Is Trump Really a Foreign-Policy Populist?

    Jacob Heilbrunn

    Politics, Americas

    Donald Trump speaks about tax-reform legislation in St. Louis, Missouri, November 29, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque.

    We haven’t seen the sharp realignment you’d have expected from the campaign.

    When Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency, he declared that he would follow an “America First” foreign policy. This policy was supposed to represent a radical break with what Trump presented as a failed establishment that had led America into perpetual and costly wars abroad, most notoriously in Iraq. Instead, it was high time to focus on rebuilding America at home.

    How does it look almost a year into the Trump presidency? Two pieces, both appearing in the Wall Street Journal, offer dramatically different verdicts. The first was by Walter Russell Mead, who writes a weekly column for the Journal. It was entitled “Trump Brings Foreign Policy Back To Earth.” Mead acknowledged that Trump is “not the second coming of Bismarck,” but saw some grounds for optimism. In his view, Trump has indeed broken with old globalist establishment verities that no longer obtain in a sea of new world disorder. According to Mead, “In steering American foreign policy away from the inflated expectations and unrealistic objectives produced by the end of history mirage, the Trump administration is performing a much-needed service. But it is not enough to demolish the old. Ultimately Mr. Trump will be judged on his ability—or failure—to build something better.”

    A very different and far more different judgment was delivered by Robert B. Zoellick in a piece called “The Peril of Trump’s Populist Foreign Policy.” Zoellick was having none of Mead’s optimism. Instead, Zoellick, a distinguished foreign-policy practitioner who has served as World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state, issued a stinging indictment of Trump’s record over the past year. Zoellick identified Trump as a populist who has endorsed policies that “serve his political purposes, not the nation’s interests.” He notes that, in classic populist fashion, Trump purports to represent the will of the people, fixates on enemies who are thwarting it and routinely attacks the “allegedly illegitimate institutions that come between him and the people.”

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