The Trump doctrine: American unexceptionalism

There is a temptation to call this isolationism. But that’s not quite right. Trump seeks regime change in Venezuela. His administration is pressing allies to keep China out of their 5G networks. The president inveighs against endless military wars, while gleefully waging economic ones on nominal allies such as Turkey and regional enemies like Iran. He threatens North Korea’s tyrant with annihilation only to be charmed by his lies after a few personal meetings.

As a believer in American unexceptionalism, Trump sees the world as a savage place, and the U.S. is just as savage as its adversaries. The lofty ideals of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy are a sham. As Trump said in 2017, just weeks into his tenure: “You think our country’s so innocent?”

In fairness to Trump, he is not alone in seeing American idealism as an elaborate con. Thinkers such as Noam Chomsky have made a version of this argument for years. There is a strain of American foreign policy realism based on the idea that the rules-based international system camouflages the inherent chaos of state competition. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides wrote.