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The far left and far right agree on Donald Trump’s foreign policy legacy. They’re both wrong.

The emerging revisionist history says Trump was an “anti-imperial” president. Don’t believe it.

President Trump sits at desk with several papers, points finger directly at camera. Appears to be in mid-speech.
Trump speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on November 26, 2020.
Erin Schaff/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Is Donald Trump a martyr for the cause of anti-imperialism?

This is the question posed in a buzzy new Compact magazine essay by Christian Parenti, a Marxist economist at John Jay College, City University of New York — one he answered in the affirmative.

While Parenti concedes that Trump “ordered a few missile and drone strikes here and there,” he asserts that Trump’s more important policies, like orders to withdraw troops from Germany and South Korea, showed that the former president “has done more to restrain the US imperium than any politician in 75 years.”

This, according to Parenti, is the dark secret behind Trump’s current legal woes: “Trump has been investigated, impeached, and indicted not because of the crimes of which he is accused, but because he has dared to oppose the imperial foreign policy favored by elites.”

Parenti’s essay has major flaws: For one thing, there was never a Trump order to withdraw troops from South Korea (Compact corrected the claim after publication). But it’s still important: it represents the most fully fleshed-out version of an argument that’s become popular on both the extreme left and the MAGA right — that Donald Trump was the most dovish president in modern American history.

This was a major point of consensus in a February interview between left-contrarian Glenn Greenwald and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Greenwald argued that “the energy behind opposing American interventionism — American wars — is much more on the populist right than the populist left.” Greene agreed, saying that opposing “never-ending foreign wars” was a major reason “why I supported President Trump.”

In January, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal endorsing Trump’s 2024 campaign solely due to his supposed break with the hawkish status quo.

“Donald Trump’s presidency marked the first real disruption to a failed consensus and the terrible consequences it wrought. That fact, more than any single accomplishment, is the enduring legacy of Mr. Trump’s first term,” Vance writes.

That this rhetoric seems credible to anyone given Trump’s actual record speaks to a deep confusion about American foreign policy, sowed perhaps by the legacy of the George W. Bush era.

Hawkishness, in the American popular imagination, is equated with neoconservatism and its works — primarily the unilateral use of force to remake places like Iraq and Afghanistan in America’s image.

But historically, American warmongering has been very different from what dominated in either the 2000s or the liberal interventionist 1990s. For centuries, American leaders have demonstrated a willingness to inflict violence on foreigners not in pursuit of any universal ideology, but a narrow vision of expanding the country’s territory and advancing the national interest. Such purportedly “realist” thinking is behind many of America’s most infamous atrocities, from Native genocide to the intentional slaughter of civilians during the Vietnam War.

It is also directly echoed by Trump in both word and deed. This is a president who pardoned convicted war criminals, assassinated Iran’s top general, and deployed troops to seize Syria’s oil deposits — openly admitting he wanted to hand them over to ExxonMobil. A second term promises more of the same: He has already asked advisers for “battle plans” to invade Mexico in an effort to combat drug cartels.

This recklessness is actually part of why the foreign policy establishment is so implacably hostile to the former president. He has challenged the pillars of the post-World War II international order, like NATO and free trade, which they believe ensure global stability — and his alternative is a foreign policy based on America’s unrestrained violent id.

That’s not to say the establishment has done so well itself. It’s totally reasonable to look out at some of the recent debacles it has supported, like Iraq, and think it might be time for something different.

But the real history of the Trump presidency is a good reminder that being against the establishment doesn’t mean you’re actually for something better.

The weak case that Trump was a dove

The strongest argument for Trump’s dovish credentials, in all of these accounts, is that Trump did not start any new wars. While Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Trump kept the peace.

“In Mr. Trump’s four years in office, he started no wars despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration,” Vance writes. “Not starting wars is perhaps a low bar, but that’s a reflection of the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s predecessors and the foreign-policy establishment they slavishly followed.”

It’s certainly true that nothing Trump did compares in scope to the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. But few presidents in history ordered anything of that magnitude; the brief 2011 US intervention in Libya doesn’t come close. And when you compare Trump’s record to those of other post-Cold War US presidents, the evidence is clear: Trump is no less willing to use military force, and arguably more so.

Some of the data is sobering. Contra Parenti, Trump did a lot more than order “few missile and drone strikes”: In Iraq and Syria alone, drone strikes launched against ISIS and other terrorist groups killed an estimated 13,400 civilians, per data from Airwars, a nonprofit watchdog affiliated with the University of London. That’s roughly three times as many as were killed by American bombs in the 1991 Gulf War, the 1998-1999 Kosovo intervention, and the Libya war combined.

It’s relatively easy to show Trump’s culpability here: His administration relaxed Obama-era rules of engagement designed to protect civilians. And once swampy Joe Biden became president, drone strikes in Syria and Iraq virtually ended.

That’s just one area. His broader record, in the Middle East and elsewhere, provides plenty of evidence of Trump’s hawkishness.

In 2017, Trump became the first US president to order an attack on the Syrian government, bombing an airfield in retaliation for chemical weapons strikes, something Obama famously refused to do. In 2018, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and bombed Syrian government positions again. In 2019, Trump approved airstrikes on Iranian soil, only to call the planes back literally while they were in the air. And in 2020, he had General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, assassinated while the Iranian leader was near the Baghdad airport.

Similarly, Trump dramatically increased US airstrikes on Islamist groups in Somalia over Obama levels, and approved the sale of unguided “dumb” bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen (something the Obama administration blocked). Though Trump frequently stated his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, and eventually did negotiate a withdrawal agreement, he began his presidency by escalating it — sending 3,000 new troops to fight the Taliban, a more than 25 percent increase from the pre-Trump presence. He also openly bragged about relaxing rules of engagement for bombings in Afghanistan, a policy that nearly doubled civilian casualties per year over the Bush- and Obama-era average.

In 2017, before he became friends with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump nearly started a war with his country — deploying an “armada” (his words) to the region, and threatening the North with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in the midst of mounting tensions surrounding Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

An American soldier engages in a military competition in in Dongducheon, South Korea, on April 10, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images

In 2018, Trump threatened to invade Venezuela to topple leftist dictator Nicolás Maduro. In 2019, he launched a broad-based sanction policy explicitly designed to collapse the Maduro government — an open regime change operation.

During that same time, Trump significantly escalated tensions with China over Taiwan — taking provocative actions deliberately designed to send a message of US commitment to the island’s defense. “In the past nine months, U.S. ships have sailed through the Taiwan Strait six times. During the Obama administration, passages were far less frequent, at just one to three times per year,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ Lindsay Maizland wrote in April 2019.

Even in Europe, where Trump’s rhetorical attacks on NATO and cozying up to Putin provide the best evidence of a break with “establishment” thinking, Trump’s record is more hawkish than widely appreciated.

In 2017, Trump sent a full armored brigade to NATO allies on Russia’s border. In 2018, he provided Ukraine with lethal military assistance in its conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine (something Obama refused to do, and that Trump would later try to use to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy).

In 2019, he withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement designed to tamp down on nuclear tensions. In 2020, he backed out of the Open Skies Treaty, which created rules for reconnaissance overflights designed to tamp down on military tensions.

To be clear: I don’t oppose all of the above policies. Some of them were wildly aggressive, others eminently defensible.

But the question here is not whether Trump’s foreign policy was good, but rather whether it can be accurately characterized as “dovish” or “anti-imperialist.” A full review shows that it cannot: that Trump was more than willing to use deadly force and impose America’s will on foreign countries.

Trump is the heir of Andrew Jackson, not Howard Zinn

Trump’s most astute defenders admit that he’s not a dove in any kind of principled, ideological sense. They argue instead that he sort of ended up there.

“Trump isn’t an anti-imperialist in the left-wing sense. Rather, he is an instinctual America-First isolationist who seems to harbor genuine disdain for global elites and policy insiders,” Parenti writes. “Regardless of his deeper motives, the result was that more than any recent president, he sought to dismantle America’s informal global empire.”

In reality, Trump did little to seriously strip down America’s war machine. This is a president who proposed the largest inflation-adjusted defense budget since World War II and declared “we have to have, by far, the strongest military in the world.” But there’s no doubt, as Parenti and others point out, that he frequently clashed with Beltway conventional wisdom on issues like NATO, haranguing treaty allies to spend more on defense and threatening to leave the alliance if they did not.

So how do we square these two Trumps: the militarist hawk and ardent critic of the existing foreign policy establishment?

Answering this question requires going beyond the “hawk/dove” binary, and thinking more creatively about different ways to be a hawk or a dove.

In the past several decades, Americans got used to equating hawkishness with a willingness to use force in specific kinds of ways — killing terrorists, overthrowing hostile dictators, and intervening to stop mass killing of civilians. Most of America’s post-Cold War military actions fit in one of those three boxes, typically fitting together in ideological packages like “neoconservatism” and “liberal interventionism” that described them all as part of a broader quest to protect America and the world from the forces of evil.

Trump’s version of hawkishness is far less moralized, but no less aggressive. He sees himself not as protecting the global order but as putting “America First” — defending the country’s honor and pecuniary interests. This makes him less inclined to launch wars to protect foreign civilians, but more inclined to kill foreign civilians while attempting to target terrorists. Instead of fighting to promote democracy, he is willing to send US troops to take the oil in Syria.

This is hawkishness, just of a different kind — and one that’s been long been a persistent strain in both Trump’s rhetoric and American history more broadly.

In 2016, when commentators were making arguments about the alleged dovishness of Candidate Trump, I argued that Trump was heir to a particular tradition of American hawkishness, one that historian Walter Russell Mead traces back to President Andrew Jackson.

Jacksonians, according to Mead, are basically focused on the interests and reputation of the United States. They are skeptical of humanitarian interventions and wars to topple dictators, because those are idealistic quests removed from the interests of everyday Americans. But when American interests are in question, or failing to fight will make America look weak, Jacksonians are more aggressive than anyone.

“The Gulf War was a popular war in Jacksonian circles because the defense of the nation’s oil supply struck a chord with Jacksonian opinion,” Mead writes. “In the absence of a clearly defined threat to the national interest, Jacksonian opinion is much less aggressive.”

Historically, though, the Jacksonian tradition has been partly responsible for a lot of what we see today as American atrocities. In 1814, then-General Jackson launched an invasion of Creek lands in present-day Alabama — forcing the tribe to cede 20 million acres to the US government. This willingness to use force to promote America’s national interests, regardless of the consequences for foreign civilians, is a hallmark of Jacksonian foreign policy and warfighting.

It is this spirit — America First, and all else be damned — that animated Trump’s foreign policy while in office. He didn’t oppose war or American empire; he opposed the notion that American empire might benefit anyone other than America. It’s foreign policy realism of a kind: not the pristine theory formulated by international relations scholars, but a practical realism that sees the world as a harsh place and America’s role in it as looking out for number one without any regard for numbers two through infinity.

On this line of thinking, NATO is not a tool of collective defense but an extortion racket the US can use to extract tribute from its European vassals. The Middle East is not a place for idealistic pro-democracy crusades, but one where US troops can claim oil for development by American corporations.

It’s not for nothing that Trump hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office: His Jacksonian policy was not “dovish” or “anti-imperial,” but rather just a different kind of imperial enterprise.

Clarification, April 15, 3:15 pm: This piece has been updated to note that Compact corrected the claim that Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.