With U.S. missiles flying in Syria, the "mother of all bombs" exploding in Afghanistan and an aircraft carrier strike group heading toward North Korea, has there been a revolution in President Donald Trump’s foreign policy?
His most fervent supporters shouldn’t get overly exercised, and his interventionist critics shouldn’t get too excited. What has been on offer so far is broadly consistent with the Jacksonian worldview that is the core of Trump’s posture toward the world.
Trump’s views are obviously inchoate. He has an attitude rather than a doctrine, and upon leaving office, he surely won’t, like Richard Nixon, write a series of books on international affairs.
What we have learned since he took office is that Trump is not an isolationist. At times, he’s sounded like one. His "America First" slogan (inadvertently) harkened back to the movement to keep us out of World War II. His outlandish questioning of the NATO alliance, an anchor of the West, created the sense that he might be willing to overturn the foundations of the post-World War II order.
This hasn’t come to pass. It’s not possible to be a truly isolationist president in the 21st century. And such an approach would undercut the most consistent element of Trump’s approach — namely strength.
His set piece foreign-policy speeches during the campaign were clear on this. "The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest," he said last April at the Center for the National Interest. Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail that he would take the war to ISIS and build up our defenses, in direct contradiction to isolationism.
Now, there is no doubt that the Syrian strike is a notable departure for Trump, and he defended it in unapologetically humanitarian terms. But it’s entirely possible that the strike will only have the narrow purpose of re-establishing a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria and reasserting American credibility. That is particularly important in the context of the brewing showdown with North Korea.
The Tomahawks in Syria and saber rattling at North Korea have Trump’s critics on the right and the left claiming he’s becoming a neoconservative — a term of abuse that is most poorly understood by the people most inclined to use it. All neocons may be hawks, but not all hawks are neocons, who are distinctive in their idealism and robust interventionism.
We haven’t heard paeans to democracy from Trump, or clarion calls for human rights. He hasn’t seriously embraced regime change anywhere (even if his foreign-policy officials say Bashar Assad has to go). He shows no sign of a willingness to make a major commitment of U.S. ground troops abroad.
Trump is a particular kind of hawk. The Jacksonian school is inclined toward realism and reluctant to use force, except when a national interest is clearly at stake. As historian Walter Russell Mead writes: "Jacksonians believe that international life is and will remain both violent and anarchic. The United States must be vigilant, strongly armed. Our diplomacy must be cunning, forceful, and no more scrupulous than any other country’s."
This tradition isn’t isolationist or neoconservative, and neither is Trump.