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Three separate questions compose the topic of US foreign policy under Donald Trump: what the policy has been since he took office, what parts of that are due to Trump’s decisions, and what may be those decisions’ root. I will examine these components with regard to each aspect of US policy, rather than in any chronological order of events.


Trump and Kim Jong-un at their historic summit in Singapore: Declaring victories is easier than achieving them (©Kevin Lim / The Straits Times / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


First, we must understand how they interact with one another generically. This requires grasping why the American people’s dissatisfaction with foreign policy had reached a critical point by the 2016 election, and how Trump incorporated that dissatisfaction in his campaign.

Prior to running for President, Trump viewed international affairs with the not-so attentive, ordinary patriotism of ordinary Americans. That view has been at odds with official US policy for most of the past 100 years. During the past quarter-century, all of the foreign policy establishment’s constituent parts have become increasingly unpopular — each for its own reasons — so that, by 2016, US foreign policy had no constituency outside the establishment.

Ordinary Americans’ approach to foreign affairs has remained remarkably steady since the country’s founding: America and its way of life are uniquely precious. The oceans to the east and west, as well as non-threatening neighbours north and south, offer Americans the chance to live peacefully and productively in what Benjamin Franklin called “the land of labour”. The Declaration of Independence aimed to secure neither more nor less than a “separate and equal station” among the powers of the earth. To that end, American diplomats are to give no offence and to suffer none, while the US armed forces — the Navy foremost — are to keep danger far away. America has interests all over the world, which coincide with those of others occasionally. But they are never identical. Hence, America is to mind its own business, aggressively, while steering clear of others’ business. As John Quincy Adams said, America “enters the lists in no cause but its own”. Bothering no one, Americans will make short, brutal work of whomever bothers them. As General Douglas MacArthur put it: “In war there is no substitute for victory.” But like him, the few major figures who have championed this point of view in the past hundred years — Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert Taft, Jr., and Barry Goldwater — have been damned at once as isolationists and warmongers.

The writings of America’s most prominent theorists and practitioners of foreign affairs (Ronald Reagan excepted — “We win, they lose”) are replete with scorn for the popular approach. Nor does this approach describe US foreign policy since 1917, guided as it has been by an unbroken, bipartisan line of great names that links the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement to our time. Elihu Root, who became Secretary of War in 1899 and of State in 1904, taught Charles Evans Hughes, the Secretary of State responsible for the Washington Treaties of 1921, and mentored Henry L. Stimson, who followed him and who ended his career as  Secretary of War in 1941-45. He in turn mentored McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy’s National Security Adviser, who mentored Anthony Lake, who did that for Bill Clinton after having served Henry Kissinger, and who advised Barack Obama. Another chain stretches from Woodrow Wilson to Cordell Hull, America’s longest-serving Secretary of State, to Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, and George Shultz.
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Lawrence James
July 2nd, 2018
9:07 AM
Americans have always desired 'to live peacefully' with their neighbours. If this urge ever existed, why did it express itself in the invasion of Mexico and the subsequent annexations. Was the war against Spain in 1898 another manifestation of this same wish for harmony with its neighbours ? And there were the wars against the native Americans and, more pertinently, the little wars waged by General Smedley Butler in various parts of the Caribbean between the wars. Aggression which he rightly denounced as undertaken in the interests of the big corporations.The Cold War and its aftermath have seen a cluster of similar coercive wars. Such selective omissions suggest that this just another Trump propaganda excercise. Fair enough but next time find someone with some knowledge of history.

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