Donald Trump’s remarkable announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Iran deal is an indication that the centripetal force of America’s consensus foreign policy dating back to 1980 is pulling Trump inexorably toward its center. That is not the place Trump wanted to be when he ran his campaign. He certainly seemed to want to pursue a far more isolationist path, which is exactly the path that the post-war foreign policy of the United States rejected. But here we are, and here are the elements of Trump’s foreign policy that demonstrate continuity with the past consensus:
- Sanctions against Russia for its behavior in Ukraine
- Permitting arms sales to Ukraine
- Some level of friendship toward Israel
- Hostility toward Cuba’s totalitarian regime
- Fighting Islamist terrorism—on the ground in Syria, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan
- Finding points of commonality with Arab regimes that are not explicitly anti-American
- Viewing Iran as a serious antagonist
With some exceptions (like the elder Bush’s administration in relation to Israel), every element on this list (if in some cases you substitute the Soviet Union for Russia pre-1991 and Libya for Islamist terror) was to some degree at play in American foreign policy from 1981 until 2008. Such has been the powerful logical flow of American foreign policy since the election of Ronald Reagan. This consensus ebbed and flowed depending on the circumstance, of course, and the parallels are not perfect. What Trump has done, and I don’t think strategically or with any grand design, is to place far greater stock in both the unilateralist and the realpolitik aspects of American foreign policy than his predecessors in the Reagan and post-Reagan era. He views enduring alliances more as constraints than grand benefits, which is perhaps the primary way in which he differs from the consensus. But his attacks on those alliances have basically ceased, which is itself a striking change from candidate Trump’s approach.
And what of 2008 to 2016? Barack Obama, schooled in 1970s liberal foreign-policy shibboleths, came at this consensus and flipped it—not entirely on its head, more like about 140 degrees. We went at Israel, we went light on Russia, we sought a concord with Iran, and Obama was celebrated for his acceptance of the monsters of Havana. Most notably, he accepted the left-liberal critique of postwar American foreign policy’s supposedly bad actions in the world and sought to apologize or make implicit amends for them. Viewed in this light, it’s the Obama years that represent the jarring discontinuity from the consensus path and not the election of the X-factor Trump.
We’ll have to see how this North Korea business goes to better understand Trump. (And certainly Trump’s trade practices mark him as very different, though there’s an argument that’s more an economic than a foreign policy.) There’s no reason to believe any of this is conscious or deliberate or designed. There is no Trump Doctrine. But there might be one yet, and it might be more familiar than we had any right to expect.