The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I

There’s been a lot of confusion over what, exactly, President Trump’s foreign policy is or will be. He’s talked tough about trade and alliances, suggested that the US should play a more restrained role in the world, and requested a massive military build-up. But there seems to be little rhyme or reason behind these pieces, as if each were separate from the other and not bound together by what foreign policy analysts would describe as a “grand strategy.” Why would China help the US deal with the problem of North Korean proliferation if the US is threatening to undo the One China policy? Why should the US increase the size of the navy if America will be asking allies to do more of the work and playing a reduced role in the world? How does the president understand the source of conflict and state behavior in the world? What are the factors that most contribute to global peace? These are the questions at the theoretical and policy level that must be answered–or at least engaged–in order to craft a coherent foreign policy.

Understanding the logic behind Trump’s foreign policy requires a look behind the curtain, because the president himself is so devoid of thought, at the people shaping Trump’s policies from the wings. One such person is Michael Anton, currently serving as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council. Anton has been referred to as the primary intellectual behind Trump’s foreign policy, with Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, referring to Anton as “America’s leading authoritarian intellectual” and comparing Anton to Carl Schmitt. Anton is perhaps best known as the person behind the pseudonymously-penned “The Flight 93 Election” in which he argued that conservatives needed to rally behind Trump regardless of policy differences or face destruction as a viable party.

Anton has recently published a piece (written before he joined the administration) in which he gives, perhaps, the clearest explanation of how he–and perhaps by extension, the Trump administration (or at least the political side of his administration)–thinks about the world. In the new policy journal American Affairs, being hailed as the intellectual defense of Trumpism, Anton has an article entitled “America and The Liberal Order” in which lays out his understanding of the role the US should play in the world. It is a bold piece, long on pronouncements but short on international relations theory or serious scholarship (there seems to be a trend of national security “experts” in the Trump White House who have little actual experience in either academia or policy work: See Gorka, Sebastian). So…what’s his argument? In this post, I will examine and dismantle his argument. In a subsequent post, I will present my rebuttal.

Anton’s primary argument is that the foreign policy establishment on both the right and the left “seem to think that no explanation of [the] utility or value [of the liberal international order] is necessary. Affirmation is enough because it’s goodness is self-evident.” The liberal international order (LIO) is defined, not inaccurately, as “the post-World War II consensus among the victorious great powers…on (in descending order of consensus), security, trade, and internal political arrangements. In more concrete terms, it is the constellation of of institutions built to further that consensus: the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, and other, later entrants such as the World Bank.”

The claim that people blindly support the LIO is so unbelievably stupid and unsupportable as to be laughable. It is easily belied as I lift my head from Anton’s article and look at the literally more than 30 books and hundreds of articles in my office devoted to making the case that the LIO is one of the fundamental linchpins of global peace and stability. Those books and articles range from old classics, like Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society, to more recent works like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s A New World Order, World Out of Balance by Stephen Books and William Wohlforth, or G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan. I could go on. I could list hundreds of articles, both scholarly and policy-focused, that consider the benefits of the LIO and the means by which those institutions stabilize the international system. I could simply point to the journals International Organization and International Security, which, in the Winter 2015/16 issue published an article entitled “Trade Expectations and Great Power Conflict” that reviews Dale Copeland’s Economic Interdependence and War, a book examining how the growing economic interdependence of the LIO affects war between states. I could go on. But why bother? Of course, there are plenty of books and articles arguing against the benefits of the LIO, but that debate seems beyond Anton, who simply makes a ridiculous argument. The unsupported claim that people simply take the benefits of the LIO for granted is patently absurd and it is telling that the claim forms the basis of Anton’s foreign policy world view.

It’s hard to take seriously an argument that begins by ignoring the last 40 years or so of international relations scholarship, but let’s try. Anton continues by arguing that “America’s national interests are to pursue and promote prosperity, prestige, and peace (emphasis in original).” He goes on to explore each in turn. Peace is the foremost interest of all states, but America, he claims, has an easier time than most obtaining it due to favorable geography. However, he suggests that “we should not be too confident on this score;” while the threat of being invaded is low, “death…is far more likely to come at the hands of terrorists, or perhaps a nuclear attack for a foreign power, presumably the result of tensions arising from some other crisis somewhere ratcheting out of control.” Anton offers no justification for these fears, despite the fact that the worst terrorist attack of all time (the attacks of 9/11) killed about the same number of Americans that die each year from food-borne illnesses. Yes, it’s true that terrorism is fundamentally different from salmonella, but Anton don’t even attempt to defend his claim that terrorism should be understood as one the primary threats to the US. There is, of course, a voluminous literature arguing that the threat of terrorism is overblown and that the main way it threatens this country is by producing anti-terrorism responses that are more dangerous than the threat itself. But Anton makes no mention of this or even attempt to justify his claim. He simply asserts it and moves on.

Anton then turns to prestige which he contrasts with contempt and “the largest contributor to contempt, however, is a general sense of decline.” Contempt is also engendered by “pointless apologies, gratuitous insults to allies and friends, failure to honor commitments, [and] transparent groveling to enemies.” Contempt matters, Anton argues, for two reasons: “First, being held in contempt increases the probability of the other two bad outcomes, death and poverty,” because a contemptible state will have problems making alliances and exerting influence. “The second reason contempt and prestige matters has to do with the effects on the soul of patriotism and national pride.” The body politic will be healthier when, Anton claims, it believes its state is “strong, or at least not weak.”

This is not just an not-so-transparent attack on President Obama, who Trump repeatedly accused of betraying American strength and apologizing to America’s enemies; it’s also an attack on a universal understanding and application of the values in the Declaration of Independence. Anton claims that “such nature feelings [patriotism and pride] are hard to acknowledge today when ‘all men are created equal’ is taken to such absurd lengths that it is considered immoral to prefer one’s fellow citizens to strangers on the opposite side of the world.” For Anton, cosmopolitanism, liberal internationalism, belief in universal human rights–all of which assert that political boundaries have no moral relevance–are threats to the modern state by undermining the nature of patriotism.This is nothing less than fundamental rejection of foreign policy that the United States has adopted since the end of the Cold War: a belief that all people, regardless of where they live, are indeed morally equal and have rights which their governments cannot abrogate or deny.

He also notes that “most men, most of the time, favor people who are part of their communities and prefer to help them when they can.” This argument is indeed true, but Anton fails to note the argument of Francis Fukuyama who, in his two-part masterwork, convincingly demonstrates that the modern state is an experiment in moving away from traditional emphases on patrimonialism and kin-based political structures towards impersonal, professional bureaucracies. Political decay occurs when political elites, driven by the exact impulse that Anton extols manage to recapture the state and turn it into their own fiefdom, rewarding their kith and kin. For Anton, this impulse is at the heart of the power of a state; for Fukuyama, it is the death of modern politics.

Anton then turns to the third of America’s national interest: prosperity. The US, he argues, “elevated prosperity to a national interest” (against the advice of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, both of whom Anton notes preferred “republican poverty”) which had the effect of elevating global commerce to a matter of national security. This was a good idea in 1945, Anton claims, and at that time, the LIO “served the purposes of American peace, prestige, and prosperity well.” The US had a dominant economy but needed markets to sell to, so “it was in our interest to devise new international economic arrangements to revive the shattered economies of Western Europe and Northeast Asia.” American prestige was also “at its peak” and the US wisely chose not to retreat back into isolationism, instead remaining engaged with the world and building anti-Soviet alliances.

Today, however, is a different matter. The LIO has “acquired a logic of its own that demands the preservation of its every aspect without reference to America’s basic interests. Reorienting American foreign policy does not require abandonment of LIO institutions in toto, but neither does it prevent intelligent reform.” What kind of reform is needed? For starters, “our trade policy is is obvious need of reform.” But Anton makes no mention of what kind of reform is needed or even what the so-called obvious problems are. There is, of course, a great deal of academic and policy literature on how to reform current trade structures from the WTO to global competition policy (see here, here, and here for a few examples). But Anton doesn’t even seem to be aware that it is the US, along with Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea, whose unwillingness to let go of their agricultural subsidies who bear much of the responsibility for the collapse of efforts to reform the WTO.

He next turns to America’s alliance structures, focusing on NATO, which has been called “obsolete” by Donald Trump. NATO needs to be made “more relevant” to address the “threats of our time–terrorism [and] mass illegal migration.” It’s not at clear while a military alliance designed to deter Soviet and now Russian expansion and defend the borders of Europe and North America would be an appropriate tool to deal with mass migration; how exactly do tanks and fighter planes help secure the border? There is also no mention of NATO’s role in counter-terrorism as evidenced by its participation in the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and its recent (which despite claims to the contrary predate Trump’ call for NATO to address terrorism) focus on exactly what Anton claims NATO isn’t doing. He goes on to attack neo-conservatives for, as he puts it, the belief that “it is in our interest to democratize the world.” Holy straw man from 2003, Batman! Yes, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, to some degree, the result of overconfidence in the ability of the US military to instill democracy in the Islamic world. But no one, as far as I am aware, making the argument today that “nation building” should be a focus of US national interest. Of course, Anton provides no examples, sources, or citations to support this claim.

Anton ends his article by claiming that he values the LIO but that its supporters have lost sight of its original purpose. “Even when created in 1945-1950 it was never intended to encompass the globe…. The attempt, beginning in 1991-92, to extend that order over the whole world was a case of American eyes being much bigger than our stomachs (or teeth), a confusion of ideology and interests. In fact, however, such expansion was never necessary to core American interests–peace, prosperity, prestige.” What changed in 1991-92? Anton doesn’t tell us, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. It’s safe to assume he’s referring to, among other things, policies like engagement with China, the Clinton-era focus on humanitarian intervention, the creation of NAFTA and the WTO, and the expansion of NATO up to the Russian border. While President Trump’s professed (it’s too early to say whether he’ll actually follow through on these) preferences reject all of these policies, Anton claims that “the uncertainty of the present moment does not derive primarily from President Trump’s supposed disregard for the fundamentals of the [LIO]…. In restoring a sense of the core objectives behind the LIO’s institutions, Trump actually shows a greater regard for it.” This claim wouldn’t so patently absurd of Anton had actually shown how Trump will restore the core objectives instead of just listing the core objectives. Somehow, Anton seems to believe that no one else in the world has realized that peace and prosperity are core national objectives (I’ve left out prestige because he doesn’t operationalize the concept and there is a healthy discussion in academic circles about how much reputation matters. More on this in my follow-up post.)

In a follow-up post, I will attempt to demonstrate how Anton fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the benefits of the LIO. But, even without going into detail, it’s hard to take this argument seriously. In my classes, I am constantly stressing to my students the difference between asserting an argument and making one. Asserting an argument simply require that one state one’s opinion; making an argument requires engaging with evidence, presenting support for one’s position, taking seriously the positions that challenge your own ideas. This is not just the purview of academic papers; take a look at any of the pieces written in, for example, Foreign Affairs, in my opinion the premier foreign policy journal in the world: all of the articles there will make arguments. Anton does none of this. He simply asserts. If this was handed in to my US Foreign Policy class, it would receive an “F” grade.

The most disturbing thing about this piece is not actually the arguments–or lack thereof–that Anton asserts; rather, it’s that this kind of pseudo-intellectualism can pass for serious strategic thought. People like Anton, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and the other shadowy figures making up the political ideology of the Trump administration all demonstrate this tendency to conflate assertion with intellectual argument. None of these people can convincingly the oceans of scholarship on these issues because they are likely neither aware of it nor interested in understanding it. It is deeply concerning that these people are, to some degree, shaping the direction of the country, and are doing so outside of the spotlight without Senate confirmation. The only remedy is to expose both their ignorance and the problematic nature of their ideas.

In a follow-up post, I will present arguments in defense of the LIO that will, hopefully, demonstrate how and why the LIO is not only vital to American national security, but should be built upon and expanded.


1 thought on “The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I”

  1. Enjoyed the long post here. I’m constantly struck by many of the people that Trump surrounds himself with who are blatant “zero-sum game merchantilist” in all aspects from economics to politics. Furthermore, to me it seems as though they read Orwell’s literature, both “1984” and “Animal Farm” and viewed them not as the warnings they are, but as a guide or playbook from which they conjure ways to create a cult of personality around themselves and the president, not all that dissimilar from way Putin is portrayed throughout Russia.


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