The Debate

Liberal Internationalism in the Age of Trump

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The Debate

Liberal Internationalism in the Age of Trump

A blueprint for keeping liberal internationalism alive under a president who finds the concept distasteful.

Liberal Internationalism in the Age of Trump
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

For some time now, it has been hard to be an American liberal internationalist – someone who believes in the key role the United States plays in international affairs, and who supports, warts and all, the post-war international system that the United States did so much to create. Often, massive American failures, including but not limited to Iraq, have overshadowed lower-profile successes, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, or U.S. support for political transition in Myanmar. At the same time, the perennial dysfunctionality of the UN system makes it difficult to advocate on its behalf. It’s hard to stand up for such an unlovely and at times ineffectual institution, even though the world would be much worse off without it.

Ever since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, American liberal internationalists have been in somewhat of a defensive crouch. But we shouldn’t be: we stand for the strain of American foreign policy thinking that tries to balance realism and idealism, to push for positive change that is actually attainable. We know that successes in international affairs are particularly hard to come by, and that caution and prudence should never be in short supply. That is why we give President Obama the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Syrian tragedy, while at the same time being critical of his administration’s failure to find a diplomatic solution to a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands, with no end in sight. And that is why we cheer both Republican and Democratic action on difficult problems, including Obama’s hard-won Iran deal and President Bush’s PEPFAR global AIDS funding initiative.

As hard as it has been to stand up for American internationalism in the post-9/11 era, Donald Trump’s election made our brief even tougher.

What is Trump’s vision for America’s role in the world? Details are sketchy: as many morning-after pundits have pointed out, he is a cypher, someone who shifts views constantly and who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Ask him about the Iraq war, and he was for it before he was against it. Ask him about Russia’s snatching of Crimea, and he is unaware that it even happened, at least until his advisers remind him. That said, if his words can be taken at face value – always a big if when it comes to the president-elect – then some core themes emerge: an increased emphasis on withdrawing from the world in order to focus on challenges at home. A transactional approach to international affairs, one that constantly asks what’s in it for Uncle Sam. And a willingness to question longstanding American commitments and relationships, from NATO in the west to Japan and South Korea in the east.

This vision, if it does indeed represent the shape of things to come under President Trump, is deeply troubling. If enacted, this uniquely Trumpian approach would mean a fundamental and potentially quite dangerous shift away from America’s approach to foreign policy under successive Democratic and Republican administrations stretching back nearly seven decades.

For an unsettled Asia, Trump’s victory couldn’t have come at a worse time: instability and uncertainty are on the rise across much of the region. First and foremost, China’s increased assertiveness, particularly in regards to the South China Sea, is deeply troubling. In the Philippines, newly-elected President Duterte has presided over an anti-drug campaign that has killed over 2,000 of his countrymen, the vast majority of whom were executed by police or private citizens without making it even to prison, much less to a court of law. In Thailand, the death of the long-serving King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October left the country without its most prominent symbol of national unity, at a time when the country is deeply divided and seemingly further and further away from a return to democracy. And in North Korea, the ruling Kim regime continues to push forward with its nuclear weapons program, having completed its fifth nuclear test in September.

Without doubt, during such an uncertain time, both the United States and the Asian region as a whole would benefit from steady and engaged leadership from a new American president. Ideally, a new president would look to continue and even deepen the American so-called “pivot to Asia” initiated by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton in the early years of Obama’s tenure. Given his explosive and ill-informed rhetoric on the campaign trail, I fear that a newly-elected President Trump will offer little in the way of reassurance to longtime allies in the region that America’s commitment to regional peace and security remains undimmed. Though hope springs eternal, it seems highly unlikely that President-elect Trump will be able or willing to offer a constructive agenda for U.S.-Asia relations during the next four years.

What to do about this distressing turn of events? For liberal internationalists of every stripe, and in particular for U.S.-based organizations working on international affairs, I can think of at least four key priorities: explaining, advocating, engaging, and supporting.

As an American China hand, part of my job is to explain what is happening in China to an American audience. But another part of my job is to help Chinese friends – academics, officials, lawyers, activists, and others – understand what is happening in the United States. Often over the past few years, this has involved attempts to reassure Chinese colleagues that the United States is not trying to contain China, and that the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was not meant to box Beijing in. Going forward, Americans working internationally will have to help our foreign friends to understand the Trump phenomenon, and what it means for U.S. foreign policy. We will also want to remind our international partners – both in word and in deed – that Trump’s view of the world represents only one strain of American thinking on international affairs, and that that view will not be ascendant indefinitely. Four years is a long time, but it falls far short of forever.

Without doubt, a key part of our job going forward will be to advocate toward, and when necessary even to fight against, the incoming administration. The specific advocacy agenda will only become clear as Trump and his yet-to-be-formed foreign policy team start to put forward their concrete plans, but it seems likely that some large-scale fights are looming on the horizon. As Evan Osnos noted in his excellent examination of what a Trump presidency might look like, Trump himself is a firm believer in “the ultimate power of transaction.” Time and time again, Osnos pointed out, Trump puts forward the idea that “realism is less a preference for putting interests ahead of values than a belief that interests have no place for values.”

If that is true, those of us who believe that American values should inform American foreign policy will have our hands full. We may well have to push for America to maintain its commitment to speaking out on international human rights, for example, or for other fundamental values that cannot be measured in dollars and cents flowing into American hands. In so doing, we will have to get over a fair amount of our own cognitive dissonance, and be ready for the inevitable charges of hypocrisy. It is hard to imagine a Trump administration speaking out on women’s rights in China, or the rights of ethnic or religious minorities in India, given some of Trump’s more notorious statements on the campaign trail. At times, Trump puts forward views that are fundamentally at odds with a foreign policy informed by human rights, as when he offers fulsome praise for autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin, or when he states flatly that American interrogators should use torture when questioning suspected terrorists. These and other difficulties aside, we must find a way to push for a Trump foreign policy that lives up to America’s longstanding commitment to human rights and other key values.

Difficult though it will at times be, we also need to engage with the incoming Trump administration. In early August, several dozen top Republican foreign policy hands signed an open letter urging against Trump’s election. Those Republicans, who represent some of the heaviest hitters in the Republican foreign policy establishment, were right to do all in their power to persuade the American people not to elect Trump. At the same time, they will be equally wise to swallow their pride and get to work, both inside and outside the administration, to blunt the international impact of Trump’s ill-informed and isolationist worldview.

Finally, we will need to redouble our efforts to support our overseas partners working for reform in their own countries. The renewed global attack on liberal values began long before November 8, as activists in countries as diverse as Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela can tell you. Activists, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, where I do most of my own work, are trying to soldier on in the face of the most repressive domestic environment in a quarter-century. As yet, international advocates failed to develop enough innovative responses to the global attack on human rights and the rule of law. In the age of Trump, such new thinking on how to respond to the growing global rights crisis takes on a new urgency.

Make no mistake: Trump’s election is a major setback for progressive values, both in the United States and overseas. It can be tempting at such times to turn away, and to spend one’s time and energy nursing one’s own deep post-election psychological wounds. Or to focus on those very vital issues – including immigration, judicial appointments, and tax policy, to name three likely top Trump domestic policy priorities – closest to home. But those of us who believe in America’s role in the world need to end the mourning period over Trump’s victory, and get back to work.

Thomas Kellogg is director of the East Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations. He is also a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School.