- How Trump Unmade U.S. Foreign Policy
Present at the Creation is an 800-page memoir written by Dean Acheson, U.S. President Harry Truman’s secretary of state. The title, with its biblical echo, was immodest, but in Acheson’s defense, it was deserved.
Working from planning begun under President Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and his senior advisers built nothing less than a new international order in the wake of World War II. The United States adopted the doctrine of containment, which would guide U.S. foreign policy for four decades in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. It transformed Germany and Japan into democracies and built a network of alliances in Asia and Europe. It provided the aid Europe needed to get back on its feet under the Marshall Plan and channeled economic and military assistance to countries vulnerable to communism under the Truman Doctrine. It established a host of international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the forerunner to the World Trade Organization). And it constructed a modern foreign and defense policy apparatus, including the National Security Council, the CIA, and the Department of Defense.
It is impossible to imagine one of the national security principals of the Trump administration writing a memoir that includes the word “creation” in its title. The problem is not just that little has been built over the past three and a half years. Building has simply not been a central aim of this administration’s foreign policy. To the contrary, the president and the frequently changing cast of officials around him have been much more interested in tearing things apart. A more fitting title for an administration memoir would be Present at the Disruption.
The term “disruption” is in and of itself neither a compliment nor a criticism. Disruption can be desirable and even necessary if the status quo is incompatible with one’s interests and there is an alternative that is both advantageous and achievable. But disruption is anything but desirable if the status quo serves one’s interests (or would with only minor adjustments) or the available alternatives are likely to be worse. By this standard, the disruption set in motion by the Trump administration was neither warranted nor wise.
As with health care and the Affordable Care Act, when it came to foreign policy, Trump inherited an imperfect but valuable system and tried to repeal it without offering a substitute. The result is a United States and a world that are considerably worse off. This disruption will leave an enduring mark. And if such disruption continues or accelerates, which there is every reason to believe it will if Donald Trump is elected to a second term, then “destruction” might well become a more apt term to describe this period of U.S. foreign policy.