Obama, Trump, and Jacksonian Foreign Policy
As discussed here previously, President-elect Donald Trump, despite the incoherence of his statements on foreign policy, has a well-defined worldview. Trump sees world politics as zero sum and transactional. A gain by another country is necessarily a loss for the United States. But there is another aspect of Trump’s worldview that merits comment as well. This aspect of Trump’s worldview is what historian Walter Russell Mead refers to as the “Jacksonian” tendency in American foreign policy in reference to Andrew Jackson and the populism in American politics his presidency inspired.
Trump’s Jacksonian tendencies received a good deal of attention during the campaign. Zack Beauchamp at Vox, in an attempt to refute the notion that Trump’s foreign policy was somehow more dovish than Hillary Clinton’s, picked up on this thread. Beauchamp wrote back in May,
Unlike neoconservatives or liberal interventionists, who have well-fleshed-out foreign policy doctrines, many Jacksonians think about war and peace more instinctively. “With them it is an instinct rather than an ideology — a culturally shaped set of beliefs and emotions rather than a set of ideas,” Mead writes. Sound familiar?
As Mead has explained, notions of honor weigh heavily in the “instinct” that animates Jacksonian foreign policy. Slights cannot be ignored. When American honor is insulted, the response must be overwhelming and, as Douglas MacArthur—one of two generals in American history the president-elect frequently references—famously stated, once a conflict begins, “there is no substitute for victory.”
Noted neoconservative writer, and prominent Trump critic, Max Boot wrote of Trump’s Jacksonian outlook more recently in an essay at Foreign Policy that compared the foreign policy of President Barack Obama with his incoming successor. Boot writes,
In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked.
One can dispute whether Obama is a Jeffersonian (who do not view international institutions—nor military-imposed regime change like the one the Obama administration conducted from the sky in Libya—as favorably). The aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy would put him in Mead’s “Wilsonian” camp—a school of thought that emphasizes America’s special mission to spread liberalism in the world—of which Boot himself is a member. However, Boot thinks that any similarities between Obama and his duly-elected successor stem from the idea that neither Jeffersonians nor Jacksonians see America as possessing a “special mission” in the world—though, in the case of Obama, Boot allows for the forty-fourth president’s belief that America should work more often multilaterally when advancing its interests due to its inherent imperfections.
But while Boot’s essay was premised on the similarities between Obama’s foreign policy and the potential foreign policy of a Trump administration—based on the common insularity of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian tendencies—there are significant differences. In fact, Boot himself lists more differences between what Obama has done and what Trump has proclaimed during the 2016 campaign. And as political scientist and Cato Institute senior fellow Trevor Thrall tweeted in response to Boot’s essay: “[Obama and Trump’s foreign policies] Could look similar in some ways but it will *feel* very different, coming from Trump’s Jacksonian vision of US foreign policy.”
The major difference between President Obama and President-elect Trump on foreign policy stems in large part from the marriage between the Jacksonian emphasis on honor and Trump’s zero sum view of the world. In Trump’s world, gains by others necessarily come at the expense of the United States. NATO not meeting its minimum defense spending obligations is not a “free-rider” problem, but a slight against America. Obama, a committed multilateralist, sees falling European defense spending as a problem to be managed. To Trump, it is an example of America being screwed over on the world stage. If American allies do not “pay their bills,” then President Trump feels less obligation to defend them—no matter the signal that sends to allies and adversaries alike.
As Mead notes, to those of a Jacksonian sentiment, this view of world politics represents mere common sense: those the United States have pledged to defend must meet their obligations. And this form of folk wisdom has its merits. But international politics notions of honor married to a zero sum mentality can have dangerous consequences. In the case of America’s alliances, it overlooks the multilateral institutions developed in the wake of World War II that have provided mutual benefits for both the United States and the world as a whole. While Obama has bemoaned the free-riding of some American allies, and emphasized some commitments over others, he has remained committed to the institutions of the postwar international order. Trump seems much less amenable to maintaining that order because the failure of American allies to “pay their bills” is a slight to American honor as much as it is a product of the inherent attributes of multilateral institutions.
More importantly, the president-elect’s notoriously thin skin, zero sum worldview, and the Jacksonian demand that slights to one’s honor must be rectified, suggest a low bar for the use of force. Obama has been criticized for acting too cautiously with regards to the use of military force (an odd claim given the number of conflicts in which the United States has remained in or initiated conflicts during his two terms). Such circumspection might be missed if and when future crises occur, and the forty-fifth president believes either the country’s honor or his own (if he even views the two as separable) have been been insulted.