Things Fall Apart: Populism and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump confounds political observers. For many, he is defined by his missteps and flamboyance. His foreign policy statements contain sufficient imprecision—if not outright contradictions—to allow observers to conclude a lack of care in dealing with the issues. Is China’s presence in the South China Sea acceptable or not? Is NATO useful or not? Should the United States use force in Syria for humanitarian or geo-political goals? This ambiguity gives rise to further questions regarding his foreign policy architecture: what are the guiding principles?

Trump does indeed have guiding principles, but they are process principles and not the substantive principles that we are used to seeing in a president. What shapes his foreign policy is that which shaped his singular triumph in public life: his campaign. Indeed, Trump abjured several of the policies that have guided Republican campaigns of the modern era: entitlement reform, trade agreements, and international leadership. A long-time supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Trump’s political success was drawn not from conservatism nor an intellectual architecture—though he has some conservative impulses—but from political populism. His worldview in many ways is an extension of that belief.

What is Populism?

This populism has four characteristics. First, it is grievance-based. It focuses on problems rather than solutions. This has the extraordinary advantage of giving the message potency because negative statements can motivate more effectively than positive ones, but it makes it difficult to form a governing coalition, since constituencies that have a problem with a particular policy might have even greater differences among its alternatives. Indeed, as a candidate, Trump avoided articulating a positive vision regarding even central pillars of his campaign such as health care. Notably, Trump’s main foreign policy pronouncements in the campaign were grievance-based: terrorism, trade and immigration. Equally noteworthy, they were all essentially domestic issues with a foreign genesis. The traditional foreign policy questions were largely absent from his discussions: What is America’s role in the world? What is the value of an alliance? To what extent should we promote democracy and human rights, or should the U.S. focus on national interest calculations?

Second, the populist must establish emotional connectivity with the audience. Trump tends to evaluate people largely based on how they connect with him. The rally format suits him well; he loves the audience and the audience loves him. There are no questions and answers, nor any discussion, nor does there have to be new information, but there is plenty of emotional connectivity. Importantly, this emotional connectivity has little to do with economic class, a point that can befuddle Trump’s domestic political opponents, who underestimate his working-class appeal on the basis that he personally has little in common with them or that his policies supposedly would not help them. To a populist, the first point is broadly irrelevant and the second point is highly debatable. Might many a construction worker welcome a construction boom, and many a restaurant worker welcome an expansion of the business, if it meant job security and a larger paycheck, even if it would create disproportionate returns to the construction company and restaurant owner? For many working men and women, a growth in inequality is not inherently troubling. Thomas Piketty might be right, but it might not matter to most Americans if returns to capital outpace returns to labor. In addition, when establishment elites mock Trump, from his grammar to his boorishness, a portion of non-elites see this as condescension.

Third, populism is exculpatory: Every problem the United States faces was caused by others and the target audience is blameless. So if a company wanted to relocate some activity to Mexico, it must have been to exploit wage differences. No discussion as to whether wage increases at the U.S. facility have outpaced productivity increases. No discussion as to whether union rules impede flexibility and productivity. No discussion of the fact that Mexico might be a better production platform because it has more free trade agreements. Management is to blame, with Mexico in connivance. This is frequently expressed in themes of anti-establishment or alienation, which can have a corrosive effect when anchored in grievances.

Fourth, policy choices are cost-free and without trade-offs. Cost-benefit analysis, transition costs, the challenges in administering a government agency, underperforming programs, secondary effects and unintended consequences – these are all incidental to the victory of the policy choice itself. As such, populists might as well berate NATO leadership into burden-sharing, ignoring the downside to publicly hectoring leaders of sovereign nations. They, too, might as well call for a physical wall on the U.S. border with Mexico since it will be, by self-declaration, cost free.

To be fair, others in public life exhibit some of these elements. President Obama’s healthcare plan was historically grandiose in scope, cost and complexity, yet it was ballyhooed to save money. Similarly, Obama’s eight-year effort to reduce U.S. commitments to NATO was to have no costs in terms of force projection, alliance cohesion, or deterrence. And, Obama was the only President in the modern era to have run against trade as a candidate, an approach Trump followed.

What Went Wrong?

How could the bipartisan consensus on U.S. international leadership fade so quickly, particularly at a moment when the combination of market economics and alliances of democracies had resulted in perhaps the most prosperous and most liberal moment in human history? There are four contributors to the rise of populism: societal transformation, grievance economics, international leadership, and elite limitations.

First, societal transformation – meaning both globalization and automation— has two profound socio-political effects. It produces an extraordinary degree of prosperity; and it carries with it a distribution effect. The bell curve of income distribution does not shift as much as it elongates. Few people are worse off, but many people are not better off. There is not necessarily the creation of a large number of winners and losers, but there is certainly the perception people getting left behind. Trump understands the message: The globalization club is having a party, and you are not invited. Silicon Valley is drinking champagne and your role is to pick the grapes. These trends also feed into the narrative of alienation because it decreases people’s control over their lives even as their overall prosperity increases. Globalization and automation have created economic anxiety in electorates around the world, and not just among steelworkers and coal miners. Realtors, bank tellers, school teachers, and cab drivers are all seeing competitive pressure and the prospect of job elimination. To many Americans, comparative advantage and creative destruction create a more prosperous society, but accompanying it is job insecurity. David Ricardo and Joseph Schumpeter might be right, but so what?

Second, over several decades we have seen a shift from growth economics to grievance economics. This represents a break with the recovery policies that guided the leading economies through the 1950s and 1960s (and that economic rationalists such as Macron tilt toward today). In the current view, the primary purpose of economic policy is not to foment prosperity, but to redress grievances. Indeed, regardless of absolute improvements in well-being, reducing economic inequality is deemed to be a basis for policy. The premise of growth economics is that a system is fundamentally fair, so the main challenge is how fast we can go. The premise of grievance economics is that the system is fundamentally unfair, so going faster merely exacerbates the unfairness. This cult of inequality incentivizes interest-group politics and rent-seeking, leading to slower growth. If you focus on growth policies, you get growth. If you focus on grievance policies, you get grievances.

A third cause is the shift in the U.S. international posture. We have seen a growing fatigue in the United States over the cost of international leadership. The U.S. entered the post-Cold War era with the institutions and the cohesion of the Cold War era largely intact, even though the end of the Soviet Union removed what political scientists term a “negative integrator.” Now we are deep into the post-post-Cold War era, with faded cohesion and institutions. For the first time since Harding and Coolidge we have two presidents in a row who have no international military or policy pedigree. Beyond the direct costs of international leadership in defense budgets and personnel, Americans seem more sensitive to the indirect costs of public opinion and anti-Americanism. Relationships can be expensive. Friendships can be complicated. If there is no immediate threat, and if no one likes us anyhow, then what is the point of foreign policy?

To sum up this point, imagine international Presidential leadership as a decision between whether to be a minute early or a minute late. Do you deter or do you react? Being a minute early requires leadership, because it carries with it the possibility of error and the cost of action without a consensus. “Left of Boom,” the British call it. Being a minute late and waiting until the problem has metastasized has the considerable benefit of allowing public consensus to build, and it is the less politically expensive approach. President Obama’s instinct is that foreign policy is better managed by being a minute late, such as responding after-the-fact to the Chinese build-out in the South China Sea, not confronting Russia on its intervention in U.S. elections, and perhaps in the cases of Aleppo or ISIS, Obama was more than a minute late. President Bush’s instinct was to be a minute early, foolishly so to his critics. Presidents have spent some  75 years since Pearl Harbor trying to be a minute early, with all the costs and mistakes that entailed, yet now we have two presidents in a row who believe we are better off being a minute late.

Finally, the appeal of populism has been driven by their perception of the limitations of the U.S. leadership class: insular, rigid, and sometimes simply mediocre. Additionally, over-engineered solutions and the appearance of being self-serving, if not corrupt, help the appeal of populism. Sometimes it comes from the declining marginal effectiveness of government programs as society becomes more affluent and complicated. Indeed, the Obama administration seemed to regularly play into the hands of populists, sometimes passively so, as with the refusal to challenge even the more exotic of the sanctuary city movement. Sometimes, it was by design as with the painstaking construction not to label Islamic terrorism as such. If responsible leaders appear to be playing favorites or not accurately describing a phenomenon, they abandon the issue to their opponents — a phenomenon Trump witnessed through his hesitation in characterizing the Charlottesville protests.

If populists rely too heavily on emotional connectivity, which establishment politicians have any emotional connectivity? Does there exist an aspirant for President, other than Donald Trump, who can have a friendly discussion with a Walmart cashier? How many of the possible 2020 presidential candidates have worked in the “real” economy, working for an institution that needed to turn a profit? Sam Rayburn’s wish to Lyndon Johnson, after LBJ had related how bright was his brain trust, was that he wished one of them had run for county sheriff. Can we today wish that one of the 2020 presidential candidates will have run a diner, which would have required them to hire teenagers, train high school dropouts, deal with single parents, lay-off workers from failed projects and negotiate wages, all while paying taxes and dealing with various government agencies? Maybe this is why a restaurant worker might respect an owner, or even a New York real estate developer, but not a career politician. If the elites cannot maintain that connectivity, they give an opening to populists.

Attaining political maturity contemporaneous with the Bush 43 invasion of Iraq, Obama was wary of American over-reach and committed to a foreign policy pullback. He embedded that withdrawal in a denial of American exceptionalism, a pillar of U.S foreign policy since Pearl Harbor. If you stop believing in yourself, it is difficult to ask others to believe in you. The rejection of America’s special role in the world helped set the stage for “Make America Great Again.” Was Barack Obama the ultimate Donald Trump enabler?

There other contributing factors beyond the above four. The rise of identity politics probably played into Trump’s hands, as did the digital communications revolution. News clutter rewards pugnacity and sensationalism and allows for cocoons and even tribalism. It is also worth noting that Trump is a man of unusual presentation strengths, and he can effectively project personality. Simply put, Trump was an exemplary grievance candidate in a grievance year. Trump articulated a vision; Hillary Clinton did not. We are in a communications era. For Secretary Clinton, communications is a means to an end. For Trump it is an end. She believes in her in-box; He, in his out-box. Hillary campaigned as the functionary; Donald as the visionary.

Is internationalism doomed?

America is now in the middle of a twelve and possibly sixteen year reign of two presidents who challenge the Cold War view that America is better off with a leading international presence, with being a minute early. It is too expensive, argued President Obama, and it leads us into unwinnable conflicts, draining our reputation and our purse. It is too expensive, echoes President Trump, and foreigners abuse and cheat us. Obama argues for minimalism because the United States is a problem for the world, and Trump argues for minimalism because the world is a problem for the United States.

Even as President, Trump is easy to underestimate. Appealingly so. Many critics derive amusement, even a sense of superiority, from his foibles. His factual errors and even spelling mistakes provide an opportunity for mockery, but the lazy epiphany of error-spotting is a poor substitute for a substantive rebuttal. And a significant portion of the criticism is either ad hominem or an over-reach, either of which helps Trump. Those who are serious about policy should look at the direction in which he is taking the country, rather than fixate on these errors.

To be even-handed, if President Trump’s distinctive success in the public space was his astonishing 2016 victory, in 2008 the distinctive success of Senator Obama was his astonishing election. Obama wisely chose not to run on his government record but marshaled his formidable stage skills and personal charisma to direct criticism toward Hillary Clinton and John McCain. So if Trump’s foreign policy approach stems from his success as “Ranter-in-Chief,” does Obama’s approach stem from his success as “Charmer-in-Chief?” Radically different styles, but with policy similarities.

The deterioration in U.S. foreign policy will likely continue for the near term. On any given day, the Obama/Trump approach may make sense. We should be a minute late. It makes sense to skimp, to cut defense expenditures, to reduce international good-will and connectivity, to save money all around. Relationships can be expensive and even harmful – this is the seduction of the minimalist school. But there is a countervailing argument.

The main argument against this minimalist approach will be events themselves. The minimalist approach might work in a static environment, but that stasis in itself incentivizes a destabilizer. At some point, history presents the bill. Only then will we be reminded, perhaps cruelly, that although on any given day it might be less expensive to be a minute late, as a matter of national policy we need to be a minute early. If we are not willing to pay the price to be left of boom, then we must pay the price for the boom itself. Worse than the expense and bother of having friends would be the expense and bother of not having friends.

Frank Lavin is the Chairman of Export Now. He served in the White House, National Security Council, State Department, and Commerce Department during the Reagan, Bush (41) and Bush (43) Administrations.