Good-Bye Familiar America?
No. 4 2016 October/December
Dmitry V. Suslov

Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

U.S. Foreign Policy: A Forecast Until 2024

The presidential race in the United States has entered its final stretch, meaning it is time to pause and take stock of events. Not surprisingly, the campaign has revealed profound fissures between Democrats and Republicans, which has been the case in all recent elections since 1996 (Bill Clinton and Bob Dole), but especially in 2000 (George W. Bush and Al Gore) and 2008 (Barack Obama and John McCain). No less important is the deep divide between the entire U.S. foreign policy elite and society.

The nature and depth of the divide is reminiscent of the isolationists and internationalists during the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, it shows the limits of foreign policy consensus in the United States, which first emerged in the 1940s when Harry Truman was president. The division grew larger after the U.S. had declared victory in the Cold War, then started actively working to shape the world to its ideas and values, which seemed universal at the time.

Consensus and Challenges

The foreign policy consensus shared by both Democratic liberal internationalists and Republican neoconservatives is based on four pillars:

  1. commitment to “global leadership;”
  2. commitment to strengthening and broadening the “liberal international order;”
  3. recognition of the inextricable link between the influence, safety, and prosperity of the U.S., on the one hand, and its leadership of the “liberal international order,” on the other;
  4. commitment to spreading democracy. This implies the preservation and even expansion of the U.S. global presence and greater intervention to resolve the most important international and even domestic issues and crises.

The implementation of this consensus was based on several axioms about the world and the place of the U.S. in it:

  • The world develops linearly and, in general, in a way that redounds to the benefit of the U.S. and its ideology (the “end of history” concept).
  • U.S. ideology is universal; the world needs and welcomes American leadership.
  • Globalization is good for the U.S. and, by participating in it, countries and regions reduce the likelihood of conflicts and begin to play by the rules established by the U.S.
  • The spread of democracy and the market economy automatically expands peace, security, and prosperity.
  • Americans, like the Western population in general, will be better off tomorrow than yesterday.

Faith in these axioms has buoyed public support over the past 70 years. The current U.S. foreign policy consensus received a huge infusion of legitimacy at the end of the Cold War, which seemed at the time to confirm many of these assumptions. Today it is becoming increasingly clear that these axioms were illusory. Moreover, unlike the elite, which continues to believe in those principles and is desperately trying to prove their relevance, Americans are experiencing this the hard way.

A Friendly World No More

Twenty years after the greatest triumph of the West and the United States, the world has ceased to move in a direction that is good for them. It turned out that globalization has a “dark side”—global financial and economic crises, overall vulnerability, and transnational security threats—and, in general, is working for non-Western countries much better than for the West. Against this backdrop, an unusually tough statement by President Barack Obama that the U.S., not China, will write the international trade rules in the 21st century, and Donald Trump’s promises to bring industrial production back to the United States are symptoms of the same disease. Globalization as it is no longer suits the United States. It is decimating the middle class, reducing living standards, and fueling fears in American society that children today may be worse off than their parents.

The same applies to security. The end of the Cold War failed to bring about Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace.” On the contrary, the world is becoming increasingly torn by conflicts, and is less governable and more hostile towards the United States and the West in general. Transnational threats are growing in the wake of a renewed rivalry between great powers. The United States, as the self-styled leader, is powerless to do anything about it. Washington’s attempts to intervene and play the role of a “global policeman” have only made things worse (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Greater Middle East, and Ukraine).

The same goes for migration, which has become a major challenge to social development and identity, both in the United States and Western Europe. American society was not prepared for the massive influx of Latin American immigrants. The melting pot, which worked so well for European Americans, did not simply falter, but collapsed. The white population, which will likely become a minority by mid-century, has found itself under siege. The growing terrorist threat from Islamic radicals has predictably prompted an even greater surge of intolerance.

Simply put, faced with the uncontrollable forces of globalization and a less hospitable world, American society—or at least a significant part of it—has started opposing the foreign policy consensus that the political elite has advanced for several decades. Society demands the familiar and friendly “yesterday” and instinctively seeks to fence itself off from an increasingly hostile world—whether nearby Mexico or overseas Europe, or the Middle East. Donald Trump is on the front lines of this protest. He is popular precisely because his populist statements resonate with public sentiment and the general rejection of the previous foreign policy consensus (and the elite behind it).

Importantly, all the Republican candidates and almost all Democratic ones (with one exception), who represented the traditional political elite and traditional foreign policy consensus during these elections, have failed miserably. On the contrary, the critics of the system, such as populist Donald Trump, socialist Bernie Sanders, and Tea Party leader Ted Cruz, have become the stars of the campaign. Against this backdrop, Hillary Clinton is the only representative of the Establishment and the champion of the status quo who has made it to the finals.

As a result of the chasm between the traditional elite and an angry electorate, for the first time since the first half of the 20th century presidential candidates are running campaigns based not merely on differences of opinion, but on fundamentally different foreign policy paradigms.

Returning Leadership vs. Returning Greatness

Shaped in the 1990s, Hillary Clinton’s views of foreign policy represent a concentrated form of the traditional American foreign policy consensus. She is a proponent of U.S. global leadership and the U.S.-led “liberal international order.” Moreover, Clinton is a true candidate of the American elite, who were disappointed in George W. Bush and Obama, considering the policy of the former excessively rigid and lopsided, and the policy of the latter too soft and accommodating. No wonder the majority of foreign policy elites began to coalesce around her during the initial stage of the election campaign. The Democracts were the first as they believed that President Obama had not done enough to advance U.S. global leadership, had done too little to promote American interests, and even less to promote American values. Later, when it became clear that the Republican candidate, Trump, was winning, neoconservatives scrambled to throw their support behind Clinton.

Indeed, in terms of her foreign policy outlook, Clinton is a cross between Barack Obama and George. W. Bush. Like Obama, she believes that the United States should promote the “liberal international order.” Clinton contends that the global standing of the United States is inextricably linked to the existence of this order and U.S. leadership in it. But, like Bush, she believes that the United States should not think twice about using military force, even in violation of international law, to defend this order, as well as U.S. values and interests. Her rhetoric during the current campaign, the statements by her closest allies, her track record as Secretary of State, as well as her previous foreign policy positions suggest that Clinton is a “hawk” and a “liberal interventionist.” If elected president, she will conduct a more ideology-driven and tougher policy than the Obama administration. The foreign policy portion of the election platform adopted at the Democratic Party’s convention in Philadelphia clearly shows this. The platform is filled with rhetoric about America’s leadership and the “liberal order,” the need to promote democracy, and deter “Russian aggression.”

Clinton is also a pragmatist. Her entire political career, and particularly her current campaign, proves that she does not think twice before acting unscrupulously and, for the sake of political expediency, she does things that are at odds with the generally accepted American values and norms that she herself upholds. However, this is what Clinton normally does on domestic policy. When it comes to foreign policy, she has strong ideas about what is right and what is wrong, in which direction the world should go, and what role the United States should play in it. Given the almost unanimous support of her approach to foreign policy by the foreign policy establishment in both parties, there is no reason to believe that, if elected president, she will suddenly abandon or significantly adjust her positions. In this context, her tendency to ignore norms and principles when it is politically expedient may result not only in foreign policy pragmatism but also in a willingness to break international law if it is in the tactical interests of the United States. It is no accident that when she was Secretary of State Clinton tried to persuade Obama to use military force in Syria, and thereby commit an act of aggression.

Even though Trump does not have a detailed foreign policy course and is guided mostly by his business instincts and pure pragmatism, he demonstrates a fundamental departure from the established U.S. foreign policy paradigm. He understands the disaffected voters who, on the one hand, would like to fence themselves off from a hostile world and concentrate resources on domestic issues and, to be frank, put an end to globalization, but who, on the other hand, are not satisfied with the Obama administration’s “weak” policies.

Judging by his remarks and the comments of his advisers, Trump intuitively leans towards classical political realism with a focus on national interests. He has little interest in values and the international order (as a set of rules and norms of behavior), and neo-realism, with its strict approach to global alignment of forces.

One of the key premises underlying Trump’s foreign policy outlook is renouncing the link between U.S.’s greatness, on the one hand, and its leading role in promoting the liberal international order in accordance with U.S. interests and values (the American system of military, trade and economic alliances, international economic institutions, etc.), on the other. It is no coincidence that one of the most respected American diplomats, former ambassador to the UN, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, described Trump’s foreign policy platform as a kind of throwback to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

If the fluff of his outrageous and controversial remarks is removed from what he says, Trump’s agenda is largely in line with the concept of offshore balancing, which has been promoted by leading American realists for several years. In accordance with this view, the United States should reduce its direct presence in various regions of the world (except for where it is needed to protect U.S. vital interests) and shift a greater burden of responsibility for security to its allies. It should take a very selective approach to direct involvement in crises, refrain from using military force as a primary foreign policy tool (specifically, give up occupation and nation-building missions), and reduce its democracy promotion activities. This concept (and the school of realism in general) also recommends that the United States focus on relations with other great powers and develop policies towards them that will allow them to retain their superiority as long as possible.

Even with regard to specific foreign policy issues, Trump’s controversial remarks, if, again, you separate them from the populist wrapper, are completely consistent with the leading American realists’ recommendations. Thus, his statement that European countries should protect themselves and NATO should run its course is no different from calls by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe (even now, despite the Ukraine crisis and the worsening standoff with Russia). It is especially resonant with what former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said back in 2011: Washington might reconsider its approach to the alliance and its usefulness for America.

Trump’s remarks about Russia and China and the role he assigns to relations with other great powers in his foreign policy agenda (if it can be referred to as such) are also broadly in line with the realistic paradigm. With regard to China as a major economic and political rival, the United States has formulated a strict policy of containment. Trump has already made it clear that he will not try to build partnerships with Beijing, and not only because of the job drain to China.

A more constructive foreign policy has been proposed with regard to Russia, which is, of course, perceived as a great power, but not one that can pose a major challenge to the United States or call into question its global superiority. Apparently, realist-minded advisers to the Republican nominee hope to use the proposed partnership with Russia in order to more effectively contain China. If this is the case, this factor may become one of the major irritants in relations between the two countries should Trump be elected president.

This does not mean, though, that if elected Trump will actually embark on a foreign policy course similar to that of Henry Kissinger or George H.W. Bush. Since the American elite, Congress, the government bureaucracy, and the media are against it, such a trajectory is simply impossible. For a larger number of employees in the State Department and the Pentagon, even the current U.S foreign policy is not tough enough and occasionally defeatist (remember the letter written by 50 employees of the State Department that called on Obama to start bombing Syria like the U.S. did in Yugoslavia). With regard to Trump, there may be instances of sabotage or mass layoffs. Clearly, if he is elected president, his actual policies will be significantly different from his current statements. Already the choice of Mike Pence—a representative of the traditional Republican establishment with orthodox foreign policy views, including in relation to Russia—as a running mate demonstrates the inevitability of a major correction.

The Departure is Inevitable

Major changes to U.S. foreign policy will take place no matter what. It is hard to tell exactly how, but Trump, if elected, will make a major move away from the foreign policy paradigm that has been dominant in the United States over the past 70 years. The U.S. will be more hostile towards China, tougher and more pragmatic towards Europe, more pragmatic and neutral towards Russia, and more indifferent towards the Middle East. Most likely, there will be an attempt to once again reset U.S.-Russia relations, this time on a new realistic basis of an informal “exchange of interests.” U.S. foreign policy will become even more one-sided, and the traditional bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control inherited from the Cold War will eventually become a thing of the past. This is neither good nor bad. From the viewpoint of Russian interests, there are both positive and negative implications. In any case, it will not be the traditional policy of maintaining U.S. “global leadership” or strengthening the U.S.-led “liberal international order.”

If Clinton wins, she will enjoy the support of the elite and the establishment of both parties on foreign policy issues for some time. The new administration will build on this to do what the Obama administration has not done or done poorly. However, the deep schism between the elites and society, and the rejection of the traditional foreign policy consensus by a large portion of the electorate will only grow deeper. Therefore, society will criticize Clinton’s foreign policy through new populist leaders, and already in the 2020 elections she will be faced with new “Trumps.” Popular protest against the status quo will erupt with a vengeance. In 2024, the candidate of the “anti-elite” may well win.

U.S. foreign policy is entering an era of change—the most significant since the Truman administration. The cause of such changes lies in the discrepancy between the U.S. foreign policy consensus reached at that time and forged in the 1990s, and the current (and, most likely, future) global trends. Maintaining “global leadership” in a multipolar world is impossible, and the “U.S.-led liberal international order” in the traditional American understanding has not taken root. It is just a matter of time. If Trump wins, the departure from the current consensus will begin in 2017. If Clinton wins, it will begin a little later. But it is inevitable.

This article is based on a report Suslov wrote for the Valdai International Discussion Club.