After two years of President Donald Trump, critics and commentators are still struggling to make sense of his foreign policy. Despite some hopes that he might mature into the role of commander in chief, he has continued to thumb his nose at most mainstream academic frameworks for analyzing and conducting foreign policy. Indeed, what makes Trump’s interactions with the rest of the world so confusing is the way he flirts with, and then departs from, the script. He may issue policies and give speeches that include words such as “sovereignty,” “principled realism,” and “peace through strength,” but they frequently appear cheek by jowl with racist rants, crass opportunism, nationalist tirades, and unrestrained militarism.
Trump’s foreign policy is disturbing because it is uncanny—both grotesque and deeply familiar, like a funhouse mirror.
It is this uncomfortable mixture of familiar and jarring that has proven disconcerting for many mainstream international relations scholars, particularly those “intellectual middlemen” who straddle the realms of academia, policy think tanks, and major news outlets. Yet rather than ask how U.S. foreign policy might have contributed to the global environment that made Trump’s election possible, most have responded to the inconsistencies of Trump’s world vision by emphasizing its departure from everything that came before and demanding a return to more familiar times. International relations experts thus express nostalgia for either the “U.S.-led liberal order” or the Cold War while, in outlets such as Foreign Affairs and the New York Times, they offer selective retellings of the country’s past foreign policies that make them look both shinier and clearer than they were. These responses do not offer much insight into Trump himself, but they do have much to tell us about the discourse of international relations in the United States today and the way its mainstream public analysts—liberals and realists alike—continue to disavow U.S. imperialism.
For example, liberal internationalists such as John Ikenberry argue that Trump is guilty of endangering the U.S.-led global order. That system, according to Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney, emerged after World War II, when the liberal democracies of the world “joined together to create an international order that reflected their shared interests,” while simultaneously agreeing, as Ikenberry once put it, to transfer “the reins of power to Washington, just as Hobbes’s individuals . . . voluntarily construct and hand over power to the Leviathan.” The vision of cooperating nation-states may have originated in values that first “emerged in the West,” they argue, but these values have since “become universal.” In this accounting, Trump threatens the stability of U.S. liberal hegemony in two ways: by retreating from multilateral agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal, and by refusing to participate in the narrative of enlightened U.S. leadership. Future great threats to global stability, Ikenberry grumbled, were supposed to come from “hostile revisionist powers seeking to overturn the postwar order.” Now a hostile revisionist power “sits in the Oval Office.”
By contrast, when realists such as Stephen Walt or John Mearsheimer criticize Trump, they start from the position that the liberal world order is a delusion, perpetuated most recently by post–Cold War members of the “elite foreign policy establishment.” Walt and others rightly point to the baseline hypocrisy of a “liberal Leviathan,” noting that the current fury over Russian election tampering and cyber espionage rings hollow given the long U.S. reliance on both strategies. This view accompanies a wistful longing for the putatively gimlet-eyed realism of the Cold War, a time when U.S. presidents understood that their role was to deter the Soviet Union, prevent the emergence of dangerous regional hegemons, and preserve “a global balance of power that enhanced American security.” Seen thus, Trump’s hyperbolic and embarrassing nationalism is a symptom of the abandonment of great power politics, while his fawning treatment of Vladimir Putin shatters any remaining hope that his self-styled “principled realism” might take us back to a more strategically realistic time. In the words of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, watching the Trump–Putin news conference was like “watching the destruction of a cathedral.”
But what is Trump actually doing to destroy this cathedral? What makes Trump’s words and behavior so objectionable? Previous presidents have pulled out of multilateral agreements, entered into disputes with allies, and engaged in protectionism and trade wars. The majority of the Trump administration’s planned and ongoing military deployments are in regions where the military was already deployed by previous administrations in the name of the War on Terror. Moreover, Trump’s national security and national policy statements are littered with the vocabulary of the very experts who find him so terrifying. What, then, makes Trump’s foreign policy such a singular threat?
Trump’s hyperbolic and embarrassing nationalism is a symptom of the abandonment of great power politics.
Trump’s foreign policy is disturbing because it is uncanny—both grotesque and deeply familiar. Like a funhouse mirror, Trump’s vision of the world reflects back a twisted image of U.S. global politics that is and is not who we are supposed to be. For instance, deterrence strategy may require the rest of the world to believe that the U.S. president might use nuclear weapons, but the president is not supposed to hint that he might actually do so. The president is supposed to be concerned with regulating the flow of immigrants but not reveal that race plays a role in these calculations by blurting the phrase “shithole countries.” The president is supposed to believe that the United States is the most blessed, exceptional country on Earth—as Barack Obama put it, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”—but not engage in excessive nationalism by making “total allegiance” the “bedrock” of his politics, or combine it with a commitment to “make our Military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.”
Sometimes Trump’s utterances hit so close to home that they surpass uncanniness. In an essay by Sigmund Freud on the uncanny, Freud says dolls and mannequins unsettle precisely because of the possibility that they might actually be alive, a discomfort that has inspired nightmares, works of literature, and horror movies. Trump, by contrast, is a living nightmare. He opens his mouth and the things-which-must-never- be-said simply fall out. Thus, when Bill O’Reilly asked him why he supported Putin even though he is a “killer,” Trump shot back, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
Trump’s willingness to say such things has precipitated an existential crisis in the international relations world. U.S. foreign policy, as an academic discourse and political practice, is built on the delicate foundation of what Robert Vitalis has called the “norm against noticing,” This deflective move has long been the gold standard of international relations; under its rules of play, IR experts act as if the United States has never been an imperial power and that its foreign policy is not, and has never been, intentionally racist. The norm against noticing thus distinguishes between the idea of the United States as a necessary world-historical actor and the reality of how the United States acts.
In that reality, the United States has long been an imperial power with white nationalist aspirations. Given the racialized nature of U.S. imperial expansion, it makes sense that Alexis de Tocqueville predicted, in a chapter entitled “The Three Races of the United States,” that the United States would one day govern “the destinies of half the globe.” In its early days, while still a slave-holding country, the United States asserted its sovereignty through genocide on a continental scale and annexed large portions of northern Mexico. The country went on to overthrow the independent state of Hawaii, occupied the Philippines and Haiti, exerted its regional power throughout Latin America, expanded its international hegemony after World War II, and became what it is today: the world’s foremost military and nuclear power with a $716 billion “defense” budget that exceeds the spending of all other major global powers combined.
“Taking over from the British Empire in the early twentieth-century,” argues James Tully, the United States has used its many military bases located “outside its own borders”—now nearly 800 in over 80 countries— to force open-door economic policies and antidemocratic regimes on states throughout the formerly colonized world. An extremely partial list of sovereign governments that the United States either overthrew or attempted to subvert through military means, assassinations, or election tampering since 1949 includes Syria, Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, the Congo, Cuba, Chile, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Grenada, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Yemen, Australia, Greece, Bolivia, and Angola. Such interventionist policies have contributed substantially to today’s inegalitarian world in which an estimated 783 million people live in profound poverty. In sum, for untold millions of humans in the Global South, the seventy years of worldwide order, security, and prosperity that Ikenberry and Deudney associate with Pax Americana has been anything but ordered, secure, or prosperous.
International relations experts will acknowledge U.S. violence when necessary, but routinely read the illiberalism of U.S. foreign policy as an exception to “the idea that is America.”
And yet the norm against noticing prevents foreign policy analysis from even acknowledging—let alone grappling with—the relationship between race and imperialism that has characterized U.S. international relations from the country’s earliest days. This regime of politely un-seeing—of deflecting—connections between U.S. foreign policy, race hierarchy, and colonial administration was clearly not in effect when Foreign Affairs was released under its original name: the Journal of Race Development. This began to change, however, in the 1920s. Among other contributing factors, World War I, the rise of anti-colonial revolutions, and the emergence of liberal internationalism as a popular ideology helped convince foreign policy experts in the United States and Europe to adopt a policy language oriented toward “development” rather than imperialism or racial difference. Mainstream international relations scholarship today remains committed to a narrative in which the discipline itself and U.S. foreign policy has always been and remains race blind, concerned solely with the relationship between sovereign states who cooperate, deter, or compete with one another in a global system in which the United States is simply, like Caesar, the “first citizen” (Ikenberry) or “the luckiest great power in modern history” (Walt). For liberals, this involves a studied erasure of the imperial origins of twentieth-century internationalism in the League of Nations’ Mandate system and the complicity of Woodrow Wilson in preserving, as Adom Getachew puts it, “white supremacy on a global scale.” For realists, it requires both forgetting the anti-Enlightenment origins of postwar realist thought and reinserting the “security dilemma” back into history so that, with the help of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, the world can—as Slavoj Žižek says—“become what it always was.”
International relations experts will acknowledge U.S. violence and overreach when necessary, but routinely read the illiberalism of U.S. foreign policy as an exception that is not at all representative, in Anne Marie Slaughter’s words, of “the idea that is America.” Slaughter, with Ikenberry, can consider bad behavior only briefly and only in the service of insisting that what matters most is not what the United States actually does with its power but what it intends to do. Yes, “imperialism, slavery, and racism have marred Western history,” Ikenberry and Deudney argue, but what matters is that liberalism “has always been at the forefront of efforts—both peaceful and militant—to reform and end these practices.” Indeed, even those public intellectuals such as Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff who, after September 11, called for the United States to embrace its status as an imperial power, framed their arguments in deflective, liberal terms. By contrast, because realists project the security dilemma retroactively into history (while also simultaneously excising imperialism) they can only see the U.S. destabilization of Third World economies, assassinations, and secret bombings as tragic necessities (great powers, claims Mearsheimer, “have little choice but to pursue power and to seek to dominate the other states in the system”) or as the result of liberals’ ill-advised desire to force “our” values on other nations. Both of these deflective strategies reinforce the illusion that we live, in Nikhil Pal Singh’s words, in an “American-centered, racially inclusive world, one organized around formally equal and independent nation states” where some states just happen to have more power than others, and where the alternative—Russian or Chinese hegemony—is too frightening even to contemplate.
That deflection would play such an outsized role in supporting the ideological edifice of international relations today is hardly surprising. Turn-of-the-century British liberals who supported their empire also drew upon a variety of different deflective strategies to reconcile the violence and illiberalism of British imperial expansion with the stated liberal goals of the Empire. Such deflection made it impossible for these thinkers—many of whom would go on to work as some of the first international relations scholars in Britain and help found The Royal Institute of International Affairs—to link the problems of empire with the violence and disruption of imperialism.
Similarly, deflection within international relations today obscures the U.S. role in maintaining the profoundly hierarchical, racist, insecure, deeply unjust reality of the current global order. It also makes it impossible to address how U.S. foreign policy (covert and overt) has contributed to the destabilization of that order by creating the circumstances that give rise to “failed states,” “rogue regimes,” and “sponsors of terrorism.” Moreover, it impedes any theorizing about how the widespread appeal of Trump’s xenophobia at home might, in part, be the product of U.S. foreign policy abroad, the bitter fruit of the War on Terror and its equally violent predecessors. In other words, in the grand tradition of liberal empire, U.S. foreign policy deflection actively disrupts the link between cause and effect that an entire science of international relations was created to explain.
What makes Trump’s attitude toward foreign policy so uniquely unhinging for international relations experts, then, is the fact that it is essentially undeflectable. When he explains to Theresa May that refugees threaten European culture or calls Mexican immigrants killers, he lays bare the meant-to-be unutterable fear of nonwhite migration that has haunted British, U.S., and European imperialists and foreign policy experts for over a century. When he summons the fires of nationalism to demand an unprecedented increase in the military budget, and then gets it with the overwhelming support of House and Senate Democrats, he reveals that constitutional checks on the commander in chief are only as good as the willingness of Congress to resist jingoism. When he calls nations populated by brown and black people shitholes, he openly advertises the unspoken white supremacist edge that has informed U.S. economic, development, energy, and foreign policies since the late nineteenth century. Trump’s Muslim ban is simply the War on Terror on steroids. In short, Trump’s foreign policy is unprecedented not because of what it does, but because Trump will openly say what it does—and because of what that then says about us as a nation.
The discomfort Trump provokes ought to prompt international relations experts to reflect on the failings of their discipline to reckon with the relationship between U.S. imperialism, U.S. foreign policy, and the constellation of xenophobia, militarism, racism, and nationalism that haunts our days. The fields of intellectual and legal history and political theory are far ahead of international relations in their critical interrogation of the ideologies that sustain empire at home and abroad. In addition, Trump’s election has emboldened activists to make increasingly explicit the connections they see between a racialized, anti-immigrant politics of domestic dispossession and violence and the history of U.S. imperialism in the world. Unfortunately the same does not appear to be true for the majority of intellectual middlemen who set the public tone for U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s Muslim ban is simply the War on Terror on steroids.
Trump is, finally, both the emperor with no clothes and the pointing child, begging to hold a big military parade so we can collectively acknowledge the naked imperialist power at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Trump practically screams at the United States to look at itself. And yet, the more he screams, the more the intellectual enablers avert their eyes. They are busy looking elsewhere—anywhere really—except at that nakedness.