Of all the critiques of the new President, certainly in foreign policy, none has been more pervasive than the notion that he will soon destroy the “world,” at least that part of it known as the “liberal international order.” As an assigned project, a student in my class listed a total of 43 articles published on Trump within weeks of his inaugural, all of which displayed the same message. Of course, this scratches the surface and, equally apparent, can hardly be blamed. In the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump made no bones about how he was uncomfortable with most of what had preceded him in all areas of life, including the world itself. Who could blame reporters for accepting his word at face value?
Yet, questions linger. President Trump has no formal experience in American foreign policy nor the order constructed over seventy years ago. He has criticized NATO and on occasion has been rude to foreign leaders. What does this mean? It could mean nothing; that this reflects the personality of a frustrated businessman. Or, does it mean a carefully constructed and organized plan to deconstruct the political globe, sort of an American Mein Kampf? But, from orchestrated campaign speeches plus off-the-cuff remarks and tweets, it is painfully obvious that, as a candidate, Trump displayed close to zero knowledge, and with the same degree of interest, in the nature of global order. Asking NATO members to recognize their statutory obligations is hardly a revolution in strategic thought. Hanging up on the Prime Minister of Australia is not nice either, but nobody said that Trump was diplomatic.
It is hardly unusual for a political campaign to display exaggerated or totally distorted expressions of reality or of future scenarios. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned against U.S. involvement in World War I; five months afterward, he was declaring war on Germany. In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” A year later, the U.S. was involved knee-deep in history’s greatest war. Did these men both lie? Of course not; they simply were not prepared for the rush of events beyond human or political control. When he assumed the presidency in 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was so ill-informed that he did not even know about the Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb. Four months later, he dropped two of these over Japan to end the war. Within four years, Truman reconstructed war-torn Europe, with the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO to develop the order that we still have today. In 1960, John Kennedy kept blasting Nixon and the Republicans against what he called a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. After he won and was briefed on reality, he dropped the issue and its memory entirely.
So what do we do about campaign rhetoric versus strategic reality or the heat of the moment? Beyond electing candidates, probably very little. By what standard do we hold Trump accountable for all the extremes of his personality? Higher than all those who have preceded him?
Now the electorate has opted for “change” (but not by much). In domestic policy, this has already been manifested, especially in the health care bill. But what does it mean for “world order?” What indicators do we have by which to judge this president, minus a promise to get “tough” on terror and a stronger military? These are both clichés and hardly new in presidential parlance.
In terms of a real order in the world, we have next to nothing. Perhaps the greatest attack on Trump came after his “America First” speech, signaling a possible alignment back to a 1930’s-style isolationism and an equal attachment to the virtues of a nineteenth century nation-state system. This collides against the “globalization” movement of Western businessmen and corresponds to Brexit and the rise of right-wing parties in continental Europe. The idea of Trump as “Fascist” frequently surfaces, and Hitler’s ghost still haunts the modern world. But does this even approach reality?
World War I ended nearly one hundred years ago, and Trump bears as much relationship to Hitler as Charlie Chaplin. Do we really think that he will transform the highway of history and stand in the middle and yell “STOP?”
In his recent book World Order (1914), Dr. Kissinger reminds us that “America First” need not be taken literally: “Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained.” He also appreciates the enduring validity of the state system as the fundamental model for the future: “To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural and juridical … At this moment in history, this would be a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities.”
All his rhetoric aside, Trump may well turn out to resemble Metternich and Bismarck much more than the Hitler our media loves to resurrect. Sounds like déjà vu all over again.