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The case for Trump’s foreign policy, according to a leading international relations scholar

“Prudence is the Trump buzzword for foreign policy.”

President Trump and Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway Joint Press Conference Cheriss May/NurPhoto/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.

Ohio State professor Randall Schweller is a rarity in the international relations field: a Trump supporter.

Just before the election, a poll of academics found that less than 4 percent of international relations scholars believed President Donald Trump’s views on foreign policy “closely reflect their own.” Yet Schweller, once voted one of the 25 most innovative scholars in the field, is a vocal exception — he endorsed Trump in a September 2016 interview with the New Yorker.

I was curious whether Trump’s first year in office — in which he repeatedly threatened to go to war with North Korea over Twitter, among other things — might have changed Schweller’s mind, so I called him. In our conversation, Schweller stood by his old assessment.

“I think he’s had a very good first year,” Schweller said of the new president.

His core argument was that Trump, unlike his predecessors, understands the limits of American power. For Schweller, Trump represents a retreat from the hubris of the Obama and Bush years — and dubiously successful wars of regime change in Iraq and Libya. He believes that Trump is a realist — someone who knows what matters for America and has done a decent job advancing that.

It’s a controversial argument, to say the least. Our conversation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

In September 2016, you said, “We’re at a point in our history where he, Trump, is the right guy for the job.” Do you stand by that after President Trump’s first year in office?

Randall Schweller

Yes. The American people are sick and tired of what was going on; they wanted a real shake-up. It’s like they wanted someone to roll a grenade down the table, and Trump was the grenade. He shook things up.

The media totally misunderstands what the Trump phenomenon is. They say, “Well, he doesn’t sound presidential.” That’s exactly what people don’t want anymore. They’re tired of lofty, empty rhetoric.

Zack Beauchamp

So drawing on your expertise in international relations, you think Trump’s first year of grenade-rolling foreign policy has been pretty effective?

Randall Schweller

Much more effective than Obama.

This is where I think Trump’s most different from the foreign policy establishment in Washington: He’s not interested in globalism for globalism’s sake. He’s not interested in multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake. He’s very much about the national interest.

Now, we can discuss country by country. But I think he has the pulse of the American people. They don’t care about globalism; they don’t care, necessarily, about the liberal international order. They don’t want to spend blood and treasure on that. They want the national interest to be advanced.

Now, there are plenty of people who say the liberal international order promoted the American national interest. And yes, it did, for seven decades. But China has now risen, and there is global competition again. The world has changed since the end of the Cold War, yet very little of American foreign policy has actually changed.

Zack Beauchamp

Let’s talk about China. Trump came in with this, as you put it, anti-globalist rhetoric — promising tariffs, a crackdown on Chinese expansionism. Yet over the past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has become one of Trump’s best friends, with Trump praising their “chemistry” and failing to crack down on the trade practices he’d so decried.

Randall Schweller

With China, I think that’s a multi-level game because he wants their cooperation on North Korea. He’s building up his relationship with Xi Jinping because he wants to put the screws on North Korea. That’s a real pressing problem right now. Trump is much more flexible than he’s given credit for. He’s being pragmatic; this isn’t the right time to start cajoling China on trade.

The left seems to want Trump to fix every problem in the world in one year, whereas Obama had eight years and nothing happened. Trump’s done a lot of good things, and yet he gets no credit for them from the media.

Zack Beauchamp

So what are those good things?

Randall Schweller

I think pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change is a good signal that we’re not going to be pushed around and we’re not chumps. The people in shock and dismay when Trump announced he was going to withdraw — I don’t think they understand what it really is.

It’s an agreement that says, “You don’t have to do anything; whatever you want to do, do that.” What kind of agreement is that? That’s not cooperation; cooperation is when you adjust your policies.

So Trump is saying, “This is a stupid agreement because we’ll do things and other countries won’t.”

Zack Beauchamp

But the agreement doesn’t impose any special requirements on the United States. It’s not like we’re doing something and nobody else is.

Randall Schweller

You’re quite right. It doesn’t commit us to do anything, so there’s nothing to worry about [in terms of pulling out]!

Zack Beauchamp

When I spoke to experts on US foreign policy about Paris, they said there were two things to worry about.

First, that the agreement helped galvanize international action on climate change — that even though it wasn’t binding, it set a standard that led countries around the world to take action on a really serious problem.

Second, that it was a symbol that the US was taking a global problem seriously, and that pulling out would make the US seem untrustworthy, damaging allies’ faith that America would keep its word.

Randall Schweller

I think those are fallacious, because the US is going to do plenty about climate control. This agreement — it was a facade. China and India aren’t going to do anything, but we are.

I wish the press had explained what the agreement actually committed the US to, but they never do that. That’s the problem: The media just gets so riled up. Everything Trump does, they’re upset about. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction; everything he does is bad.

So people think we actually pulled out of a binding agreement where nation states had signed up to do something. But it wasn’t that kind of an agreement.

Zack Beauchamp

I’m a little confused, because India and China have made substantial pushes on climate change since the signing of the Paris agreement, and the Trump administration is trying to dismantle American regulations on carbon emissions.

But I don’t want to get too bogged down in climate change. What else do you think counts as impressive Trump accomplishments?

Randall Schweller

I don’t think there’s anything in the first year, other than [military progress] ISIS and trying to deal with North Korea and solve the problem. I don’t know how he’s going to solve the problem [of North Korea], but his tone is right, I believe. He’s not going to be bullied by Kim Jong Un.

He’s been under a lot of pressure. It’s [Trump’s] first year. He’s learning a bit, obviously — the first year, there’s a steep learning curve.

I think it’s the general tone. We’ve had two wars and trillions of dollars spent trying to manage the world, and we have a president who’s saying, “I’m done with this!” He’s sending the message that America needs to be pragmatic and work with others, and not talk about human rights and democracy and lecture the world. I think that’s all a good thing.

Zack Beauchamp

Trump came in saying he didn’t want to manage the world, as you say. But look at his actions in the first year: putting the US in a much more confrontational position with North Korea, moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, greenlighting Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar. This hardly seems like he’s narrowing America’s involvement in foreign problems.

Randall Schweller

You could also mention the bombing of Syrian airfields. It’s a fair criticism.

My feeling is that the administration, people like [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and others, are not quite on board with Trumpism. There’s still this foreign policy establishment that wants America to have a say and do things that don’t necessarily pertain to our national interest.

As the Syria bombing shows, he [Trump] is not entirely against doing things in the name of human rights. Where I think he’s different than most presidents in the past is that he’s not a unilateralist, like George W. Bush was accused of being. He’s not a multilateralist, like Clinton and Obama. He’s a bilateralist — he likes to make individual deals [with one country].

I think Trump is a transition. There is no Trump doctrine; prudence is the Trump buzzword for foreign policy.

Zack Beauchamp

This is the crux of it. It’s not just that there’s no Trump doctrine; it’s that I think he’s not actually capable of developing one.

There’s a relevant passage from the Michael Wolff book on the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. He writes:

If the Trump White House was as unsettling as any in American history, the president’s views of foreign policy and the world at large were among its most random, uninformed, and seemingly capricious aspects. his advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two.

Wolff is suggesting that Trump’s own advisers think he hasn’t worked out his worldview. There’s no plan, no commitment to any of the things you’ve argued he stands for — he just doesn’t think about issues that deeply.

It seems like you disagree.

Randall Schweller

Yeah, I disagree. I think this is such nonsense.

If you go back and read his speech in April 2016, clearly those were the principles [he stands for]. He’s not an isolationist. You can’t really be an isolationist anymore; we have too many tentacles all over the world. I think he’s more about reassessing US foreign policy.

Now, according to Wolff, Trump is just crazy, out of his mind. I think that’s ludicrous. The people who have been running American foreign policy for the past 25 years, if you ask me, they’re out of their minds. You couldn’t do worse than we’ve done.

That’s what I find so strange in the way that Trump is treated — “He’s a dimwit,” and all that. I clearly remember them saying Reagan was a dimwit.

Zack Beauchamp

Well, Reagan probably was suffering from dementia by the end of his second term.

Randall Schweller

[chuckles] Yes. But they were saying that long before, and it really wasn’t that bad.

But when you look at Trump — he says things like, “NATO is obsolete. We should reexamine it.” Well, yeah! The Cold War ended, and we won. It’s time to reexamine NATO. I think Trump would have understood the idea that you don’t talk about putting Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. You don’t expand NATO to Russia’s borders [as we did in the 1990s], or this is what you get.

He seems to understand, at some intuitive level, things that the foreign policy just doesn’t. To me, the foreign policy establishment — both the neocons and the liberal internationalists — have been so wrong for so many years. Look at where they’ve gotten us. Look at how bad things really were on their watch. What have they accomplished?

Randall Schweller.

They cost Americans trillions of dollars and countless lives, and then they have the temerity to say Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says things like “NATO is probably obsolete.” Yes, that’s what the most brilliant thinkers in international relations said in 1991.

This Wolff book, it’s nonsense. If it were written about Obama, the media would just dismiss it.

Zack Beauchamp

The difference is that when Obama — like Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — talked about foreign policy, they seemed to get the details right, to have a good understanding of the policy in question.

Trump just sort of speaks off the cuff, and he says things that are wildly incorrect or clearly uninformed.

Randall Schweller

He’s been right, though. When he said the war in Iraq wasn’t a good idea, other people weren’t saying things like that. Well, [international relations scholars] did; we took out a full page in the New York Times saying this was a stupid idea.

It’s about the lofty rhetoric. Lofty rhetoric is so seductive to intellectuals in so many ways, but it’s misleading. Look at American foreign policy for the last 25 years. When Hillary Clinton was so enthusiastic about overthrowing [Libyan dictator Muammar] Qaddafi, was that a good thing? She looked like a giddy child when she found out he had been murdered. But why was that a good thing?

So she’s not crazy, I suppose. But she’s dangerous. Her kind of thinking has been so dangerous. We’ll promote democracy, but look where it’s gotten us in the Middle East: not very far.

Zack Beauchamp

Were the past 25 years really so bad for America, or the world? The United States is the richest and most powerful country in human history. Global life expectancy is the highest it’s ever been, global poverty is at an all-time low, the number of democracies on earth is at an all-time high, and on and on.

Randall Schweller

Look, there’s much about the liberal international order that’s good. But ask yourself: How much of that is because of American wars? Did the war in Vietnam promote liberal internationalism? What war did?

Zack Beauchamp

But Trump isn’t saying we shouldn’t fight more wars — in fact, he’s escalated basically every war the United States is currently involved in.

Randall Schweller

Terrorism — that’s the one thing he and I disagree on. But he’s winning the war; I would have said it’s not worth it, but he’s making me think, “Maybe we can eradicate al-Qaeda and ISIS.”

Committing troops to Afghanistan, to make the Middle East a democracy — that’s just stupid.

Zack Beauchamp

Trump has sent thousands of new troops to Afghanistan.

Randall Schweller

That policy I’m not thrilled about, let’s put it that way. There’s lots to disagree with there. History would tell you it won’t work.

But there, Trump lets the military be the military: “The military says they need this, let’s put this on the ground, they know the situation better.” I don’t agree with it, but let’s give it a chance.

Zack Beauchamp

Let me circle back to the big picture. The risk Trump’s foreign policy has created is a rupture to the liberal international order, which generally has worked pretty well. The benefit you seem to be suggesting is that he lowers the risk of getting deeply involved in more wars.

But it seems that Trump isn’t really reducing the risk of further wars; he is posing a risk to the broader international order by, among other things, alienating allies and undermining trust in American leadership.

Randall Schweller

I just don’t agree. I don’t think he’d ever commit troops to silly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. [The Afghanistan surge,] it’s just a mop-up operation.

It’s his first year. I know where you’re coming from, I understand your apprehension. But I don’t understand why the media and the left are so unwilling to see Trump for what he is and what he’s accomplished. I think he’s had a very good first year.

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