Donald Trump’s presidency will end on January 20, but his influence on U.S. foreign policy will not. For decades before Trump’s election in 2016, the United States pursued a strategy of hardheaded internationalism, employing its power on behalf of a relatively cooperative, open world order. The outgoing president rejected that tradition, marrying American muscle to a starkly nationalist and often illiberal agenda both at home and abroad. No longer was the United States an exceptional superpower, committed to democratic values and principled leadership. Trump, though not always the administration he led, envisioned the United States as a country exceptional only in the influence it could wield to secure its narrowly defined national interests.
Trump deserves credit for puncturing certain illusions of the post–Cold War era and creating some tactical opportunities that President-elect Joe Biden might be able to exploit. But by and large, he has taken U.S. strategy down a dangerous path. The Trump years revealed that illiberal nationalism will not help the United States navigate a stubbornly interdependent world or compete with predatory authoritarian powers. And by sowing doubts about the United States’ long-term commitment to democratic norms and constructive global leadership, Trump has created a crisis of American internationalism that will outlast his presidency.
The incoming Biden administration now faces a daunting task. U.S. allies may not come rushing back with open arms; the new president cannot simply declare that the United States has returned. Rather, Biden must update American internationalism for a new era of geopolitical and ideological rivalry and restore, domestically and globally, the credibility of a tradition that has been badly damaged. If he fails, history may look upon his presidency as the last gasp, rather than the second wind, of American internationalism.
Prior to 2016, it would have been hard to imagine an American president rejecting American internationalism as thoroughly as Trump did. U.S. foreign policy has never been about altruism. But between World War II and the Trump presidency, every U.S. leader believed that Washington could best advance its interests—whether securing prosperity or constraining authoritarians—by sustaining a liberal international order from which like-minded nations could benefit. The United States would not be a normal great power, seeking parochial gains in an anarchic world. It would be a historically abnormal superpower, whose statecraft reflected its democratic values and a more inclusive notion of national good.
American statecraft and the liberal international order it supported evolved over time. By 2016, both were due for a recalibration, thanks to the rise of China and the economic, social, and geopolitical dislocations globalization had caused. Many of Trump’s advisers favored and sought to execute a grand strategy that would respond to these challenges without junking the United States’ larger postwar legacy. Yet the president’s rejection of American internationalism was more fundamental.
Trump did not intend to surrender American power or global prerogatives. His administration increased defense spending, identified China as a pressing threat to American primacy, and was willing to use U.S. influence—including military power—quite aggressively. Trump’s innovation, rather, was to decouple American hegemony from the inclusive ethos and liberal principles that had previously made that hegemony seem comparatively benign.
The president demanded dramatically higher rents (sometimes in the form of direct monetary payments) from U.S. allies, effectively treating them as tributary states rather than partners in relationships of mutual benefit. He showed undisguised admiration for repressive autocrats—praising crackdowns carried out by Chinese President Xi Jinping and others—and a distinct disinterest in promoting human rights and democracy. He rolled back American participation in international organizations and waged a multifront campaign against the world trade system. He openly encouraged illiberal populism and fragmentation within the European Union and undermined long-standing norms, such as nonrecognition of territorial gains achieved by force. And he repeatedly harnessed American foreign policy in service of illiberal objectives at home, most notably by conditioning U.S. assistance to Ukraine on the delivery of incriminating material on the Biden family. Indeed, Trump’s foreign policy was the international counterpart to his persistent degradation of democratic norms within the United States, culminating with his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The intellectual thread that linked Trump’s actions was his subversion or outright rejection of the core principles of postwar grand strategy. The president viewed the world, including relations with allies, in zero-sum rather than positive-sum terms. He frequently complained that the system Washington had created was exploiting the United States. He renounced the idea that the United States has any higher purpose or responsibility to provide international leadership for reasons beyond its own narrowly conceived benefit. And he often acted as though the norms, institutions, and relationships that Washington traditionally cultivated were mere constraints on American power—just as he treated democratic laws, norms, and customs as constraints on his own authority. No matter how diligently Trump’s advisers worked to channel his destructive instincts into constructive policies, they could not disguise the fact that the man wielding the awesome powers of the presidency had little attachment to liberalism at home or abroad.
Trump’s statecraft wasn’t all bad, and his critiques of long-standing U.S. policies weren’t all wrong. Certain international institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization, had indeed become corrupt and ineffective. Globalization had intensified economic pressures on American manufacturing and the working class, and the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that it had also exacerbated U.S. vulnerability to supply chain disruptions and fostered concerning dependencies on China. Most important, Trump’s recognition that the great gamble of post–Cold War foreign policy—the effort to pacify China through integration and, eventually, liberalization—had failed freed the Pentagon and other agencies to begin crafting a more competitive approach. It took an illiberal president to identify the distortions and illusions that had accumulated within the liberal order. On issues from cyberdefense to Arab-Israeli relations, moreover, Trump’s administration moved U.S. policy in a positive direction.
Yet Trump’s overall impact was dismaying, because he rarely offered good solutions to the problems he identified. Skepticism of international organizations and multilateralism did not shield the United States from the ravages of COVID-19; the only answer to such a transnational scourge was more, not less, international cooperation. Withdrawing from international institutions and from agreements such as the Paris climate accord did not make these entities perform better so much as it isolated Washington and ceded influence to corrupt authoritarians and U.S. competitors. And although the drawbacks of economic integration with China were, by 2020, undeniable, the only way to mitigate them—short of implausible autarky—was deeper economic integration with the democratic allies Trump maligned. Illiberal nationalism was no guide to statecraft in an interdependent world.
Even when it came to great-power rivalry, Trump’s policies were often self-harm masquerading as self-interest. By frequently bullying smaller states, Trump promoted a style of politics that ultimately favored predatory authoritarians. By abandoning climate change diplomacy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade agreement advanced by President Barack Obama, Trump left vacuums that Chinese influence soon filled. By downplaying the importance of liberal values and in some cases endorsing illiberal practices, he weakened the United States’ position in the global ideological contest between democracy and authoritarianism. And by antagonizing many advanced democracies, the president damaged the relationships that should be the United States’ greatest assets. It was no accident that the United States’ global reputation plummeted most starkly in democratic states during the Trump era.
But Trump’s most pernicious effect will be the dark shadow his tenure casts over future U.S. foreign policy. Biden’s inclination—judging from his speeches, his track record in the Senate and as vice president, and his personnel choices—is to revive American internationalism and adapt it for an era of great-power rivalry. He will seek to repair alliances, reengage international institutions, and pursue broad cooperation on transnational issues while also sharpening the United States’ posture toward an increasingly belligerent China. Achieving all this won’t be easy.
Biden’s election may reassure many U.S. allies and partners, but they still must reckon with the possibility that Americans will once again elect a leader who undermines democratic institutions and pursues illiberal nationalism abroad. Some countries may thus be wary of walking out on geopolitical limbs with the United States for fear that a future U.S. president will saw them off—as Trump did, for instance, by withdrawing from the TPP in 2017. How can allies have confidence in American leadership, one former State Department official recently mused to CNN, “when you know the next president could be Kid Rock?” Concerns about the stability of the U.S. political system and the future direction of American policy may encourage countries to keep their geopolitical options open even as they rebuild ties with Washington: witness the recent EU investment deal with China, signed over protests from the outgoing and the incoming U.S. administrations alike. When it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s presidency is the bell that cannot be unrung.
The United States will get a significant soft-power bump on January 20, simply because Trump, whom citizens of Washington’s closest allies view less favorably than Xi or even Russian President Vladimir Putin, is no longer president. In some cases, Trump’s sharp-edged diplomacy—his use of coercive tariffs against China and his shunning of underperforming international organizations, for instance—may also create openings for Biden to reengage key countries and bodies on more favorable terms. But if the incoming administration will enjoy some short-term opportunities, it will also confront the much more daunting long-term challenge of repairing an internationalist tradition that has been badly damaged and cast into doubt.
Doing so will require forging a China policy that is competitive, bipartisan, and supportive of—rather than destructive to—the liberal international order that Beijing threatens. Trump’s defenders posited (correctly) that ever-deepening engagement with China was strengthening the country without liberalizing it and (incorrectly) that rejecting the liberal order was therefore necessary to compete successfully. A better strategy would be to prudently limit potentially dangerous U.S. dependencies on China while bolstering the international system Beijing is challenging by strengthening the United States’ bonds—economic, military, technological, and ideological—with like-minded countries. Such an approach must be bipartisan if it is to outlast Biden’s presidency. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between Biden’s team and internationalist Republican senators on issues ranging from reinforcing U.S. alliances to enhancing supply chain security. It should therefore be possible to devise a policy that is tough but not freighted with self-defeating impulses.
On China and other important global issues, Biden should ground his statecraft in democratic solidarity, emphasizing enhanced cooperation with countries that share the United States’ values as well as its geopolitical interests. Collaboration with democracies cannot solve every problem, and invocations of democratic solidarity will ring hollow if they are not backed by sufficient geopolitical commitment and hard power. But such cooperation is nonetheless crucial to U.S. success on issues such as combating Chinese and Russian political warfare, preserving a free and open Internet, and addressing pandemics and climate change. It is also a way of demonstrating that Washington can still exercise principled leadership, grounded in democratic values, of the countries most committed to the liberal order.
For the United States to remain a credible leader of the free world, the world must see that American democracy, which today looks neither efficient nor stable, is once again capable of renewing itself. This may be difficult, in part because Trump is poisoning the well on his way out of power and in part because many necessary reforms on issues such as gerrymandering are the subject of intense partisan controversy. Yet progress is possible on such issues as countering corruption (a bipartisan majority in Congress recently banned anonymous shell corporations), encouraging promising state and local initiatives such as the adoption of ranked-choice voting, and pursuing reforms that simultaneously make voting more accessible and more secure. These endeavors can serve as down payments on more ambitious ones in the future.
Finally, Biden must demonstrate that American internationalism pays dividends for the American people. This, too, will be hard. The gains that American engagement yields—an environment that protects the United States from global depression and great-power war—are often abstract, hard to measure, or reflect awful things that don’t happen. But the incoming administration has the right idea. Its concept of a “foreign policy for the middle class” will likely feature multilateral efforts to combat corruption and tax havens and include significant domestic investments in education, scientific research, and innovation that will enhance American competitiveness. If this approach succeeds in better demonstrating the link between American diplomacy and the well-being of American citizens, it may lessen the popular ambivalence about American engagement abroad that Trump exploited in the first place.
Together, these elements add up to an imposing agenda for Biden. But that shouldn’t be surprising, given the damage Trump has wrought. In the wake of an illiberal presidency, rebuilding and adapting American internationalism—while also fortifying its domestic foundations—will be the price of preserving a tradition that has served the United States and much of the world so well.
HAL BRANDS is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.