For two years we’ve been hearing that Donald Trump is an ‘isolationist’, whatever that word is supposed to mean. Only now two op-ed writers in the New York Times have discovered that he isn’t — instead, Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim write, ‘Let’s call Mr. Trump’s vision what it is: radical American imperialism.’ Let’s not, because it isn’t true. On the contrary, Donald Trump is the most anti-imperialist president in a generation, even if he is also far from being a mythical ‘isolationist’.
North Korea is isolationist, and perhaps Meiji Japan was, too. But Great Britain had a world empire when ‘splendid isolation’ was a maxim of Conservative leaders’ foreign policy in the 19th century. All that word meant was that Britain was not going to enmesh itself in the revolutionary politics of Continental Europe the way that the U.S. has today ensnared itself in the upheavals of the Middle East. The British Empire, vast though it may have been, was not in the business of exporting democracy.
When Trump came into office, the U.S. had a confused and hypocritical foreign policy that consistently led to the slaughter of the very people on whose behalf it was supposedly conducted. Iraq and Afghanistan became the most violent places on earth in the wake of George W. Bush’s wars of regime change, and neighboring states like Syria have since been plunged into the flames of revolution. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton performed their own acts of arson, most spectacularly in Libya, where regime change led not only to chaos but even to the return of slavery to the shores of North Africa. Amid all this, the oldest Christian communities on earth paid an exceptionally high price. They’re still paying in blood for the democratic dreams of revolution that drove Bush and Obama.
The first President Bush and Bill Clinton had not brought about quite so much butchery, but they set the table, so to speak, by embracing the ideological foundations of what was to come. They imagined a world that would inevitably become more liberal, democratic, and American, and when necessary the U.S. would use military force to accelerate the race to the end of history.
This was nothing if not an imperialist vision, albeit couched in terms of benevolence, and it bears a striking resemblance to the way in which certain 19th century Liberals wished to use the British Empire as a force for good. Of course, it bears a more than passing resemblance to the ambitions of French revolutionaries to promote Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite across Europe as well, not to mention the urge that 20th-century Communists felt to paint the whole world red.
Meaney and Wertheim claim that Trump’s ‘outpouring of militarism and chauvinism… threaten[s] to turn the world’s sole superpower into an unabashed purveyor of violence and exploitation.’ But Trump’s use of force has not been directed toward regime change to the extent that we saw under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and ‘chauvinism’ is in fact an antidote to the well-intended but in practice deadly ideological program of fomenting liberal democratic revolutions. Trump is a turn away from the radical foreign policy of Bush, Obama, Trotsky, and Napoleon, and toward a conservative policy more like that of Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ — which was not ‘isolationism’ — or America’s own Cold War realism. Meaney and Wertheim are correct to see Trump in continuity with elements of American foreign policy going back to the Cold War, but they are wrong not to recognize the discontinuity between Trump and the ideological imperialism of other recent presidents. Trump has rejected the foundation of the only kind of empire America has pursued since the Spanish-American War. The only trouble is that in the Middle East, Trump may yet get drawn into precisely the kind of revolutionary struggles and imperialist games—in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and more— that Disraeli and Salisbury steered clear of in 19th-century Europe.