City on a Hill in Ashes? American Leadership in the Next Administration

13 mars 2024

On a blustery morning in January, in 1961, a young and dynamic new American president was sworn in on the steps of the US capitol.  John F. Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address was a renewed call to arms in defense of freedom, a commitment to do whatever it took to defend American values:

“…let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Fifty-six years later another new president, not so young but dynamic in his own unique way, was sworn in at the exact same location.  His vision of “American carnage” was diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor.  US leadership, Donald Trump argued, had sapped America’s strength, and it was time to look out for number one:

“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; 

Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military;

We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own;

And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country have disappeared over the horizon…

But that is the past. And now we are looking only to the future.”

For many, many years, including the three decades I spent as a US diplomat, Kennedy’s vision of American leadership on behalf of American values dominated Washington’s approach to foreign policy.  The first Trump Administration often undermined our commitment to that kind of policy.  The coming Trump Administration, I am convinced, will largely kill it.

American Foreign Policy

American foreign, at least since the end of World War II, has been based on three pillars: interests, values, and leadership.  These pillars are sometimes mutually reinforcing, sometimes at odds.  When they are at odds, interests often win out, but not always.

Of course, like any sovereign nation, the United States will defend and advance its narrow interests.  This is true when it comes to the sharp-elbowed race for international dominance, to more narrowly defined national defense, to American economic prosperity.  From the first formulation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 onwards, the United States has certainly had a keen eye for its own spheres of influence, and, although it came to the game late and relatively unenthusiastically, the US by the early 20th century had even become a colonial power.  The United States has not hesitated to make friends with disreputable actors – like Stalin in WWII – if military victory required it and has even been willing to use atomic weapons to defeat its enemies.  Many a tawdry deal has been cut to defend our economic interests.  We need look no farther to prove this point than our long-lasting and deep relationships with autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere designed to ensure a steady stream of oil to energy-thirsty American consumers.  In short, throughout our national history, American foreign policymakers have often acted just as realist analysts of international relations have said they would.

But American foreign policy doesn’t stop there.  There is this deep-seated belief that America has something unique to offer, that it is “a city on a hill.”  This was less pronounced, perhaps, in the 19th century, but by the early 20th this kind of idealist thinking became a driving force in Washington’s policymaking.  Henry Kissinger, a realist himself, sees it almost cemented into place by the end of the Wilson Administration:

For Wilson, the justification of America’s international role was messianic: America had an obligation, not to the balance of power, but to spread its principles throughout the world… These principles held that peace depends on the spread of democracy, that states should be judged by the same ethical criteria as individuals, and that the national interest consists of adhering to a universal system of law.”  Kissinger goes on to note that this change was essentially permanent: “It is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this day.”[1]

There were ups and downs, this idealist approach was certainly tested by the protectionism of the thirties, but from the Second World War onwards this was a major element in our policy.  Writing in the 1970s, Nathan Glazer noted how unique this was: “The United States is probably the only major country in the world in which it is taken quite as a matter of course that people will talk seriously about the relation of the nation’s values to its foreign policy. We in this country seem to believe, first, that there is something distinctive about our values, such that we can speak—even if with some uncertainty—about American values; and, second, that these values do, or should, affect our foreign policy…[2]

For a long time, of course, the overarching value was anti-communism. NSC-68, written under the leadership of Paul Nitze in 1950, is a remarkable policy statement which lays out the Truman Administration’s strategy in the nascent Cold War with international communism.  In top secret deliberations, Truman’s National Security Council accepted that the conflict with the Soviet Union and its allies would have military, political, and economic components.  But above all, Truman’s advisors saw the battle as one of values, and they were convinced that, when given a choice, people living under communist regimes would choose the “American way of life” over their own.  No need to invade the Soviet Union, just let the values seep in.  Thereafter, anti-communism was at the heart of US foreign policy, on a bipartisan basis, until the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Francis Fukuyama’s blustery claim in 1989 that America’s victory in the Cold War meant the “end of history” reflects American hubris about the power of its values.

The end of the Cold War left decision makers in Washington a bit adrift, perhaps, but there was still a strong sense that America represented something good, democracy, human rights, free trade, and so on.

This emphasis on values was coupled with a strong sense of noblesse oblige, of a responsibility for leadership.  Not only did America stand for universal principles, she had an obligation to propagate them throughout the world.  This was particularly true in the aftermath of World War II, when the United States and its allies essentially constructed the international architecture that structures much of the international system to this day: the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, NATO, etc.  Since that time, there is hardly a region, a conflict, an international crisis, a major natural disaster that hasn’t seen active American involvement.  Lichtenstein’s foreign ministry could, perhaps, ignore a major earthquake in Peru or a military coup in Mali, but the US State Department cannot.

You may or may not believe in American commitment to values, and you may or may not welcome American leadership.  Certainly, any nation with a history of slavery and racial injustice, of economic inequality, of genocide of indigenous peoples should be circumspect in its self-congratulation regarding the advanced state of its democracy.  American leadership has been less than universally welcomed.  That’s true in Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China, but it has also been true at times and in different measures here in France.  The reader is free to decide whether American leadership is a good thing or a bad thing.

In the nearly 80 years since the end of World War II, American policymakers in Washington have been unanimous in seeing it a good thing.  This view was bipartisan; democrats and republicans have equally shared this sense of a special American role in the world, even if they often vigorously disagreed on specific policies.

First Trump Administration

That began to change in 2017.  Donald Trump never seemed to share the notion of the city on a hill, and he appeared to believe that American leadership was a major liability and not a noble responsibility.  I would suggest also that first administration was a harbinger of things to come in 2025.

In 2021, the Congressional Research Service prepared a report on American global leadership at the close of the Trump Administration.  CRS is the non-partisan think tank of Congress and the organization seeks to present unbiased analysis.  In the report, CRS noted that among the many criticisms of Trump’s foreign policy were the following:

– “A voluntary retreat from or abdication of global leadership

– A greater reliance on unilateralism

– A reduced willingness to work through international or multilateral institutions and agreements

– An acceptance of U.S. isolation or near-isolation on certain international issues

– A more skeptical view of the value of alliances to the United States

– A less-critical view of certain authoritarian or illiberal governments

– A reduced or more selective approach to promoting and defending certain universal values

– The elevation of bilateral trade balances, commercial considerations, monetary transactions, and ownership of assets such as oil above other foreign policy considerations, and

– An implicit tolerance of the reemergence of aspects of a might-makes-right international order.”[3]

In that first administration, Donald Trump raised many doubts about a long-term US commitment to leadership, but he did not lead a catastrophic American withdrawal from the world.  Rather, the changes were often limited to breaches of norms and significant alterations of tone rather than wholesale abandonment of decades-long policy.  There are certainly many reasons that American leadership was not more fully dismantled.  Trump was manifestly unready for the presidency, and clearly did not have a fully formed, overarching strategy when he came into office.  Much policy, particularly in the first years, was ad hoc and often the result of what appeared to erratic trial and error.  Trump arrived in the White House with little idea of how to work the levers of power, both within his own administration and with Congress.  Further, he often appointed senior foreign policy officials – James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, even John Bolton – who had traditional, if conservative, views on America’s role in the world.  Many republicans in Congress in those days also clung to those same views.  Arguably, Trump’s foreign policy team will be smarter, more unified, and significantly more hostile to the American foreign policy tradition than last time around.

The Second Trump Administration

No one can say for certain who will win the presidency next November.  While Trump may not be inevitable, he is certainly well positioned to win.  The latest NYT polling puts Trump at 48% and Biden at 43%.[4]  But Biden is unpopular in the general population and generates little enthusiasm among many democratic voters.  Some 48% of republican voters are excited about Trump, versus 23% of democrats for Biden.  In a highly polarized political environment, mobilizing one’s own supporters is often much more important than trying to convince the other candidate’s voters to cross the aisle.  Further, a recent Bloomberg poll as Trump ahead in seven crucial swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin.

If he wins, Trump will almost certainly adopt a foreign policy that further puts “America first” and rejects American leadership as defined by every president from Roosevelt to Obama.  Whether by actual design or merely as a biproduct of a transactional, often unpredictable foreign policy inimical to multilateral action on pressing global issues, Trump will further erode America’s ability and willingness to shape the international environment in line with American values.  At the end of four years, US influence will have waned significantly.

Trump’s campaign doesn’t give us all that much detail about what comes next in foreign policy.  The “issues” section of his website has two short pages devoted to foreign policy.  One is headed “renew American strength and leadership,” but the content seems primarily focused on past withdrawal from conflicts overseas in places like Afghanistan and dismantling Biden’s “radical left ideology.”  The second page focuses on “rejecting globalism” and touts Trump Administration policies on Iran and Israel.  Trump himself devotes little attention to detail foreign policy prescriptions in his stump speeches.  At a recent event, Trump argued with no substance that he’d do better than Biden.  If Trump had been president, he said, “the attack on Israel would’ve never happened. Iran was broke. They were broke. Ukraine would have never happened.”

There are other actors out there who may be able to give us a more detailed picture of what the foreign policy future holds.  There have been two notable, lengthy documents prepared by groups in the MAGA universe with recommended policies for the next administration: one prepared by Project 2025, the other by America First Policy Institute (AFPI).  Neither group is directly associated with the Trump campaign, but both are peopled by people who will likely be working in a second Trump Administration.

Project 2025 makes an exhaustive series of recommendations for nearly every major government department, but also delves deeply into the MAGA philosophy of government.  In its forward, the Project 20215 document takes direct aim at the traditional conception of American leadership.  “Wilsonian hubris,” it says, “has spread like a cancer…”  For the authors of this report, anti-democratic elites have imposed on Americans a conception of a world order led by the United States, “Progressive elites speak in lofty terms of openness, progress, expertise, cooperation, and globalization. But too often, these terms are just rhetorical Trojan horses concealing their true intention—stripping “we the people” of our constitutional authority over our country’s future.”  American political, cultural, and economic leaders now have “more in common with a socialist, European head of state than with the parents at a high school football game in Waco, Texas.”  (In this context, both “socialist” and “European” are meant to be insults.)  The foreign policy experts – in the White House, in the State and Defense Departments, in Congress, in think tanks, at universities – are the enemy, as is their idealist ideology.  Multilateral diplomacy through international institutions like the United Nations, immigration, environmental activism, economic globalization, big tech are the enemy.

The AFPI’s “America First Agenda” takes special aim at multilateral action, and in particular reflects Trump’s apparent hostility towards NATO.  Among the policy prescriptions in the America First Agenda are:

– “End the use of military or tax dollars for nation building.

– Give priority to nations that are willing to fight for themselves against common threats and have demonstrated a willingness to shoulder their share of the burden for providing for collective defense efforts.

– Prioritize working with nations that contribute their fair share to our alliances.

– In the European theater, reimpose defense ties with nations that have met or exceeded their 2% NATO GDP commitments and have demonstrated clear alignment of vision and resources with America’s in terms of countering Communist China and addressing the threat from Russia.

– Do not subordinate national security policy to multilateral institutions and other nations.

– In situations where multilateral institutions work in conflict with American security and interests, America’s leadership should reserve the right to withdraw American membership and cease sending taxpayer dollars to them.”

MAGA foreign policy doesn’t always conflict with the more traditional view in the details.  Like the Biden Administration, for example, MAGA world views the People’s Republic of China as significant threat to American interests. Rather, it is in that idea that the United States has a responsibility to export its values, whatever the cost, that is under attack.

It is, of course, possible that Trump might not win, but even if Biden prevails American leadership will be weakened.  The first Trump Administration raised many questions among our friends and enemies about our long-term commitment to leadership.  The Biden Administration, for a wide variety of reasons and despite its avowed commitment to American leadership, has not fully addressed those concerns. America no longer speaks with one voice on foreign policy.  One thing that Trump has done, very effectively, is to politicize the basic tenets of our foreign policy in ways we’ve never seen before.  Take NATO, for example.  The organization has always been popular with American citizens.  Prior to Trump’s term in office, that support was completely non-partisan; there was little difference in how democrats and republicans saw the organization.  These days, overall support is still strong, but there is a significant split along party lines (80% of democrats want to maintain our current levels of involvement versus 46% of republicans).[5]  This is a pure product of Trump’s hostility towards NATO specifically and multilateral engagement more generally and his ideological control over his party and his electorate.  With our system of checks and balances, even a President Biden in favor of continuing American leadership will encounter political headwinds his predecessors have not had to face.  That American indecisiveness would certainly leave one wondering how much a democratic leader in Europe could count on Washington.


[1] Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy,” Simon and Schuster, New York: 2011.

[2] Nathan Glazer, “American Values and American Foreign Policy,” Commentary, July 1976.

[3] Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress,” January 2021.

[4] New York Times, “Voters Doubt Biden’s Leadership and Favor Trump, Times/Siena Poll Finds,” March 2, 2024.

[5] Gallup, “Americans Remain Committed to NATO, Critical of UN”, February 29, 2024.
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