My apologies, but I couldn’t resist adding something to the wall-to-wall coverage of the US Presidential Election that we’ve all been immersed in over recent days. My question, in the wake of the election outcome, is: what significance does ‘Make America Great Again’ have in the foreign policy context?
‘MAGA’ is a term to which we’ve all become accustomed since Mr Trump initially launched his bid for the Presidency. It always struck me as a slightly odd expression, given that the United States was at the time, and still is, the world’s pre-eminent political, economic and military power. It is so through its people and its culture, which provide reserves of dynamism and energy that give it remarkable forward momentum, resilience and bounce back-ability. Never write America off.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, of course – no country is, no matter how powerful. There have of course been foreign policy mis-steps over the years, and the rise of China has placed the US into a newly competitive environment internationally.
MAGA has its origins in how some Americans feel about the direction the country has taken, but that is mostly a domestic sentiment. Seen from the outside, American greatness is about standing tall, projecting strong values, showing forbearance towards sometimes underperforming partner nations and embracing a willingness to do the right thing, no matter how difficult. Against this benchmark, MAGA rings distinctly hollow to many observers.
The US has of course traditionally taken the leading role among the nations of the ‘free world’ – those that eschew autocracy and dictatorship. In that capacity, we want it to give the strongest voice globally to the notion that liberal democracy is the best way, for its people, of managing the nation state.
Donald Trump’s presidency changed this dynamic. It centred on the transactional, so NATO became less about transatlantic solidarity and consequent global stability than about paying the bills (Trump had a point on burdensharing, by the way, but then so did every US President more or less since the Alliance’s inception).
Trump’s unpredictability also suggested a departure from the conventional ‘rational actor‘ model in world affairs. This arguably brought Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table, though by the end of the Trump presidency, there is little to show for this. Indeed, there’s a sense of unfinished business across the foreign policy portfolio, in which headline initiatives such as the ‘deal of the century‘ remain without closure.
It has to be said that, throughout Trump’s foreign policy oscillations, the professionalism and commitment of many working in the Administration means that the foreign policy ship remains afloat, if not exactly steaming ahead. And let’s not forget that US foreign policy wasn’t always wholly successful under other recent incumbents. It’s just that Trump’s mercurial leadership made it hard to settle on a common sense of direction across the liberal democracies.
We now have the possibility of a return to a more balanced approach. President-elect Biden is from a different stable, one that understands that the currents of international relations run far deeper than mechanistic transactionalism. Allied nations – particularly the NATO member states – will welcome this opportunity to engage within new parameters.
That’s not to say that the Biden Administration won’t have its hands full with foreign policy challenges, Chinese aspirations to at least regional, possibly global hegemony uppermost among them. But at least now there’s a much increased possibility of building consensus across like-minded nations to find new and better solutions in the interests of stability and security in a troubled world.
Now that really is something that would make America, and its many friends and partners across the globe, great again.