The Last Chance for American Internationalism

The Last Chance for American Internationalism

Confronting Trump’s Illiberal Legacy

Donald Trump’s presidency will end on January 20, but his influence on U.S. foreign policy will not. For decades before Trump’s election in 2016, the United States pursued a strategy of hardheaded internationalism, employing its power on behalf of a relatively cooperative, open world order. The outgoing president rejected that tradition, marrying American muscle to a starkly nationalist and often illiberal agenda both at home and abroad. No longer was the United States an exceptional superpower, committed to democratic values and principled leadership. Trump, though not always the administration he led, envisioned the United States as a country exceptional only in the influence it could wield to secure its narrowly defined national interests.

Trump deserves credit for puncturing certain illusions of the post–Cold War era and creating some tactical opportunities that President-elect Joe Biden might be able to exploit. But by and large, he has taken U.S. strategy down a dangerous path. The Trump years revealed that illiberal nationalism will not help the United States navigate a stubbornly interdependent world or compete with predatory authoritarian powers. And by sowing doubts about the United States’ long-term commitment to democratic norms and constructive global leadership, Trump has created a crisis of American internationalism that will outlast his presidency.