President Donald Trump may have reached a temporary truce with his chief of staff John Kelly, but Rex Tillerson and, maybe, H.R. McMaster are out. Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel are in and so, perhaps, is John Bolton. Could there be a clearer sign that after a brief flirtation with the globalists in his administration, Donald Trump is now all-in for America First?
Add his love for tariffs, his fondness for dictators and his contempt for America’s longtime allies in Europe and Asia and you have, we’re told, a recipe for a total break with everything that America has stood for since World War II. As the historian Gabriel Glickman declared in the Washington Post, “There is no chance this Republican administration will share the moral imperative of the last Republican administration, led by George W. Bush, that emphasized the maintenance and expansion of a liberal world order.”
This view is widespread, understandable—and wrong. No matter how much #NeverTrumpers such as Eliot A. Cohen, who served in George W. Bush’s State Department, may decry Trump as representing a radical break with the past, the president’s jingoism has more in common with his Republican predecessors than his detractors are typically prepared to acknowledge. This is why Senator Rand Paul, the very incarnation of America First, announced on Wednesday that he will oppose the appointments of Pompeo and Haspel, deploring the fact that the Trump administration is being overrun by what he calls “crazy neocons” who, among other things, championed the Iraq War and torture. In 2014, Pompeo called for ending talks with Iran and launching the equivalent of fire and fury against it in the form of extensive missile strikes, prompting the Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson and Brian Bennett to warn Friday that he may be more hawkish than the president.
Trump appears to be embarking upon a restoration of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s hardline doctrines, which George W. Bush dutifully mouthed. It is no accident that everyone from William Kristol to the Wall Street Journal editorial page is making approving noises about Trump’s new picks: “Mr. Pompeo has the advantage,” the Journal noted on March 14, “of sharing Mr. Trump’s more hawkish instincts on Iran and North Korea in particular.” Far from representing an aberration, Trump represents the logical culmination of the longstanding Republican tradition of foreign policy unilateralism.
The word unilateralism was first popularized by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Richard Rovere in a 1951 book about General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman called The General and the President. Their description of Republican messianism about confronting North Korea and Red China sounds like it could have been written today: “Go it alone; meet force with maximum counterforce; there is no substitute for victory; do not worry about consequences; these are the tenets of the new faith.” The term captured the Republican Party’s peculiar blend of militarism and disdain for alliances and international organizations, an impulse that has never fully gone away.
This penchant for unilateralism manifested itself after World War I when the Senate rejected entry into the League of Nations and Calvin Coolidge espoused isolationism even as he repeatedly intervened militarily in Central America. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt quite rightly anticipated Republican objections to American participation in international institutions after the conflict ended. “There have always been cheerful idiots in this country,” he said in a Christmas Eve radio address in 1943, “who believed that there would be no more war for us if everybody in America would only return into their homes and lock their front doors behind them.”
Sure enough, after World War II, the Republican Party returned to the old-time gospel, denouncing the idea of participation in NATO and the United Nations. A truculent right led by senators such as Joseph McCarthy, William Jenner, and William F. Knowland and publications like the National Review steadily denounced both Truman and Dwight Eisenhower as inordinately soft on communism. Some on the right even espoused attacking the Soviet Union. Ike would have none of it. “A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility,” he said at a 1954 press conference. “How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins?”
Even as the revanchist right denounced global government, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, presidents from Eisenhower to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush focused on bolstering America’s alliances. Thanks to the deft diplomacy of George H.W. Bush and James Baker, the first Gulf War saw a coalition of 34 countries join the United States to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and represented a high-point of Republican internationalism.
Yet as Schlesinger shrewdly observed in his 2004 book War and the American Presidency, once the restraints of the cold war were gone, the Republican Party reverted to form. With the rise of the class of 1994, the unilateralists started to get their mojo back. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, said that Bill Clinton harbored a “multinational fantasy” and sought to “subordinate the United States to the United Nations,” a charge echoed again and again by other Republicans lawmakers. The stage was set for the presidency of George W. Bush.
Today, Trump is simply picking up where Bush and Cheney left off. It was Bush who announced the need after 9/11 for preventive war. Speaking at West Point on June 1, 2002, he said that the policy of cold war containment was so yesterday. It was time to go on the offensive. A new rollback doctrine was needed. “We must take the battle to the enemy,” he stated, “and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action.”
In September 2002, Bush addressed the United Nations with what the historian Sam Tanenhaus has called “Trump-like swagger” to warn other nations that they dare not “stand by and do nothing while dangers gather.” And the administration’s vaunted 2002 National Security Strategy stated that “the inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.” It was Bush who presided over Abu Ghraib and who sanctioned black sites around the world for so-called “enhanced interrogation” that Trump still defends.
During the Bush administration there was an alliance between the neocons, who espoused the promotion of democracy by regime change, and outright nationalists such as Cheney and Bolton who had zero interest in democracy promotion and simply wanted to pulverize any upstart nations that might pose a threat to the supremacy of American might. Today, under Trump, it is this latter, dark vision that is emerging triumphant. Maybe the only thing worse than Trump the isolationist is Trump the interventionist.