internal contradictions, most notably with respect to Russia, but it is, despite its crudeness, a recognizable echo of one old strain of thinking about U.S. foreign policy. It reflects what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., referred to in these pages 25 years ago as the desire to go “back to the womb,” a naive and ultimately untenable form of isolationism.
Schlesinger underestimated the extent to which the United States was always a globally engaged power, one whose values occasionally propelled it into foreign engagements—be they wise or foolish. But the isolationist impulse, particularly in its nativist, belligerent manifestation, has been around for a very long time. Trump merely articulates one version of it—the view that others play Americans for fools, that international institutions are nefarious tools of those who would curtail U.S. sovereignty, that bloodshed and horror elsewhere cannot really affect a gigantic republic flanked by two great oceans and two much weaker countries.
Of course, the Trumpian manifestation of these impulses is distinctive. Thus, even when the policy directions are more or less normal or to be expected—the pro-Israel tilt, for instance, or the suspicion of the UN—the style and the execution are not.
The first term of the Trump administration was characterized by periodic squalls of bombast, insults, and fight picking with allies, as well as lavish compliments paid to friendly or flattering dictators. It was also characterized by administrative incompetence, compounded by the unwillingness of the Republican Party’s deep bench of foreign policy and national security professionals to serve a leader they loathed and despised. The question of a second term, then, requires thinking at both the substantive level (the administration’s policies) and the level of style (the administration’s tone and staffing).
From a policy point of view, the biggest uncertainty has to do with a reelected Trump’s desire to secure his place in history, a motivation well known among presidents in their second terms. A president usually seeks to satisfy this desire by grasping for some big deal—Israeli-Palestinian peace is a perennial favorite, but so, too, is ending wars or reconciling with old enemies.
For Trump, it is fair to say, the idea of making big deals is central to his self-presentation as a business tycoon who has uniquely brought his hard-earned market wisdom to the business of government. The biggest deal to close would be a trade negotiation with China, which would also abate the rising strategic tension between the two countries. Lesser deals might include an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact and possibly some significant reconciliation with Russia. To secure these deals, Trump, a repeated bankrupt who in his private life made some exquisitely bad business decisions about casinos, airlines, and golf courses, would probably be willing to give away a lot. After all, in return for nothing, he gave the North Korean government the gift of presidential visits and suspended military exercises with South Korea. One could expect something spectacular, such as handing over Taiwan to China, for example, or caving in on Chinese industrial espionage in the United States.
In truth, however, none of these big deals are really out there for the asking. The U.S.-Chinese rivalry is now rooted not only in the geopolitical logic of a rising China but also in deep mutual suspicions and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to begin purging his region of U.S. influence. Even if Trump wants a deal, Beijing may not meet him at the table, and even if it did, any agreement might falter in the halls of the next Congress. Negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, meanwhile, are unlikely to offer the Palestinians a better deal than they could have gotten under the Clinton administration (much worse, in all likelihood) and would no doubt fail to satisfy their aspirations for untrammeled statehood and a capital in Jerusalem. As for some sort of thaw with Russia, although Trump has an affinity for Putin, very few Republicans in Congress or members of the bureaucracy do.
That is where the issue of style comes in. Trump’s rhetoric toward traditional allies is one of near-continuous insult: he certainly has little regard for their interests or concerns. And although he may believe that the United States can truly go it alone, he will learn that it is difficult to make a deal with China if key Asian allies are opposed to it, achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace if it leaves local Arab regimes exposed, or broker a Russian arrangement if Europe is dead set against it.
More important, Trump will find himself continually stymied by sheer administrative incompetence. Having gutted much of the bureaucracy, he will find—in some respects has already found—that the work of foreign policy does not simply get done out of the White House. Understaffed or incompetently staffed bureaucracies invariably gum up the works, in both intentional and accidental ways.
Trump’s hands will not be completely tied. If he orders troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, or even from Europe, that will happen—although it is striking how successful his own appointees have been at slow rolling him on a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. If he persists, however, he can manage to withdraw U.S. forces and throw aside those commitments. Such retrenchment will again feed his self-image as a peacemaker.
A second Trump term, then, would be as though the isolationist Robert Taft had defeated Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 Republican primary but then suffered some grave mental disorder in the process. There is no reason to think that Trump’s bombast, self-pity, incoherence, belligerent narcissism, and fecklessness would abate after a second miraculous victory over a more popular Democratic opponent. His bristling and volatile version of “America first” would do far more damage than the more traditional “back to the womb” isolationism that Schlesinger described.
It would, for one thing, permanently tarnish the United States’ reputation for stability and predictability. One election of Trump by razor-thin margins in three states could be written off as a fluke, an American version of a political virus that has afflicted numerous democratic states in recent years. A second election would signal something far worse to outside observers—either that the system is fundamentally flawed or that the United States has undergone some kind of moral collapse. In either case, its days as a world leader would be over. The country that had built international institutions, that had affirmed the basic values of liberty and the rule of law, and that had stood by allies would be gone. The United States would remain a great power, of course, but of a very different kind.
As troubling as the Trump presidency has already been and as badly as it has damaged the reputation of the United States, this outcome would be far worse and difficult even for those who have been the most critical of the president to imagine. It would mean a return to a world that has no law other than that of the jungle—a world akin to the chaotic 1920s and 1930s but worse than that, because there would be no United States out there on the periphery, ready to be awakened and ride to the rescue.
It would become, rather, a world of radical self-help, in which any and all tools of power would be legitimated by that most powerful of reasons—necessity. States would be more tempted to acquire nuclear weapons and to consider the use of assassination, targeted biological weapons, and routine subversion in order to achieve security. The appeal of authoritarian systems would grow.
Moreover, even as a great power, the United States would be severely weakened by internal discord. A second Trump term, pulled off in large part by voter suppression, the quirks of the Electoral College, and the artful maneuvering of Republican politicians, would lead to an unstable polity. The Republican Party is, as it stands now, demographically doomed, drawing the bulk of its support from a narrowing and aging portion of the electorate, and its leaders know that. So, too, do their opponents. There has already been politically motivated violence on American streets, and there could well be more. Outright civil war may not occur, but it is perfectly plausible to imagine the mobbing and murder of political leaders by partisans of either side—all egged on by a triumphant Trump and his outraged and radicalized opponents. And, of course, the United States’ foreign adversaries would find ways to fan the flames.
The biggest consequences of a second Trump administration would be the most unpredictable.
The biggest consequences of a second Trump administration would be the most unpredictable. Another term would likely force a shift in the way everyone thinks about the United States. Since its inception, the country has been the land of the future, a work in progress, a place of promise no matter its flaws and tribulations, an unfinished city on a hill still under construction. With a second Trump term, the United States might as well be understood as a monument to the past. Not a failed state, but a failed vision, a vast power in decline whose time has come and gone.
The United States has faced such a potential drastic revision of its image before. The Civil War called into question the country’s very existence as a unitary state, and the Great Depression cast doubt on its politico-economic model. On both occasions, exceptional presidents, inspired by the ideals of the country’s founders, were keenly aware of the need to point Americans to a brighter future. That is why some of President Abraham Lincoln’s key pieces of legislation focused on opening the West and why President Franklin Roosevelt assured Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Trump’s slogan has been “make America great again.” The more revealing phrase came from his funereal inaugural speech in 2017: “American carnage.” The president has bought into a vision of decline that undermines whatever good the United States can do in the world. His vision of greatness is startlingly devoid of content; his political appeal rests on resentment, loss, fear of displacement, and even outright despair. A second term would mean that the United States would enter a multifaceted crisis, potentially one as deep as that of the 1850s and the 1930s. But this time, the country would have a leader crippled by his own narcissism, incompetence, and, even more, his dismal understanding of what one of his Republican predecessors so often called “the last, best hope of man.”
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