Donald Trump may have lost the Iowa caucuses, but he remains a major contender in the Republican primaries. To date, most discussion of his campaign has centered on his domestic policies.
But increasingly, pundits have taken aim at the Republican candidate’s foreign policies, accusing him of holding what Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution calls “antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.” Trump’s Republican rivals have branded Trump an isolationist out of step with U.S. tradition.
But just how unique are Trump’s foreign policy views? If you take a broader view of postwar American foreign policy the surprising answer is: Not so much.
Here are Trump’s opponents’ three essential points.
First, they say, the United States has been building a cooperative, liberal world order since 1945. Trump up-ends that by seeking economic and political concessions from countries such as Japan and South Korea in exchange for American security guarantees. In fact, he might end some American commitments anyway — arguing, for example, that, “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.”
Second, Trump seems to be against free trade — or more precisely, multilateral agreements like NAFTA and TPP that lower barriers to trade among a large group of countries.
“The TPP is a horrible deal,” Trump declared at a November 2015 Republican debate. “It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” Instead, Trump’s solution is to focus on bilateral deals that play to American strengths.
Finally, Trump embraces non-democratic leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, praising Xi as “very smart” and showering accolades on Putin for acting like a true “leader.” Ostensibly, this interest in autocracy would repudiate the United States’ avowed support for democracy.
Combined, Wright argues, a Trump victory in 2016 would thus offer “a mandate to destroy the U.S.-led order” as it has existed since 1945.
So how far out of the mainstream are these three ideas?
In fact, you don’t need to go far at all in postwar politics to find the predecessors of Trump’s ideas. Let’s take these in reverse order.
3. U.S. policy and support for autocrats
Despite often claiming to champion democracy around the world, U.S. policymakers from both political parties backed autocrats throughout the postwar era when U.S. interests dictated. A few examples highlight the trend. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, famously authorized coups to reinstall dictators in Guatemala and Iran. President John F. Kennedy backed South Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter supported the Shah of Iran. President Richard Nixon embraced Mao as an ally against the Soviet Union. And President George H.W. Bush backed Soviet and Chinese leaders against domestic opponents (in China, despite the events of Tiananmen Square).
After the Cold War, both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush accepted Putin’s consolidation of power as a necessary step to restore order in Russia. And today, the United States supports the Saudi and other Gulf monarchies and has largely reconciled with the Sisi regime in Egypt.
Trump’s support for non-democratic leaders, in other words, is within the mainstream of longstanding U.S. policy. In fact, and tellingly, President Ronald Reagan’s own ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick made her name explaining why U.S. support for dictators was justified. Trump’s particular enthusiasm for foreign leaders as autocrats may be novel, but it is hardly an unusual development coming from left field.
2. Free trade
Free trade has certainly been a pillar of U.S. post-1945 foreign policy. But it has always been critiqued, sometimes contentiously. NAFTA, for example, barely passed in the early 1990s as politicians like Pat Buchanan and Dick Gephardt and American labor leaders opposed the deal. Years of negotiations and months of hard bargaining were required before Clinton was able to get enough support to sign the deal into law.
Similarly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is still under fire by prominent opponents like Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who decry the deal in part for lacking adequate labor protections for American workers.
Political scientists have also shown that support for free trade was a reflection of the United States’ massive comparative economic advantages in the wake of World War II — and sustained by special legislation that sidestepped congressional opposition as U.S. advantages waned.
What sets Trump apart isn’t his opposition to free trade. He’s giving voice to a protectionist cause that has long been around.
1. Demanding allied concessions and threatening to abandon some of them
Finally, Trump’s proposal to make countries pay for U.S. security, and sometimes threatening to pull out entirely, has deep roots in postwar politics.
As Wright notes, the United States often forces allies to help foot the bill of a U.S. military presence. But the United States has also tried several other ways to pressure and garner concessions from its partners.
At the height of the Cold War, for example, the United States used its military position to coerce NATO members into buying U.S.-made military equipment of questionable utility — in effect, exacting economic tribute in exchange for security. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration pressured its allies to stop supporting a Soviet gas pipeline, using the United States’ outsized role as their military protector as leverage. And for the last 25 years, the United States has pressured NATO into bringing former Soviet-bloc countries into the alliance — despite significant opposition from members such as Germany and France — and modifying plans for European integration to ensure the United States a predominant role in European security arrangements.
These demands should be recognized for what they are: coercion to extract resources and influence other nations’ fortunes and plans. Trump may call for it in a more bald-faced way, but his demands for tribute are not new.
What about the threat to reduce U.S. involvement abroad? That too is part of the nation’s postwar tradition. At the height of the Cold War, Truman and Eisenhower threatened to end U.S. support for NATO members unless U.S. demands on such issues as nuclear weapons and economic policy were met.
That’s because U.S. policy was built on the idea of limiting involvement abroad — not isolationism but what political scientists call “buckpassing.” That seems much like what Trump has in mind, with the candidate calling (to take one example) for the European members of NATO to take the lead in Ukraine with the United States following “right behind them.”
Admittedly, the United States had largely stopped threatening to exit by the mid-1960s, though both Nixon and George H.W. Bush discussed reducing the U.S. military presence in negotiations with European and Asian allies. Likewise, for the last 30 years, policymakers in both parties have viewed an absent United States as a greater threat to national security than anything else.
Still, limiting overseas U.S. commitments and threatening to reduce them further unless other states accepted American demands was part of the way in which the postwar order was initially created. Trump’s ideas do go beyond what Truman, Eisenhower and others had in mind, but the basic approach is rooted in prior practice.
What’s new about Trump?
If Trump’s proposals have analogs in postwar foreign policy, what exactly is new with the approach?
Trump modifies tradition in particular ways. He goes much farther than his predecessors in embracing the most self-interested aspects of postwar U.S. policy, calls for economic policies that have long been in the minority, and announces his positions with far more outright bombast than we’re used to.
This is not a break from the past, however. Rather, it draws together and extends policies that the United States has been using, or debating, for decades. Put differently, Trump’s foreign policy would be particularly coercive and self-serving, but it would be so by building on long-standing elements of postwar politics supported by both sides of the political aisle.
We can debate the merit of these policies themselves without pretending they are a surprise development new to the postwar era. Any discussion of Trump’s foreign policy requires discussing the postwar foundations of American strategy itself.
Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson is an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University and postdoctoral fellow in U.S. foreign policy at Dartmouth College.