The presidency of Donald J. Trump: One still emits a quiet gasp when uttering the phrase. It will take time to get beyond this, in part because nearly everything is uncertain now, as all understand. This applies even more to foreign policy than to President-elect Trump’s—gasp, again—domestic plans. Things could be no other way at this early moment, given the nature of Trump’s campaign and what he stands for: Trump’s elevation, like Andrew Jackson’s 187 years ago, is a cri de coeur, a visceral shout of resistance to conditions here at home, at least as much as it is a reasoned statement of intent. All detail and specificity are yet to come; on the foreign side we have little more than phrases that would fit on billboards.
We have questions, however. They are two and pressing. One, will our 45th president disrupt the post-1945 international order, prompting recalibrations and realignments few of us were able to imagine even a year or so ago? And the post–Cold War order? “Cold War II” emerges—regrettably, pitifully—as the simplest name for it. Improbably or otherwise, will Trump open us to something more imaginative and constructive—something approximating order, indeed? These are closely related but finally separate matters.
To state my case straightaway: I count a top-to-bottom remake of the global order an urgent task—altogether desirable. Stability, to put the point another way, cannot be counted a positive value in and of itself. It is beneficial or not only in context, and in our current context it is not, by any disinterested measure. Before you dismiss this as adventurist tripe, let me take a sec to remind you of dynastic China in its late-imperial phase. It is perfectly relevant to our circumstances.
For the Qing, the established order was to be maintained because it was the established order; the tradition was honored because it was the tradition. This was late-Qing’s gravest error. Atrophy, weak-mindedness, and decline resulted. I used to think it very weird that Alexis de Tocqueville, in the second volume of Democracy in America, invoked imperial China to warn of the new republic’s most serious vulnerability: Fat and happy, the New World’s democrats will live by received wisdom and resist all thought of change. When we consider American liberals and their global order, notably in its neoliberal iteration, we find the only thing weird about the great Frenchman’s thought to be its prescience. Wedded to orthodoxy, grossly intolerant of difference, incapable of thinking for themselves, those who fashion and defend the liberal order as we have it are straight out of Tocqueville’s pages—“flabbily following the course of their destiny,” sheltering righteously within a “democratic despotism” of their making. This is true at home and true abroad.
Now to the above-noted questions.
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Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy positions did not defeat her, just as Trump’s did not win him the White House. The political fight was won and lost on domestic ground. But Clinton’s thinking carries over from the domestic to the foreign, and so does Trump’s. We have it right, she asserted a thousand times, now let us make minor adjustments. As she said of her foreign-policy goals in her much-noted interview with The Atlantic two years ago, “Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time.” This is the ideology of exceptionalism as we have had it since the early 19th century. One cannot tell whether Trump is an exceptionalist—he does not take it to the Clintonian extreme, certainly—but his fundamental position is perfectly clear: We do not have it right. It has not worked—not at home and not abroad.