Hosting Trump | The National Interest
Why—with so many advantages—have our elites produced so many failed policies? And why do they feel no shame?
As the hosts, we are ill suited to evaluate Mr. Trump’s speech; some may find criticism ungracious or, conversely, see praise as unpersuasive. That said, we heard enough from Mr. Trump to feel that while his approach to foreign and security policy is not yet fully developed and remains a work in progress, it is quite different from the existing semi-consensus among America’s foreign-policy elites. His remarks outlined a fundamental break with post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy and offered an alternative vision with considerable appeal to a frustrated public, if less to the elites who have defined, articulated and implemented policy through three administrations run by both major political parties.
Some have described Mr. Trump’s “America first” foreign policy as a form of Jacksonian populist nationalism. In some respects, it also draws upon George Washington’s admonition to “steer clear of permanent alliances” without “infidelity to existing engagements” and to John Quincy Adams’ praise of an American commitment to freedom that “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Like Adams, Mr. Trump gives priority to liberty and democracy for Americans above that of citizens in other countries. Unlike the President Obama’s calls for “nation-building at home,” however, Mr. Trump’s vision of interest-driven restraint explicitly celebrates American military power and defines strength as an essential precondition for effective diplomacy.
For much of the post–Cold War era, experts both inside and outside the government have faced informal but powerful pressure to share in existing interventionist orthodoxies if they seek top positions requiring Senate confirmation or even regular appearances in mainstream media. From this perspective, it is predictable that an avowedly antiestablishment candidate should provoke ferocious rhetoric from not only the political establishment, but also the foreign-policy establishment (perhaps even more bitterly).
Pledging that he would not surround himself “with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war” has surely fueled establishment fear of Mr. Trump. This statement—the functional equivalent of his signature line “you’re fired” directed at a number of former senior and mid-level officials—ensured that not only many Democrats, but also a number of Republicans in Washington’s foreign-policy community would race to the barricades. Some self-serving Trump-haters may well see this as the greatest danger he poses; ending the dominance of today’s foreign policy nomenklatura could directly threaten their careers. He provokes similar reactions among the transnational Davos elites by insisting “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”
In America, this Soviet-style foreign-policy nomenklatura system has helped the post–Cold War foreign-policy elites in the Republican and Democratic parties to develop a sense of entitlement wholly disproportionate to their accomplishments. How difficult was it to run America’s foreign policy during an era of virtually unquestioned dominance? Why—with so many advantages—have our elites produced so many failed policies? And why do they feel no shame? No matter how many individual positions he changes, Mr. Trump will never satisfy the architects of these massive mistakes or, for that matter, their ardent supporters on editorial boards and television screens. To be clear, it is entirely appropriate to criticize Mr. Trump’s views or, for that matter, his temper. Both have long been important components in our electoral politics. What is not appropriate is to attempt to shut down public discussion of critical national issues.
Yet this is exactly what some seek to do. Once the Center for the National Interest and The National Interest magazine agreed to host Mr. Trump, we became targets as well. That explains why former Bush administration State Department Counselor Eliot Cohen—who organized an open letter condemning Mr. Trump’s foreign-policy aims—has said that “to give him a platform, and hence legitimacy, is to be complicit in his rise.” This is a striking statement by an academic, who one might expect to support intellectual freedom, not to mention a leading neoconservative who enthusiastically seeks to promote freedom around the globe. More than that, it is offensive that he and others who express such strong sentiments about freedom should attempt to deny not only Mr. Trump but also his supporters the opportunity to speak and to be heard. The millions who have voted for Mr. Trump give him all the legitimacy he needs. In practice, of course, Mr. Cohen’s approach to promoting freedom internationally cannot but limit it domestically, which is why he and others aggressively seek to prevent others from expressing alternative views and even to stigmatize those with differing perspectives. As executives at an institution committed to serious foreign-policy debate, we welcome their condemnation as a badge of honor.
Dimitri K. Simes is publisher & CEO of The National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He served as U.S. State Department Senior Adviser during the George W. Bush Administration.
Image: Donald Trump in 2013. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.