DONALD TRUMP’S victory in our presidential election set off many convulsions, but few were as shattering as the one that dynamited the Washington foreign policy elite. Almost every member of this incestuous band of Beltway bombers supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign. They had reason to do so, since she has spent her career promoting their aggressive, we-know-best approach to the world. Now they face four years in the wilderness. Voters have driven a stake not only into the heart of the Clinton machine, but also into the heart of the American foreign policy establishment. Now we will see something new — or will we?
Several months ago, an evidently frustrated President Obama lamented that American foreign policy comes from a playbook that says Americans have a duty to shape the rest of the world. Today it is tempting to believe the playbook has been thrown into the Potomac. That is too optimistic. The ability of presidents and Congress to shape foreign policy is overstated. Deeply vested interests control the sprawling national security bureaucracy and make real change all but impossible. No one knows this better than Obama. He began his presidency by winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but his foreign policy legacy is dominated by war in Afghanistan, chaos in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, targeted killings, Guantanamo, and a trillion-dollar program to build a new nuclear arsenal.
To say that Trump’s foreign policy ideas are unformed would be an understatement, but he has a few. Three sound highly promising. First, he wants to de-escalate our spiraling conflict with Russia. For whatever reason, he has rejected the playbook view that President Vladimir Putin is a mad thug whose policies threaten our national security. If he remains firm and pulls us out of the spiral of US-Russia confrontation, he will be stepping back from the conflict that has seemed more likely than any other to explode into nuclear war.
Trump’s unorthodox view of Russia leads to his second wise foreign policy instinct, about the horrific war in Syria. Here his ignorance is an asset. Instead of reading the piles of reports that have gushed from the think-tank world in recent months, all of which demand military escalation, he is using common sense. It tells him that Syria poses no threat to the United States, and that our priority there should be crushing ISIS, not overthrowing the government.
That’s the good news. Alongside it are depressing indications that in important ways, Trump will be just as eager to double down on failed policies as Hillary Clinton would have been. The common sense with which he sees Russia and Syria fails him when he views Iran. He also looks suspiciously on Cuba, even though it is poor, weak, and no threat to us. His anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim tirades have alienated huge numbers of people. He has dismissed climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese to weaken our economy. His approach to deal-making — squeezing everything you can out of an adversary — may work in business, but it is the opposite of diplomatic negotiation, which succeeds only when all parties walk away with some success.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump’s approach to foreign policy was shaped by an odd contradiction. He declared his willingness to break from orthodoxy in shocking ways, but the few major political figures who supported him are charter members of the bomb-’em-all club. Newt Gingrich, said to be a likely candidate for secretary of state, is unreservedly pro-Israel and anti-Iran. Nonetheless, he is not a classic militarist. He has called himself a “cheap hawk,” and might look dubiously at the corporate welfare program known as the defense budget. Foreign aid also leaves him cold: “You ought to start off with zero and say, ‘Explain to me why I should give you a penny.’ ” His views on climate change are as dismissive as Trump’s, but he is less anti-trade and anti-China. Some of his musings even suggest that he might be willing to pull our troops out of the Afghanistan quagmire.
The end of the Cold War obliged the United States to adopt a new foreign policy to deal with new realities. We never did. Instead we lashed out in ways that have weakened our security while wreaking havoc on unfortunate countries. Large numbers of Americans reject this aggressive approach to the world. They want us to concentrate on rebuilding our own declining country. It would be a delicious irony if Trump gives us the post-Cold War foreign policy that we should have adopted a generation ago.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.