Rethinking America

Trump: Return to (Classic) US Isolationism

Donald Trump is a very imperfect messenger, but he heralds a lasting return to the traditional stance of US foreign policy.

Credit: Joseph Sohm


  • Donald Trump is an isolationist at heart -- a tradition that goes all the way back to the founding of the American Republic.
  • It is only since the start of the cold war -- and of the military-industrial complex -- that the US has been committed to being the world’s policeman.
  • Trump is the first US president since Eisenhower who has not initiated a battle or military campaign overseas.
  • Trump doesn’t believe his country is meant to be everybody else’s (military) sugar daddy any longer.
  • With decrepit infrastructure and problems like the opioid crisis, the US has enough problems that it must resolve instead of policing the world.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been in office for almost three years, and may very well win re-election in November 2020. Even so, liberals in the United States, Europe and beyond still fail to understand him.

Trump has certainly dumbfounded his administration and personal advisers repeatedly by reversing established foreign and defense policies.

Earlier this month, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Syria, a move considered disastrous by many in Washington, especially in the evident beginning of the Turkish offensive against Kurdish troops.

Once again, the president defied his advisers, who pointed to the Kurds having fought alongside the United States in the Syrian war. Some saw the move as abandoning an ally, others as a betrayal of the Kurds’ long-held ambition to establish a Kurdish nation state.

Whatever the demerits of Trump’s move in that regard, the Western proponents of Kurdish sovereignty also need to acknowledge that the territory the Kurds claim spans across Syria, Turkey and Iraq. It is thus a deeply contentious issue.

If the United States had chosen to help the Kurds realize their dream, such an action would have paved the way for a destructive war in a region embroiled in hard conflicts ever since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Trump is not an interventionist

The simple fact of the matter is that Donald Trump is not an interventionist or “cold war hawk,” as every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy has been. He is an isolationist at heart.

That may (almost) be a forgotten category in today’s world. But it is definitely one which had previously encapsulated not just the Washington, D.C. of the pre-WWI and WWII years (just ask Messrs. Wilson and Roosevelt).

It is, in fact, a tradition that goes all the way back to the founding days of the American Republic. The United States’ traditional default stance has been to be most reticent when it came to involvement in wars abroad.

It is only since the start of the cold war in 1946 — and the launch of the military-industrial complex — that the U.S. government has been committed to being “the world’s policeman.”

Worrying about that mighty lobbying machine, by the way, is not some form of Communist trope. Dwight D. Eisenhower was greatly concerned about it – and he was a military man through and through!

Trump a peacenik!

In fact, Trump is the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower (who served in the White House from 1953 to 1961) who has not initiated a battle or military campaign overseas.

Washington launched several military alliances after the end of Second World War, including, most importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For years, the United States policed the seas and the skies.

Not least because military spending is still viewed across many of the far-flung states that make up the United States of America as an economic development tool, the United States’ defense expenditures exceed those of all its NATO partners combined.

Whatever one wants to criticize Donald Trump for, he is on point to argue, as he has done consistently, that this is a situation that is untenable. He is also very much on point in calling repeatedly on the other Western countries to increase their financial contributions to the alliance.

A sea change, but largely back to forgotten U.S. traditions

Make no mistake about it: This is a profound change. The United States has been credited with laying the foundations of globalization, but it is now attempting to dismantle essential elements of that infrastructure, particularly in trade and defense.

Certain countries, especially in Europe, have long been displeased with the United States’ position as the world’s sole superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union. Smarting diplomatically and in terms of their global power profile, they have long been calling for a multipolar world.

Trump has hastened the arrival of such a world. From now on, it is each nation for itself. That is a lesson not limited to the United States.

Three conclusions

1. Blame Donald Trump for all you want. On one key point, it is hard to disagree with him: The 45th U.S. President just doesn’t believe his country is meant to be everybody else’s (military) sugar daddy any longer.

2. Impeachment or not, that is going to be the core legacy that Trump will leave behind for the United States of the future.

3. With a decrepit infrastructure and deep, homespun problems like the opioid crisis, the country has enough pressing problems at the home front that it must resolve instead.

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About Meghnad Desai

Meghnad Desai is a member of the British House of Lords and an emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics.

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