WASHINGTON – The best U.S. presidents are transformational, not transitional. They do not simply shake up the old status quo; they create a better one. When it comes to foreign policy, Donald Trump will surely fall short of that standard: He has been far more adept at disruption than at the building that ought to follow. Yet in this transitional role, he has done whoever succeeds him a favor. By breaking with precedent so forcefully on issues from trade to security alliances to China, the president has given his successor an opportunity to engage in the creative construction that has too often eluded Trump himself.
Trump won office at a time when the international strains on America’s primacy were building, and domestic disillusion with Washington’s expansive globalism was festering. These forces would have affected the statecraft of any president who took office in 2017. When magnified by Trump’s distinctive personality and worldview, they became more jarring still.
On China, Trump demolished a decades-old policy that saw integration and engagement as the key to keeping a rising China from becoming a dangerously revisionist China. On trade, Trump shattered a prevailing consensus that the U.S. should bear primary responsibility for advancing an open global economy — and that it should be willing to tolerate some job losses and other domestic pain as the price of that leadership. On alliances, the president sharply questioned the value of America’s most venerable partnerships; he pursued a familiar and legitimate goal — getting allies to pick up more of the tab for their own security — through the brute-force tactics of publicly castigating European leaders and threatening to abandon friends.
In all of these areas, the president was on to something. By 2017, no one could seriously deny that U.S. alliances had become unbalanced: America was being asked to confront serious threats across Eurasia and beyond, while some of its richest allies had become more or less bystanders in their own defense. It was becoming harder to rationalize allowing China to pursue mercantilist practices in a free-trade world, or simply not to be alarmed by Beijing’s accelerating expansionism.
On global trade, it was no longer feasible to ask U.S. voters to accept very marginal economic gains — and lesser, but highly visible, economic losses — as the cost of free-trade deals whose payoff was generally quite abstract and geopolitical. Although U.S. policy was never nearly as hapless as Trump and other critics claimed, the way was clear for a leader who would shake up outdated arrangements and erect something more satisfactory.
Trump, alas, was never going to be this person. Destruction comes naturally to him: Witness the glee he takes in pummeling allies rhetorically, using tariffs as tools of economic punishment, and holding at risk the achievements of generations of U.S. leaders. Creation — the painstaking work of building new relationships, structures and strategies — is beyond the ken of someone so volatile, so undisciplined, so uninterested in either the details or consistency of policy.
Thus, we have a president who has inflicted real trauma on crucial relationships, without telling America’s partners a compelling story about what role these alliances should play in the 21st century.
The administration has declared that the U.S. will now “compete” with China, without building the well-rounded strategy or the broad democratic coalition needed to win that competition. The president has clearly identified which aspects of the international trading system he does not like: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the terms of many of America’s bilateral trade agreements. But Trump’s trade agenda has been mostly negative, so the U.S. has stood to the side, to its own detriment, as actors from the EU to Japan and Australia have pushed ahead with major trade deals of their own.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that his task, during another period of great upheaval, was “to build a new building while tearing down the old beams and not letting the structure collapse.” Trump’s habit is to tear down the old beams without putting anything in their place. The U.S. and the world are well into a period of great uncertainty and transition. But in the Age of Trump, there seems little prospect of successful transformation — the emergence of a new, stable model of U.S. leadership and global order.
The good news is that a transitional presidency can still have redeeming virtue. Trump has ensured that there will be no going back to the world that existed before his inauguration. The next president will not publicly declare, as Barack Obama did, that America should be most worried about a weak China. The entire pre-2016 equilibrium on trade and alliances will not be restored. In fact, because Trump has so obliterated the old mold on these issues, he has created interesting opportunities for his successor.
The 46th president will have real damage to repair in America’s alliances, no doubt. But he or she might also use the experience of the Trump era to push the allies, forcefully but respectfully, to contribute more to a well-defined common cause lest their failure produce another Trump in the future.
Similarly, Trump’s successor will have to deal with a weakened, fragmented trading system. But as has happened before, the world’s fear of seeing the U.S. withdraw more permanently from that system may allow a less abrasive president to renegotiate the distributions of burdens and benefits in a way that makes American leadership more sustainable over the long run.
Finally, the next administration will inherit a tense, worsening relationship with China. Yet it will also inherit a domestic and international audience that has been conditioned by the Trump administration to see Beijing as the formidable rival it is. While Trump probably won’t leave behind a winning China strategy, he will leave behind some of the material from which that strategy might be forged.
All this is contingent, of course, on Trumpism — not just the Trump presidency, but the style of foreign policy that the president represents — being a relatively brief phenomenon. A period of rupture, even a deeply disorienting one, can precede an era of construction. But only if the upheaval doesn’t last too long.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.