The Obama-Trump Grand Strategy

Posted June 12, 2018 6:35 p.m. EDT

One of the paradoxes of Donald Trump’s election was that it seemed like a dramatic repudiation of Barack Obama — after the first black president, a birther; after a cool liberal academic, a roaring populist; after a multicultural “world man,” an American nationalist — and yet it happened at a time when Obama was quite popular. Ben Rhodes, the bright young salesman for Obama’s foreign policy, offered this explanation for the paradox in his recent book: “When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.”

This is a reasonable general explanation for the strange phenomenon of the Obama-Trump voter. But watching the Trump-Kim reality television show play out this week in Singapore, it’s worth noting a more specific continuity between the two presidencies — between Obama’s foreign policy strategy and what Trump promised on his way to the Republican nomination and the White House.

Of course the foreign policy differences between the two presidencies are obvious — just look at the Iran deal, or the Paris climate change accords, or their differing attitudes toward Israel or Saudi Arabia, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

But there is also a mirror-image quality to their gambits and ambitions. Trump is trying to make a deal with North Korea, a last Cold War holdout, much as Obama did with Cuba. Trump is angering a traditional set of allies (the Europeans and now Canada) while pining for a détente with an authoritarian rival (Russia); Obama had a similar approach to realignment in the Middle East, angering the Israelis and Saudis while seeking an accommodation with Iran.

Meanwhile, there is a clear overlap in the two presidents’ approach to the global war on terrorism they inherited from George W. Bush: Both are willing to be aggressive with drones and bombs and special forces, both claim expansive executive authority to determine battlefields and targets, but both are wary of wider wars and ready to feud with their own advisers about anything that involves ground troops.

In all things Trump is cruder than Obama, more willing to make subtext into text, less (or not even remotely) detail-oriented, more careless of diplomatic norms and dismissive of humanitarian concerns. But if the two men use different rhetoric and often favor different alliances, they have both pursued the same kind of bigger-picture strategy — seeking to extricate the United States from some of its multiplying commitments, to shift our post-Cold War position away from a Pax Americana model of peace-through-hegemony and toward an “offshore balancing” approach that makes deals with erstwhile enemies and makes more demands of longtime friends. “America First” and “leading from behind” may sound very different, but they can reflect similar impulses and produce similar results.

This shared vision tends to be unpopular with the expert class in Washington — what Rhodes famously called the foreign policy “blob,” and what Trump would no doubt describe more pungently — but more popular with domestic constituencies. (Obama’s Iran deal always polled reasonably well, and Trump’s summit with Kim is by far the most popular thing he’s done in his presidency.) And the fact that the pursuit of offshore balancing has been sustained across two quite different administrations suggests that in some form it’s here to stay, and that the expert class should recognize its merits.

That recognition doesn’t mean shrugging off the Pax Americana. But it means acknowledging that neither the “pay any price, bear any burden” Cold War model of American leadership nor the “unipolar moment” model from the late 1990s and 2000s fits current realities very well. It means recognizing that hawkish politicians of the center-left and center-right — a Hillary Clinton, a Jeb Bush, a Marco Rubio — tend to foster an unrealistic view of what the United States can accomplish through idealistic pronouncements and military might. And it means acknowledging that both Obama and Trump triumphed politically in part because they seemed more sensible than Clinton and her Republican counterparts about the need to make strategic choices, to cut losses and to cut deals.

At the same time, the Trump partisans and apolitical normies who like the North Korea summit need to recognize that the problems that beset Obama’s attempt at “offshore balancing” could beset Trump’s efforts as well. Hegemony’s burdens are considerable, but often when the hegemon pulls back the new equilibrium turns ugly enough to pull us right back in.

That’s what happened in the Middle East in Obama’s second term, where dealing with Iraq from “offshore” led to the rise of the Islamic State and the Iranian nuclear deal may have stoked conflict in Yemen and Syria. It could easily happen under Trump in northern Asia as well, depending on how his approach looks from Pyongyang and Beijing.

As Tyler Cowen writes in one of the more optimistic takes on the summit, the wooing of Kim represents a gamble that the North Koreans really want to change their posture, to reap the possible benefits of normalization, even to enter America’s orbit instead of Beijing’s. (If Kim’s regime became merely authoritarian rather than totalitarian, imitating the House of Saud instead of Stalin, the last scenario isn’t entirely fanciful.)

But we simply don’t know whether Kim’s regime still envisions an endgame in which America retreats and South Korea submits — in which case the idea of permanent détente would be a fantasy. We also don’t know how the Chinese (and their potential allies of convenience in Moscow) would react to North Korea swinging into our orbit; there are ways in which peninsular stabilization could lead to regional destabilization. And given that Trump is a longtime huckster who’s feeling his way entirely by instinct, there should be a lot of skepticism about how well this is likely to turn out.

That skepticism, though, needs more sophistication than the “Can you imagine how the right would react if Obama cozied up to a murderous dictator like this?"/"Well, the left used to love it when Obama cozied up to murderous dictators!” argument that’s being carried on by Trump’s liberal and conservative critics on Twitter.

The reason that this “mirror, mirror” argument is possible is that Trump and Obama, for all their differences, are dealing with the same brute facts: American power is limited, America’s grand strategy is outdated or nonexistent, and being a superpower in the 2010s requires making harder choices and more unpleasant bargains than it did circa 1999.

Trump’s Korean bargain may be a bad one, or it may evaporate. But what Trump and Obama have in common — a skepticism about received foreign policy wisdom, a recognition that some burdens need to shift and some alliances need to change, an accurate read on what domestic public opinion will bear — is something the statesmen who succeed them need to share.

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