Trump’s legacy makes the conservative case - opinion

A direct line can be drawn between advocating for “law and order” at home and for “peace through strength” abroad.

Trump tosses face masks to the crowd as he takes the stage in Florida for his first campaign rally since being treated for COVID-19. 12 October 2020 (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Trump tosses face masks to the crowd as he takes the stage in Florida for his first campaign rally since being treated for COVID-19. 12 October 2020
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Those who have been busy consuming US president Trump’s provocative and overawing style, for the better or for the worse, have often missed his presidency’s substance. On one prominent occasion, after representatives at the 2018 UN General Assembly opening session famously laughed when Trump took pride of his administration’s accomplishments, the media (and some of my academic colleagues) were so focused on covering this sensational moment that they almost entirely missed the very clear tone guiding his speech. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump declared, demanding to show national responsibility facing threats to sovereignty posed by global governance, characterizing it as coercive and dominant.
These two vectors were a constant characteristic of his presidency. From the everyday media noise through speakers at conferences and panels to world leaders, the smoke screen of intentionally-catchy insults, Twitter feud, and a redefined presidential rhetoric – that Trump, to be fair, seemed to be quite enjoying – has been misleading some into calling him out as a “clear and present danger” to national security. As one commentator noted, “Trump can make a wine list sound menacing.”
Yet going past the delivery style, a closer look at his administration’s national security strategy tells the success story of countless resulting developments on the world stage, from North Korea and China to Iran and the Middle East. His so-called “improvisational” presidency actually revealed iron-willed principles from the core of the conservative manual. Above all, to quote the strategy, the firm conviction that “peace, security and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations... that cooperate” rather than all-encompassing dictates by unaccountable international forums. This guiding tone was the lodestar of his administration, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy.
This overriding principle presupposes a chaotic global arena, where continuous contests over influence strive to alter the balance of power, summoning a superpower such as the US to aspire to diminish its adversaries’ influence while empowering that of its partners. This realistic perspective rejects the globalist, egalitarian aspiration embraced by the previous administration, that re-brands these frictions as mere technical disagreements within a joint international effort toward the same objective. It favors deterrence and complacence as the most efficient tool to mitigate these forces in the chaos, which in turn guarantees security.
Indeed, a direct line can be drawn between advocating for “law and order” at home and for “peace through strength” abroad. Uniform, be it police or military, is considered by conservatives as an enabler of peace, not a reminiscent of war. It is respected as a symbol of liberation, rather than rejected as a symbol of oppression.
The conservative recognition that all nations are driven by self-interest as well as the belief in American exceptionalism have actually enabled Trump to see otherness – simply assume on others what he assumes on himself. The so-called “isolationist” administration thus did not back down from the international stage, but pointed out at the fallacies and injustices in globalism, trespassing sovereign jurisdiction. Its capitalist-inspired demand from NATO members to up their shared commitments, for example, stemmed from the belief in cooperation between nations that favor self-responsibility over dependence – while actually doubling down the number of American troops on European soil. It led UN forums on religious persecution, while scolding its bodies for attempting to open an investigation against American troops at the International Criminal Court, or denouncing the decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (“The United States will not be told by any country where we can put our embassy”).
Interest-Centrism works both ways – and with partners, such as moderate Sunni leaders in the Middle East, the administration emphasized they are here to “listen rather than lecture.” It reverse-engineered its strategy by consulting with these leaders to offer them a national-interests based partnership facing Iran. Equipped with a worldview of a capitalist merchant, Trump offered them the most attractive goods, rather than forcing obedience, while expecting them to show self-responsibility. By contrast, US president Barack Obama’s administration excluded them from the nuclear deal negotiations with Iran, their topmost national security threat, while quite unrealistically calling them to “share” the region with it. In parallel, as guest in Riyadh, he openly disapproved of their domestic policies for their inconsistence with “international standards” – reminiscing of the socialist aspiration for uniformity across the board.
With adversaries such as the Iranian regime, the Trump administration recognized their interest-guided strategy as well, this time as detrimental to America’s national security. The regime cannot be considered, for example, as equally entitled for a military nuclear program as the US and its partners. Therefore, much like US president George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” paradigm, it picked sides, set aside the UN-style one-country-one-vote egalitarian landscape, and sought to alter the other side’s calculations and priorities through economic sanctions and military deterrence.
The previous administration’s approach was predicated on rejecting the notion that the US should “police” the international scene – yet with deterrence at hand, these frictions occur more seldom. From taking down Iranian top commander Qasem Soleimani through threatening North Korea with “total destruction” to pushing back against the trade deficit with China, deterrence has been a prominent tool in the administration’s hands. In response to the ongoing harassment of US Navy ships Persian Gulf, for example, Trump ordered to “shoot down and destroy” any such Iranian vessels. Needless to say, no such attempts have ever repeated themselves. By contrast, when Iranian forces captured American sailors and held them in humiliating conditions during the Obama presidency, his administration not only negotiated with Iran, but touted this as an unintended benefit of the new American-Iranian diplomatic relations. Conservatives fundamentally view such misconceptions as appeasement and containment at best, indirectly inviting Iran to continue testing America, or failing to see otherness at worse.
Often a political byword to “isolationism”, the Trump administration has actually deepened and widened America’s foreign relations and coalitions by reaching unprecedented accomplishments, such as the US-led coalition in the Middle East and the resulting Israeli-Arab normalization. The hodgepodge between protectionism and sovereignty has kept some critics from recognizing the sustainability of this recipe – looking inwards as a key to successfully looking outwards.
The Trump doctrine has thereby embraced the Reaganite conservative agenda hands-on, by championing the interplay of all of its primary elements – laissez-faire, rather than top-down deterministic imposition; national exceptionalism and interests, rather than globalist post-modernism and a critical outlook at human nature, rather than optimistic prescriptive assumptions. The past four years have broken the dam of the globalist pressure-cooker, taking sovereign decisions to the UN, warehousing self-responsibility or appeasing autocracies with unsustainable guarantees on paper. No responsible candidate will again walk back on this new standard, that succeeded in making the conservative case in a chaotic world.
The writer is a national security researcher at Habithonistim – Israel’s Defense and Security Forum and an associate fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.