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It’s not a post-Trump world, it’s a post-Bush-Obama-Trump one


I’m sure there are non-MAGA analysts who think that the United States can just move on from the Trump Administration, but I haven’t come across any in the wild. Most recognize that Trump’s toxic blend of narcissism, ignorance, and personal corruption damaged U.S. domestic politics in ways that will haunt the country for years to come. The same is true for U.S. foreign relations. Take Trump’s erratic behavior, stir in his unprecedented record of breaking international commitments, and top it off with the fact that he still managed 47% of the popular vote in 2020. Taken together, it’s hard not to look at Trump’s record and think that no foreign government will ever trust Washington again.

In a new piece in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Kirshner works through the long-term implications.

[T]he world cannot unsee the Trump presidency. (Nor, for that matter, can it unsee the way members of the U.S. Congress behaved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, voting opportunistically to overturn an election and helping incite violence at the Capitol.) From this point forward, countries around the globe will have to calculate their interests and expectations with the understanding that the Trump administration is the sort of thing that the U.S. political system can plausibly produce. 

Such reassessments will not be to the United States’ advantage. For 75 years, the general presumption that the United States was committed to the relationships and institutions it forged and the norms it articulated shaped the world in ways that privileged U.S. interests. If it is increasingly perceived to be feckless and self-serving, the United States will find the world a more hazardous and less welcoming place. 

It’s a fine piece, and – if the paywall isn’t an obstacle – well worth a read. What’s striking is a name that doesn’t appear in it: “George W. Bush.” In this respect, the article isn’t an outlier. There are far too many assessments of the Trump presidency that ignore or gloss over the Bush years.

Indeed, One can imagine a very similar piece appearing in 2009, not longer after Obama assumed office.

That article would discuss the international reaction to the “Bush Doctrine” and its recipe for endless preventive wars, Washington’s embrace of “enhanced interrogation” and widespread use of “extraordinary rendition,” the Bush administration’s efforts to play “New Europe” against “Old Europe,” and the overall catastrophe of the Iraq War.

It would remind us of the Bush Administration’s cavalier attitude toward international agreements: its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Optional Protocol of Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, as well as its efforts to sabotage the International Criminal Court.

It would point to the spectacle of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the role of the United States in bringing about the Great Recession.

The piece might even note that, after Bush’s reelection in 2004 with 50.7% of the vote, international observers could no longer cling to the illusion that the Bush presidency was a freak accident – that Bush did not command the support of a majority of Americans. Clearly, it would conclude, Obama cannot restore faith in the United States among its core democratic allies.

We’d look back at the article as not entirely wrong, buy clearly hyperbolic. Many foreign governments were quite happy to treat the Bush administration as a bad dream. Even if they weren’t, geopolitical realities left them with little choice.

Does all of this raise doubts about assessments such as Kirshner’s? To some degree. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Rather, it means that any assessment of how the last four years will shape the future of world politics cannot treat them as sui generis. They need to be contextualized within, and compared to, the arc of post-Cold War U.S. presidencies.

Doing so, however, doesn’t necessarily provide grounds for comfort. In Exit from Hegemony (Amazon kickback link), Alex and I argued that the backdrop of the Bush presidency just makes things worse: “Trump is more worrisome for many American partners and allies precisely because” of the memory of the Bush years.

Both of the previous Republican presidents consciously sowed discord among democratic allies and initiated deliberately disruptive international policies. Both undermined faith in U.S. institutions. The widespread sense that Trump was even more unfit for office than Bush – and far more dismissive of NATO and other lynchpins of U.S. foreign relations – surely only increases overseas anxiety about the direction of the United Sates. Overall, if a superpower gives the world whiplash every time a different party takes control of its foreign policy, then the rest of the world is going to find ways to make itself less threatened by such shifts.

On the other hand, a lot of U.S. allies still lack realistic alternatives. Which means we’re likely to see, just as we did in 2009-2010, a lot of wishcasting about future U.S. foreign policy. The question is whether this will help or harm efforts to strengthen U.S. alliances and partnerships, especially in ways that leave them less vulnerable to future U.S. electoral shocks.

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