Trump Is the Wrong Sort of Anti-Internationalist
There is a strong case to be made that Americans ought to reconcile themselves to a more circumscribed world role – in Stephen Wertheim’s words, that they should “bid good riddance to the unipolar moment.” But President Trump’s decision to cut funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) is yet more evidence that, sadly, the United States is being led by the wrong sort of anti-internationalist. By picking a fight with the WHO in the middle of a deadly pandemic, Trump is demonstrating once again that his interest in “retrenchment” (such as it exists) stretches only so far as it will serve his short-term political calculus. This is no way to go about reshaping America’s engagement with the outside world, and is certain to leave unaddressed the biggest problem with U.S. internationalism – that is, its stubborn weddedness to militarist tools of statecraft.
Global leadership is not a monolithic role. It is a bundle of rights, responsibilities, burdens, and privileges. Guided by liberal-internationalist ideas about how hegemonic powers should discharge themselves, the United States has sought to combine every available trapping of world leadership over the past three decades. It has underpinned and bankrolled the most important international institutions, led efforts to liberalize the world economy, toppled governments of its choosing, armed its allies and disarmed its rivals, donated vast sums of aid to developing countries, organized humanitarian relief efforts at times of crisis, and otherwise worked to establish itself as the “indispensable” lynchpin of a purportedly rules-based international order – all while trying to deny other great powers a decisive say over how global affairs should be organized.
The reality of great-power decline is that the United States will probably not shed all these overseas commitments at once. Instead, America will climb down from the pinnacle of world order one rung at a time. For those who have thought the most seriously about retrenchment, there is one step toward that should be taken ahead of all others: a shrinking of America’s gargantuan military footprint. Dozens of treaty allies, over 800 overseas military bases, approximately 165,000 personnel deployed overseas in around 150 countries, an annual defense budget that dwarfs those of potential peer competitors, and $6.4 trillion spent on wars since September 11, 2001 – to so-called “restrainers,” none of these policies make obvious strategic sense in the absence of an existential threat to U.S. national security. If there is anything that needs to be changed about how the United States engages with the rest of the world, this is it.
Trump, however, is not serious about retrenchment, no matter how often he might repeat his tagline of putting “America first.” If he committed to reducing America’s overseas burdens, he would not continue to deploy the U.S. military in ways that are far removed from any clearly articulated national priority. He would not wait for the fig leaf of an agreement with the Taliban before withdrawing from Afghanistan. He would not treat U.S. troops like mercenaries. And he would not risk starting new wars, as he did by ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January of this year. These are the actions of an unsparing primacist, not a president who wants to “bring America home” in any meaningful sense.
If he is any sort of anti-internationalist, Trump is but a feel-good anti-internationalist. Petrified of being viewed as “soft” on national security, the President has repeatedly backed away from his own plans to end America’s involvement in warzones such as Afghanistan and Syria. Instead, he revels in whatever brash displays of foreign-policy iconoclasm will generate headlines in domestic news outlets without exposing him to accusations of weakness, regardless of whether they advance a coherent agenda.
Trump is particularly fond of actions that allow him to evoke the imagery of nationalism, unilateralism, militarism, and domination. He likes to humiliate others. In other words, his is a vulgarized version of anti-internationalism that essentially boils down to an impulse to trash the edifices of international fellowship while retaining those aspects of American foreign policy that blazon U.S. primacy to the entire world.
Taking a wrecking ball to international institutions has been a favored tactic of Trump’s over the past four years. From playing the role of “spoiler” at G7 and NATO summits to pulling out of international organizations and pacts like the UN Human Rights Council, Paris Climate Agreement, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has learned that smashing holes into the architecture of international order will always go unpunished in domestic politics even as it allows him to brandish his crude anti-internationalism credentials.
Defunding the WHO is just the latest in a long line of such garish (and empty) displays of anti-internationalism. It is an approach to foreign policy that seems to give Trump a real sense of satisfaction. No doubt it excites his base of domestic supporters, too. The only problem is that the U.S. national interest has been left at the wayside. On the contrary, attacking international organizations like the WHO actively harms U.S. interests by depriving U.S.-based experts of agenda-setting power, ceding influence to competitors like China, and dividing the United States from its traditional allies. With this specific instance of unilateralist showmanship, Trump has also managed to make his administration seem downright cruel, given that so much of America’s contributions to the WHO had been earmarked for exemplary programs like polio eradication.
What America needs is a president who will think creatively about the country’s future in a more multipolar world system. What it has is a president who wants to make an enemy of the international community while clinging to traditional notions of U.S. military primacy. Clearly, this is not a recipe for bringing America’s commitments into balance or putting U.S. foreign policy on an even keel more generally. It is, instead, a mishmash of foreign policy ideas that leaves the United States with the worst of both worlds.
There are major problems with America’s recent history of international engagement, but providing funding to the world’s foremost specialized agency for public health does not rank anywhere close to the top of the list. By turning the WHO into a whipping boy for reasons of political expediency, Trump has yet again distracted Americans from the real ways in which the United States ought to consider shrinking its world role. In short, the wrong sort of anti-internationalist is in charge. Those who are committed to bringing about a sophisticated foreign policy of retrenchment and restraint would do well to distance themselves from him.