The Trump Revolution - Part 2

The Trump Revolution - Part 2

Alfredo Toro Hardy explores Trump’s foreign policy record to discern what a second term may entail.  

In 2001 George W. Bush’s and his neoconservatives arrived in government, bringing with them an awkward notion about the U.S.’ power. Instead of understanding that the international system in place had not only been designed to fit its country’s interests, and that it had served it exceedingly well, they felt that it had to be rearranged in order to recognize America’s new standing as sole superpower.

Proclaiming the futility of cooperative multilateralism, which from their perspective just constrained the U.S.’ freedom of action, they asserted the prerogatives of the country’s national interest. Moreover, such national interest took precedence over international law, as made clear by President Bush before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  During that time, he repeatedly emphasized that even if such invasion violated international law, his country would do whatever was necessary to ensure its security.

As Bush’s period was reaching its end, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a pivotal book in which he asserted that America had lost much of its international credibility and legitimacy. That was especially disturbing as the combined impact of modern technology and global political awakenings was leading to an acceleration of political history.  What in the past took centuries to materialize, was now taking decades, and what took decades before could now happen in a year. The primacy of any would-be world power was thus subject to immense pressure to change, adapt or fall. However, he believed that a second chance was still possible for America (Brzezinski, 2007, p. 206).

More than could be swallowed

Barak Obama did much to attain and retain the second chance alluded by Brzezinski. His foreign policy, sustained by cooperative multilateralism, collective action, and clear international priorities, helped in regaining an important degree of international standing for his country. Unfortunately for the U.S., Donald Trump was to be the next President and he seemed more than what America’s allies could swallow.

Bush and Trump’s foreign policies, however, cannot be put on equal footing. Notwithstanding the abrasive arrogance of Bush’s neoconservatives, they represented a foreign policy school of thought. One, characterized by a fusion between exalted visions of America’s exceptionalism and Wilsonianism. Although overplaying conventional notions to the extreme, they remained in track with longstanding foreign policy traditions. Trump’s foreign policy, in Fareed Zakaria’s terms, was based in more pedestrian premises – The world is largely an uninteresting place, except for the fact that most countries just want to screw the United States. Alternatively, Trump believed that by striping the global system of its ordering arrangements, a “dog eat dog” environment would emerge. One, in which the U.S. would come up as the top dog (Steltzer, 2004, pp. 3-28; Zakaria, 2019; Cooley and Nexon, 2020 p. 15).

For Trump, national self-interest narrowly construed was the foundation of international relations. He thus preferred a bilateral approach to foreign relations. One, in which America’s power could be fully exerted upon a weaker counterpart. Washington’s economic leverage was to be understood as a tool with which to bully others into acquiescence. At the same time, he equated economy and national security and, as a consequence, was prone to “weaponize” economic policies. This targeted not only China, but some of America’s top allies as well. Dusting off Section 323 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, which allows tariffs on national security grounds, Trump imposed penalizations in every direction (Swanson and Mozur, 2019; Alden, 2019).

Given his contempt both for cooperative multilateralism and for Obama’s legacy, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in relation to Iran. He also withdrew his country from other multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission and, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, from the World Health Organization. He threatened to cut funding to the United Nation, and waged a largely victorious campaign to side-line the International Criminal Court, while bringing the World Trade Organization to a virtual standstill.

Money, money, money

Trump was guided by a transactional approach to foreign affairs where principles and allies matter little. At the same time, he prioritized trade and money over security considerations. In 2019, he not only asked Japan to increase fourfold its annual contribution for the privilege of hosting 50,000 U.S. troops in its territory but requested to South Korea to pay 400 percent more for the 28,500 American soldiers on its soil. This, amid increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region and in the midst of North Korea’s threat. In relations with India, a fundamental U.S. ally within any strategy of containment to China, Trump overtly subordinated geostrategic considerations to trade (World Politics Review, 2019).

He labelled some of America’s closest partners within NATO as “delinquents” because they were not investing enough in their defence, while threatening to reduce America’s participation in the organization which he called “obsolete”. Given Germany’s energy links to Moscow, he characterized it as a “captive of Russia”. He abruptly cancelled a meeting with the Danish Prime Minister because she refused to discuss the sale of Greenland to the United States, something expressively forbidden by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, cornerstone of European stability. For Trump, the European Union was not a fundamental ally, but an economic competitor. Not surprisingly, antagonizing European governments, including that of the United Kingdom at the time, Trump cheered Brexit.

Meanwhile, he imposed sanctions on steel and aluminium to the U.S.’ closest allies, while forcing a tough renegotiation on NAFTA that humiliated Canada and Mexico for no sensible reason, as the ensuing result did not bring any significant improvement. He was able to fracture the G7, with his country standing alone on one side. This, notwithstanding that the group is made up of America’s closest allies.


As a result, the U.S.’ closest allies reached the conclusion that Washington could no longer be trusted. A few examples can attest this. In November 2017, Australia’s White Paper on Asia’s security conveyed deep uncertainty about America’s commitment to Asia. In April 2018, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, issued an official statement, expressing that they would forcefully defend their interests against the U.S.’ protectionism. On May 10, 2018, Angela Merkel proclaimed in Aquisgran that the time in which Europe could trust Washington had ended. On May 31, 2018, Justin Trudeau decried his country’s affront at being labelled by Trump as a threat to the United States. On June, 2018, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, expressed his bewilderment with the fact that the rules-based international order was being challenged by its fundamental architect and guarantor – the United States. On November 7, 2019, Emmanuel Macron indicated, in an interview to The Economist, that European countries could no longer rely on America, who had turned its back on them. And so on and so forward (White, 2017; Breuninger 2018; Borger and Perkins, 2018; The Economist, 2019, Cooley and Nexon, 2020, p. 70).

Biden’s White House, it must be recognized, has retained several of his predecessor’s international trade initiatives. His so-called “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” and his “Build Back Better Program” contain streaks of nativism and protectionism that worry many abroad. However, his strong response to Ukraine’s invasion by Russia and to China’s threat to the Indo-Pacific order, have somewhat won back America’s traditional allies. The United States, indeed, has proved itself to be the indispensable superpower. Surprisingly, then, the U.S.’ alliances not only survived the shocks represented by Bush and Trump, but the international repercussions of Biden’s industrial policies. But would they be able to survive a second Trump period as well?

What a chapter II may entail?

Let’s enumerate some of the foreign policies that a Trump chapter two may bring with it. Firstly, the professional civil service within the national security area would be eviscerated. According to Francis Fukuyama: “They [Trump’s team] want to be able to fire large numbers of civil servants and replace them with people they have chosen in advance. They will choose according to loyalty, not competence. The agencies that will be more directly affected are the ones dealing with national security – the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department” (Fukuyama, 2024).

Secondly, liberal internationalism would be put to rest. The Republican Party, which was isolationist up to Japan’s attack to Pearl Harbor, has gone back to the old times in a big way. In Bill Schneider terms: “Only 30 percent of Republicans believe ‘It is best for our country to be active in world affairs’” (Schneider, 2022). However, as Jacob Heilbrunn adds, Trump’s followers “are generally ardent proponents (…) on the right of a Fortress America that can strike unilaterally whenever and wherever it pleases, unencumbered by nettlesome international alliances and organizations” (Heilbrunn, 2024).

Thirdly, Trump would withdraw or significantly reduce America’s presence within NATO. According to Hans Binnendijk, R.D. Hooker Jr., and Alexander Vershbow: “But former U.S. officials who worked with Trump on NATO during his tenure, including one of us (Hooker), are convinced he will withdraw from the Alliance if he is reelected (…) Trump could [also] dramatically weaken the alliance without formally leaving it (Binnendijk, Hooker and Vershbow, 2024).

Fourthly, Trump would disengage from Ukraine. In Gram Slattery words: “He [Trump] has also said he would ask from Europe to reimburse the U.S. for ‘almost $200 billion’ worth of munitions sent to Ukraine (…) Though he has put forward few tangible proposals he told Reuters in an interview last year that Ukraine would have to cede territory to reach a peace agreement” (Slattery, 2024).

Fifthly, Asian alliances would be greatly shaken. According to Binnendijk, Hooker, and Vershbow: “The damage would not be limited to Europe. If Trump wants to withdraw from NATO to punish allies for their inadequate defense spending, why would the United States maintain its commitments to its Asian allies, many of whom currently spend even less than NATO countries” (Binnendijk, Hooker, and Vershbow, 2024). As Hal Brands says “there isn’t an Indo-Pacific exception in Trump’s version of ‘America First’”. (Brands, 2024).

Sixthly, Trump will totally disregard Biden’s initiatives in relation to climate change. In Slattery’s terms: “Trump has repeatedly pledged to pull out of the Paris Agreement” (Slattery, 2024). Moreover, Trump pressed oil companies to give one billion dollars to his campaign, as he would dismantle Biden’s green agenda and roll back pollution regulations (Lefebvre, 2024).

America’s alliances will not survive a second Trump administration, nor will the country’s international credibility and standing. If Trump’s returns, the U.S. will have forfeited its last chance.

Read Part 1 on the likely direction of domestic politics under Trump's second term here.


Alfredo Toro Hardy, PhD, is a retired Venezuelan career diplomat, scholar and author. Former Ambassador to the U.S., U.K., Spain, Brazil, Ireland, Chile and Singapore. Author or co-author of thirty-six books on international affairs. Former Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Princeton and Brasilia universities. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a member of the Review Panel of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

Photo by Allen Beilschmidt sr.






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