President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when the national interest demands it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.