White House press conference, July 14, 2020. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/50115849402/">The White House/Tia Dufour/Public Domain</a>.
White House press conference, July 14, 2020. CREDIT: The White House/Tia Dufour/Public Domain.

The Persistence of the Trump Narrative

Jul 15, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

One of the goals of the U.S. Global Engagement project has been to focus attention on different foreign policy narratives that move within U.S. domestic politics. The 2016 elections brought to the fore tendencies that had been assumed to be on the fringe in U.S. foreign policy (retrenchment, transactionalism, withdrawal). As I have noted on a number of occasions, the 2020 elections, while they are most likely going to be decided on domestic issues, do represent a very clear choice in foreign policy as well.

Many of my interlocutors assume (or hope) that the Trump administration will represent but an aberration from a U.S. tendency towards global leadership and forward engagement. However, familiar voices (to those who follow the USGE program) like Ian Bremmer, Colin Dueck, or Nahal Toosi remind us:

Astute observers of U.S. foreign policy have been making the case, as we move into the 2020 elections, not to see the interruptions in the flow of U.S. foreign policy solely as a result of the personality and foibles of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In other words, we need to move from thinking that Donald Trump is the problem—and that once he is removed, U.S. foreign policy snaps back like elastic into its accepted and familiar shape—and viewing his political rise and his administration in the context of longer-term trends in both American domestic as well as international politics.

This is what makes Chris Fettweis' recent essay in The National Interest such an interesting read. Having demonstrated that the transactional/retrenchment narrative can reach the White House, will this make other governments more amenable to compromise with the U.S.? Fettweis asks:

The potential for a Trump 2.0, and perhaps one not quite so remarkably incompetent, will always exist. The unseemly populist-nationalism that lurks right under the surface of American politics can re-emerge, conceivably doing even more damage to the system if run by a sophisticated operator. Those sitting across the negotiating table from U.S. diplomats will have to wonder whether a hardline approach to U.S. initiatives would strengthen the know-nothings. Perhaps a concession here or capitulation there would better serve their true long-term interests. Avoiding a second coming of Trump will sit atop their shortlist of national priorities.

What this means is that other governments may decide that any strengthening of the "America First" narrative within American domestic politics would damage their interests. As a result:

Other leaders will need to focus squarely on how their actions affect American politics and will seek to avoid giving any aid or rhetorical ammunition to wannabe Trumps, those inevitable copycats who appeal to the same voters who brought him to power. Thus in the long run Trump may do something he was never able to do while in office: help his country receive more cooperation and achieve its initiatives.

Earlier I commented on the TIGRE proposal, and in particular how "This is an agenda which touches both on national security concerns but which could also appeal to a variety of domestic political constituencies. It is also a way of reconnecting the defense and foreign policy agenda with the 'main street' concerns about jobs and sustainable prosperity, and also connects to concerns about supporting democracy and human rights." One way its proponents might be able to gain buy-in from allies and partners—and for them to help underwrite its proposals—is to point to the alternative. Thus, we could see emerging, not only in this election, but, as we move into the 2020s, a creative tension between some versions of "America First"—particularly among members of the Senate—and the "democratic community" proponents.

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