Many of the distinguishing features of Donald Trump’s campaign for president seem novel, but these qualities are not without historical precedent. His racism is reminiscent of George Wallace in 1968, his coddling of Russia is redolent of Henry Wallace in 1948, and his economic populism echoes the three failed turn of the century contests of William Jennings Bryan.
But there is another aspect of Mr. Trump’s candidacy that falls far outside the mainstream and is yet unoriginal: his professed foreign policy ideology. Since the United States came to dominate the international affairs scene with Woodrow Wilson’s triumphalist and idealistic rhetoric after World War I, all U.S. presidents have been realists or neoliberals in one form or another. Mr. Trump is neither of these things; instead, Mr. Trump is an ethno-nationalist mercantilist.
A few definitions are in order. As explained by Kenneth Waltz in Man, the State, and War, realists believe states are rational, unitary actors concerned with making relative gains in a zero-sum, anarchic international order in which the ultimate currency is power in the form of security maximization. On the other hand, neoliberalism as defined by Joseph Nye of Harvard University (working off the writings of Immanuel Kant) posits that cooperation among states is possible insofar as the states in question are more concerned with absolute gains rather than relative gains. Moreover, international institutions, the prevalence of democracy, and economic interdependence reduce the likelihood of conflict between states.
“If Mr. Trump is unconcerned with the balance of power, morality in international affairs, prevailing international norms precluding base behavior, and economic interdependence between states, then what does concern him? He is, as David Brooks of the New York Times describes him, a “blood and soil” candidate. His main preoccupation is protecting U.S. citizens—by which Trump clearly means Caucasians—from the menace posed by non-Christian foreigners.”
By way of contrast, Mr. Trump cheers what may be the beginning of the dissolution of the European Union, though the Union will likely prevail. He favors turning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into a racketeering outfit for the financial benefit and alleviation of the United States, thereby dangerously tampering with the post-Cold War balance of power in a manner a realist would reject. Finally, Mr. Trump calls for protectionism as severe as anything this country has seen since the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act under President Herbert Hoover—a rebuke to neoliberalism.
Recent examples of the views of U.S. presidents clearly illustrate this divide. President George W. Bush believed in a neoconservative ideology of Wilsonian proportions whereby the United States would transform the entire Middle East into a haven for democracy and free society by force. President Obama has described himself as a realist, though no U.S. president has been a true realist since Nixon and Kissinger played China and the USSR off each other and used the Vietnam War as a diplomatic bargaining chip in the 1970s. President Obama is more accurately described as a neoliberal as evidenced by his aversion to unilateralism in the use of force, and his negotiation of the massive TPP and TTIP trade deals.
Mr. Trump’s political opponent in this election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a vigorous liberal interventionist fitting an archetype best described in Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell. Power’s book makes the moral case for the application of military power to prevent genocide or mass slaughter of people by their own government.
The concept for such intervention is commonly termed “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P.” Instances of Clinton’s R2P proclivities include the 2011 Libya intervention and her recommendation in 2012, along with then- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and then-CIA Director General David Petraeus, that the United States arm the “moderate” Syrian opposition in its bloody struggle against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. On that occasion, President Obama did not heed their advice.
If Mr. Trump is unconcerned with the balance of power, morality in international affairs, prevailing international norms precluding base behavior, and economic interdependence between states, then what does concern him? He is, as David Brooks of the New York Times describes him, a “blood and soil” candidate. His main preoccupation is protecting U.S. citizens—by which Trump clearly means Caucasians—from the menace posed by non-Christian foreigners. Trump wants to safeguard their physical integrity and checkbook. In this sense, Mr. Trump’s racism and profiteering are not vices to be curtailed but virtues to be exploited in the service of nationalism—hence his repeated calls for the ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States while robbing Iraq of its oil resources.
“Trump’s foreign policy vision is outdated for a reason. It is largely an immoral Hobbesian nightmare.”
Such a view of foreign affairs was common during the 19th century. It reached its apogee with the U.S. “gun boat” diplomacy directed at Latin America in the early 20th century, where the United States helped orchestrate the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1904 and sent Marines to invade Veracruz in 1914 to further American commercial interests.
Trump’s foreign policy vision is outdated for a reason. It is largely an immoral Hobbesian nightmare. Furthermore, by alienating too many other geopolitical actors, it is ultimately ineffective in securing U.S. interests on the world stage. The United States and the world would rue the day such a policy vision was attempted again. Fortunately, the typical U.S. voter has better sense than he or she is commonly ascribed and the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton is increasingly looking like a foregone conclusion.
Image: An imaginary seaport with a transposed Villa Medici by Claude Lorrain, 1637 (Wikimedia Commons)
Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.