Great again?

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.

6 thoughts on “Great again?

  1. I am not sure that we could describe US foreign policy as universally promoting nations that “eschew autocracy and dictatorship”. In the cold war years, it tended to support right-leaning regimes, even if they were dictatorships, and be suspicious of left-leaning governments, even where they were democratically elected. Its record in Latin America was particularly uneven – Chile under Pinochet was only one of many examples. We have of course moved on from those times, but I remain to be convinced that US influence in Latin America, even now, is wholly benign, and it is possible to argue that in the Middle East, too, its actions have not consistently favoured democracy, self-determination, or the promotion of human rights. Of course the 1953 coup was a very long time ago indeed (and we were ourselves complicit), but it’s arguable that Iran’s more recent difficulties have stemmed from that overthrow of a democratically-elected regime. All that is not to argue that Biden will not be a whole lot better than Trump, but I think we need to beware of unrealistic expectations.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. In a short blog, I was trying to capture something of the sentiment you express in the phrase “There have of course been foreign policy mis-steps over the years”. I’m not naive about this. International relations is of course a complex and sometimes messy business, and I therefore strongly favour Realpolitik, which I think is where a Biden Administration will reside in terms of foreign policy. And while European and US polities are quite different in many ways, there is still something about shared values to which we have to cling in the face of challenges to the rules based international system.

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  2. Do you think that President Biden would help produce a better outcome for the UK than President Trump would have done?

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    1. Thanks for your question, Laurence. In response, I’d say that the benefits are likely to be primarily in multilateral fora. The UK remains a part of NATO, of course, so smoother functioning of that organisation will help (though I suspect Biden won’t let go of burdensharing, in the tradition I mentioned in the blog). The real issue is in the bilateral domain, and particularly in the context of Brexit. The UK was traditionally the transatlantic bridge into Europe through its membership of the EU, but has now foregone that role through withdrawal. I suspect the Biden Administration will therefore take the shortcut direct to Berlin and Paris, with a concomitant reduction in UK influence on policy in Washington. Could be wrong, but that’t my best guess.

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  3. Roger

    Interesting. Of course there is always an argument that post war US foreign policy is a (long) aberration and that the instinct for isolation reasserted itself in the form of Trump. I am not sure that there will be a long lasting resumption of US internationalism as we have known it since 1945. But we may only know in a century or two!

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    1. Hi, Peter. I’m not saying that US foreign policy since the war has always got it right – it’s had its ups and downs, of course – but it does make it much more difficult for the ‘free world’ to concert if the US isn’t giving a lead. Other, malign actors will always take advantage of such a situation. And I’m thinking decades rather than centuries!

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