Some Aspects of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Gregory Shank*

In 2016, Donald Trump’s right-wing populism splintered the coalition constituting the Republican Party and coopted issues that set apart the most vibrant wing of the Democratic Party, the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That platform suggested movement toward a noninterventionist approach in foreign policy, opposition to globalization strategies and multilateral agreements favoring liberal internationalists within the corporate elite, and, implicitly, a condemnation of the harmful effects of post-2007 austerity (caused by the excesses of financialization) on the increasingly marginalized middle and working classes of the United States (and Europe, perhaps with the exception of Germany).

The core of Trump’s foreign policy is outlined in his campaign speeches before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPEC) Conference in March 2016, before the Center for the National Interest in April, and in his September national security address in Philadelphia. Further evidence comes from the post-election appointments to key positions in the national security apparatus and the cabinet portfolios responsible for foreign policy. Finally, although the chief executive may enjoy the greatest freedom of action in the foreign policy arena, all options are severely constrained by the wars and crises handed off by the previous administration, a reality President Obama also confronted.


Trump’s address before 18,000 people at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, sought to bring his candidacy into the mainstream and to lay out policies that might smooth over relations with the Jewish community. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kurshner (a Trump senior advisor on domestic and foreign policy), Haaretz newspaper reported, wrote the speech. He consulted with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer (a longtime Trump admirer, who defended Trump strategist Steve Bannon against charges of anti-Semitism), on matters relating to Israeli diplomatic and security policy. Kurshner, a real estate investor, AIPAC donor, and Orthodox Jew with connections to Israel’s Likud party, also enlisted the help of Ken Kurson, the editor of the New York Observer (a Kurshner property). Kurson offered expertise and experience as a speechwriter and close collaborator in advancing Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential aspirations.

The content of the speech is derived from materials provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It highlights vintage global war on terror threats concerning “rogue states” and terror networks emanating from Iran (and its “puppet states”) intent on destabilizing and dominating the region, while dismissing Palestinian claims to sovereignty and freedom from occupation because their schools and mosques produce a “culture of hatred” and indiscriminate death, again thanks to Iranian funding. Trump reiterates that Israel will remain a strategic ally; his intention to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” (a hot-button issue fortified by David Friedman, Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel); his opposition to United Nations (UN) resolutions that condition an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine; and his ambivalent plan to either dismantle the Iran nuclear accord or simply “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable.”


Given the primacy of Israel, plus the March 2016 naming of militarist foreign policy advisors and the incorporation of Iraq War hawks James Woolsey and John Bolton as Trump national security and foreign affairs advisors in August and September, early critics understandably concluded that the incoming administration’s international initiatives would differ little from the dominant neoconservative practices of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Worse yet, human rights would probably be downplayed internationally, including unabashed Ronald Reagan-style support for foreign dictators. Yet that view overlooks a novel element in the Trump victory: the probable ouster of the entire foreign policy establishment serving George H.W. Bush onward and the demotion of covert regime change initiatives organized primarily by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Middle East. If personnel choices translate into policy, this could portend a significant shift. It would account for much of the Never Trump movement among Republicans and some of the bipartisan post-election fury surrounding Russia, which aims to undermine Trump’s amorphous but stubborn moves toward détente.

The repudiation of neoconservative interventionists in the Democratic and Republican parties had multiple sources during the 2016 campaign. Rand Paul libertarians, along with personnel from the Charles Koch Institute and the Koch-funded Cato Institute, launched a think tank called the Defense Priorities Foundation and an advocacy arm, the Defense Priorities Initiative, to lobby for a less militaristic foreign policy (the Kochs did not finance these new entities). The Trump campaign outflanked this initiative on the right, with differences centering on the purported security threat posed by immigration and unconditional support for Israel. Each campaign and set of institutions called for an end to perpetual war, arguing that the lethal military power pursued over the past fifteen years in the Middle East, including the expanded use of drones, had failed to protect the United States. Each buttressed the case with respected military officers, veterans of the string of limited wars and counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In a March interview with the Washington Post, Trump signaled his intention to take a noninterventionist approach in world affairs or at least to lighten the US footprint worldwide. Despite unrest abroad, especially in the Middle East, Trump said the United States must look inward and steer its resources toward rebuilding domestic infrastructure. These themes were flushed out in two critical speeches, one on “America First” at the Mayflower Hotel and the other on “Peace Through Strength” at the Union League of Philadelphia. The central message is that Trump’s foreign policy will be tempered by realism and will dispense with the long-dominant foreign policy wing of the Republican Party. After the struggle against German and Japanese imperialism and the succeeding Cold War, Trump told his audiences, the United States has been on a downward arc for lack of a new vision. An arrogant democratizing and nation-building mission in the Middle East and elsewhere has produced chaos and genocide, while overextending national resources. With war-fighting generals at his side, he will avoid endless wars and no longer topple regimes, a policy that has created power vacuums and immigration insecurity across Europe and the United States. Supposedly temporary post-World Way II security structures such as NATO and the nuclear umbrella have become an outdated, unaffordable luxury, and countries that have enjoyed American largess (especially Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia) must assume more of the burden to defend themselves.

US military strength, Trump says, must be bolstered by expanding the capacities of all branches of the service and updating the arsenal of nuclear weapons, to match Russian and Chinese efforts. US economic strength must be leveraged to gain more cooperation from China in terms of North Korea and the South China Sea; and the American technological lead must grow in terms of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. These tools, plus financial and ideological warfare, will be used against terrorist threats. Resort to military force may be necessary, but the emphasis is on restoring stability, peace, and prosperity, not war and destruction. Russia and China share interests with the United States and need not be adversaries (unlike Iran). The nation-state is paramount, and globalism in the form of international unions is unnecessarily constricting. For instance, the NAFTA agreement has hollowed out the nation’s manufacturing capacity and eliminated jobs. Reversing these agreements, and investing in military modernization and cybersecurity, will provide jobs for young Americans—including in the inner cities.

This hybrid set of goals derives from several conflicting political currents. The more visionary dimension is reflected in the host of the April 27 speech: the Center for the National Interest (CNI). Jared Kushner facilitated the choice of CNI, which publishes the National Interest. Its editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, promotes the “realist” school of foreign policy, which advocates balance-of-power geopolitics, careful circumspection about intervention abroad, and the need for the United States to husband its resources. Layne’s “Graceful Decline,” published in The American Conservative (owned by Silicon Valley software developer Ron Unz) systematically sets out in polished form the key concepts that Trump refers to elliptically in his speeches. After describing why the United States has declined internationally, Layne argues that the current era of globalization is ending, with Pax Americana to be replaced by an international order that reflects the interests, values, and norms of emerging powers, such as China, India, and Russia. In this multipolar world, the United States must coexist with rising powers, especially China.

The new US global posture would involve strategic retrenchment, burden shifting (which rolls back current security commitments to NATO, Japan, and South Korea, while providing advanced weapons and military technology to friendly states in Europe and Asia), and abandonment of the global counterinsurgency campaign in the Middle East. The default US foreign policy of intervention must end, meaning the sidelining of the counterinsurgency lobby in both major political parties, including their respective private think tanks. In short, the emerging strategy reduces the importance of nonstate terrorists or minor powers, because great powers can only be defeated by other great powers.

The European Right

Another policy current consists of Trump advisors who identify with European right-wing movements. Some coalesced around the anti-immigrant focus of Jeff Sessions’ congressional office, others drew support from Mercer-funded entities that are now involved in the upcoming French and German elections (using Breitbart, just as Cambridge Analytica was in the pro-Brexit Leave.EU effort, to Trump’s delight), along with denizens of the national security apparatus (such as national security adviser Michael T. Flynn), with concerns over the spread of “radical Islam.” Steve Bannon views in Trump the possibility of restoring true American capitalism, assisted by the right-wing populist uprisings in Europe to “undo the global power structure—the banks, the government, the media, the guardians of secular culture.” Symptomatic of this insistence on the menace of immigration, notably absent from Trump’s speeches was any notion that the continent of Africa (except Libya) exists or that below Mexico the hemisphere includes Central and Latin American nations. Most realists take offense at this, as do Silicon Valley companies that rely on an international pool of skilled coders, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

Trump’s unique turn of phrase, the “folly of globalism,” may originate in the writings of Garet Garrett, an Old Right luminary and part of the generation behind the 1940s isolationist America First mass movement (see Raimondo 2008). The phrase also figures prominently in the lexicon of the European far Right, such as in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, where globalism (mondialisme, not globalization) refers to the homogenizing influence of world markets on peoples and cultures, promoted by open borders, massive immigration, and the transference of sovereignty to a supranational European Union (see Zúquete 2015). In Trump’s “Declaring American Economic Independence” speech, his stances on trade and supranational agreements such as NAFTA align him with that position, but also with critics like Joseph E. Stiglitz (2016), who argues that “Americans are economically worse off than they were a quarter-century ago” and that trade and financial liberalization have not delivered the general prosperity promised.

Although Layne’s realism calls for deep reductions in defense expenditures, Trump’s “Peace through Strength” speech is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s duplicitous missile-gap message. The term often signifies peace through war and an overreliance on force over political and diplomatic solutions, but Trump has stated that resort to force is a sign of weakness. Why, then, field an army of 540,000 troops (the size of George W. Bush’s full-scale invasion forces in Iraq and Afghanistan)? Military Keynesianism would appeal to defense contractors and a planned reversal of sequestration of military spending for all the services would help to defuse opposition by the civilian neoliberal counterinsurgency lobby. Yet, increasing the defense budget by 55 to 80 billion dollars per year cannot be offset by better controls on fraud or by policing procurement inefficiencies. This will necessitate cuts in the domestic safety net. As an employment strategy, military spending creates far fewer jobs than the same dollars do when invested in education, clean energy, or health care.

Anti-Sanctions Internationalists

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson personifies another foreign policy current within the Trump administration. Attention has focused primarily on ExxonMobil’s pent-up Russian holdings, but the interests (wealth and power) of the US-based anti-sanctions corporate wing are constrained more broadly by international regulatory structures in the form of coercive sanctions on Russia, Iran, and elsewhere. In practice, the profit-rich and internally stable Iranian market became available to European firms after sanctions were lifted by the Iranian nuclear accord, and the Russian market will gradually become available to the Europeans as sanctions over the Ukraine and Crimea expire. German firms, in particular, would willingly partner in a Russian initiative to strengthen multipolarity and to push for a continent-wide European-Russian common industrial and energy zone. Trump suggested lifting US sanctions on Russia as part of a nuclear weapons reduction deal and centered criticism on the European Union as an instrument of German domination. A US-Russian tactical alliance could accelerate the stabilization of the Middle East. It would enhance control over world energy markets (with Saudi Arabia, the two nations rank among the world’s top three oil producers). Trump has threatened to end all US oil purchases from Saudi Arabia, likely to curtail its financial support of Salafist jihadist forces. A growing Israeli-Russian alliance draws on Israeli strengths in policing the pacification stage in Middle East conflicts. Russia’s negotiated Syrian settlement included Iran, Turkey, and later the Trump administration. This configuration creates uncertainties for Palestinian and Kurdish hopes for national sovereignty, while asserting and constraining Iranian regional aspirations.

Preliminary Conclusions

Unlike initiatives in the domestic policy arena, some of Trump’s foreign policy proposals, such as a reduced role in the Middle East, détente, and a scaling down of the post-World War II global security architecture, may not be unreasonable. However, there is no guarantee that the Trump coalition will accomplish this realignment. In the past, a civil war over foreign policy was waged in the shadows, and then openly, by opponents of Richard Nixon’s policies of détente with the USSR, rapprochement with China, and a negotiated end to the Vietnam War. That group coalesced as the neoconservatives, who sabotaged Nixon’s foreign policy agenda and his presidency (Colodny & Shachtman 2010). Today, those neoconservatives are joined in their counterattacks by Clinton Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Democrats engaged in post-election autopsy sessions should look hard at the yawning gap between the hawkish candidate they offered and the consistent popular sentiment against US military involvement abroad.

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Barrett, W. 2016. Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention. New York: Regan Arts.
Colodny, L., and T. Shachtman. 2010. The Forty Years War. New York: Harper Perennial.
Raimondo, J. 2008. Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Stiglitz, J.E. 2016. “How Trump Happened.” Project Syndicate, October 14.
Zúquete, J.P. 2015. “‘Free the People’: The Search for ‘True Democracy’ in Western Europe’s Far-Right Political Culture.” In The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives, edited by Carlos de la Torre, pp. 231–64. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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Gregory Shank is the Co-managing Editor of Social Justice and lives in San Francisco.

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