The Ethics of Trump’s Foreign Policy vs. Obama’s Long Game

| April 2016
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Much of the reaction to Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech on April 27  at an event hosted by the National Interest beyond the campaign-related questions of whether this address makes him look more presidential or electable, has focused on whether he offered coherent policy proposals. What I would like to do is briefly address the question of the ethics behind the foreign policy vision that was contained in those remarks (the prepared text, at least). Assuming that the speech accurately reflects his opinions and serves as the basis of his world view, we can draw some broad conclusions–and note the extent to which Trump is diverging from the “bipartisan consensus” that has generally characterized U.S. foreign policy approaches in the last several decades.

Readers of my work may recognize the name Pang Zhongying—a Chinese academic and scholar of international affairs. In some ways, he—or at least the writer in the early 2000s—could have written parts of the speech. What struck me, listening to Trump, was the extent to which his remarks echo statements and perspectives coming out of the so-called “World without the West”—particularly what might be termed the “neo-Westphalian” approach that was charted nine years ago by Nazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber. Summing up the themes in the Trump address, we hear clear echoes of the neo-Westphalian approach and its view of ethics in international affairs:

  1. There is no such thing as an international community. The “buck” stops with the nation-state and the nation-state decides what commitments it will assume in the global arena.
  2. There are no universal values. Every state defines its ethical and moral framework (this, of course, being the critical point of the original European Westphalian system: that each ruler defines the religion operative in his or her territories). There is a distinctive Western civilization that other countries, presumably, can voluntary adopt—but there is no obligation on the part of Western states to impose their values on others.
  3. The ethical approach to world affairs is defined in mercantilistic and utilitarian terms: treaties, alliances, and obligations are useful only to the extent they bring immediate and observable value to the participants—and can be rejected if they no longer generate profit. Moreover, no state can have obligations imposed on it that it does not freely consent to.
  4. Certainly states can and should cooperate, particularly in addressing common threats. However, in contrast to the communitarian vision articulated by Amitai Etzioni—where such cooperation can become institutionalized over time, and where it can promote dialogue to lay the basis for an international community—this view sees such cooperation as limited in scope and duration.
  5. The ethical framework for assessing the morality of foreign policy decisions is the nation-state, not any sort of cosmopolitanism. What benefits the nation in the short run is good and desirable, and a government is answerable only to its own citizens.

Trump comes down, therefore, quite strongly,  on the Beijing side of the Beijing to Brussels spectrum—limited compacts among sovereign states each operating by their own internal definitions, as opposed to greater transnational regulation predicated on universal standards.

It also provides a clear contrast with the approach taken by President Barack Obama. Derek Chollet, who served in the administration on the Policy Planning staff at the State Department, as the senior director for strategic planning on the NSC staff, and as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, has characterized the Obama approach (which was subjected to a great deal of criticism by Trump) as the “long game”. In this context, this means making targeted investments in the international system that in the short run may bring perceived costs to the U.S. or which may not satisfy the maximalist aspirations of U.S. friends and partners—but which are designed in the long run to produce a global system that better ensures the peace and prosperity of the United States, enhances its leadership role in the world, and will lead to greater stability and community among nations.

It also provides for a longer time-frame for ethical assessment. The Trumpian/neo-Westphalian approach tends to look for immediate impacts and rank effects in terms of costs and expenditures. The Obama/”long game” is looking for long-term systemic benefits which may not be immediately apparent.

It is not clear yet whether Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will embrace the “long game” approach, just as it is not clear whether Trump will be the Republican standard-bearer. But it appears that in this election, American voters will have the opportunity to choose between two very different approaches to foreign affairs, based on different ethical assumptions.

The comments here reflect the personal opinions and assessments of the author only.

 

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