On April 4, 2019, the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG) in cooperation with the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) hosted a public lecture with a following discussion on America’s leadership in the world and the decline thereof during the last few years. Headlining James Lindsay, Senior Vice President at the Council of Foreign Affairs, the event was well-attended by professionals, students and members of the public alike. After a few opening remarks by Prof. James D. Bindenagel, head of the CISG, and Dr. Johannes Christian Koeke from KAS, James Lindsay took the stage.
In his opening remarks, Lindsay stated that his speech would revolve around three main issues concerning American leadership: First, the worldview of President Trump and why it differs from former presidents, second, how this worldview clashes with the approach to foreign policy of most of the Washington political establishment, and third, the question if “Trumpism” can outlast the Trump presidency.
Let me tell you a story….
Describing Trump as an isolationist or as a unilateralist, Lindsay argued, doesn’t provide a full picture. Although the president has been vocal about his intention to bring American troops back home, he has also been very adamant on the usage of military force abroad to foster American interest. Regarding NATO, Trump’s rhetoric largely centers around his demands for other member states to increase their financial contributions in order to end what he perceives as an exploitation of U.S.-American engagement. In many ways, Lindsay laid out, Trump’s basic world view has some key resemblances to former U.S. presidents: that the United States, as a major force in the international arena, holds a special position in the international system and is equipped with certain privileges that result from its exceptional economic, political and military clout. What separates Trump from his predecessors, however, is his understanding of leadership. For Trump, Lindsay argued, “leadership is not the solution but the source of the American illnesses”. In this mindset, the adherence to liberal values such as the protection of human rights do not serve a higher common purpose but are used by U.S. allies and friends to benefit from American superiority, whilst those same countries exploit the U.S. through multilateral agreements. Trump’s worldview, Lindsay laid out, is based on a purely zero-sum perception: the idea that all countries, including those deemed allies by former presidents, are in competition with one another. All of this, Lindsay concluded, may help explain Trump’s refusal to work multilaterally with allies and friends. However, Trump’s idea of a constant contest between every country on earth is not only making international relations more difficult but is also creating a global environment that is less safe and less conducive for economic prosperity in the U.S.
Trump 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0
Lindsay went on to discuss the opposition Trump faces in the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the effects this has had on his administration since 2017. According to Lindsay, Trump’s foreign policy evolution can be divided into three phases. Right after the election, due to the lack of preparation when it came to setting up a government, Trump surrounded himself with senior advisors familiar with the establishment who upheld the traditional worldview that saw the United States exerting an active leadership role in international politics. This led to constant clashes on most foreign policy issues as these more moderate “adults in the room”, as international commentators came to nickname them, tried to nudge the president back onto a more conventional path. “Trump 2.0” entered in 2018: At this point, frustrated by the opposition in his own camp and grasping the extent of his presidential power, Trump realized his ability to ignore, overrule or fire his advisors. Throughout 2018, this new-found confidence could be witnessed through initiatives such as his imposing tariffs on aluminum and steel, the declaration to pull troops out of Syria, and others. Finally, in 2019, “Trump 3.0” has emerged as an empowered, more confident figure who surrounds himself with advisors who will support him, or does not fill vacant positions such as the position of State Secretary of Defense that has not been officially re-staffed since James N. Mattis resigned due to Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria. Lindsay furthermore argued that in addition to his own executive branch opposing his work, Trump is faced with an even more adverse Congress. Even before the midterms, the U.S. Congress fundamentally disagreed with many of his policies which led to incoherence and inconsistency in American foreign policy.
Will Trumpism outlast Donald Trump?
How long and how profoundly the consequences of Trump’s foreign policy will be felt in the future will depend on a few factors, Lindsay argued: First, the duration of Trumps presidency and what he will be able to accomplish during those years. While cautious to make predictions, Lindsay made it clear that the possibility of Trump being re-elected is very much on the horizon. Either way, Lindsay argued that whoever will become President in 2020 will face a vastly different world from the one of 2016. Secondly, the future of U.S, foreign policy will also largely depend on the alternatives available. Among the large number of Democratic presidential candidates, most do not have much of a track record in foreign affairs and seem to echo some of his sentiments. The last key factor is Washington’s international environment and the actions that allies and friends are about to take. Arguing that he would personally hope for Europe, in particular Germany, France and the United Kingdom, alongside Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and other like-minded countries, to “step up” and temporarily uphold the rules-based international order until the United States as that order’s most important part is ready to return to the world stage, he also expressed his view that the perspectives for this to succeed may be slim.
After his presentation, Lindsay turned to the audience for questions which ranged from the question of what “stepping up” would entail in practice to the consequence of the INF-Treaty cancellation and the increasing political contest between the U.S. and China. He closed with the sentiment that the rules-based international order may have a future if other liberal democracies manage to hold the pieces together until a more traditional US president steps in. Ending on a rather somber note, Lindsay concluded that he was “less optimistic that that will happen than he was six months ago.”