In the first year of Trump’s presidency, references to norms proliferated. Noted foreign policy analysts trumpeted respect for norms as a hitherto rarely noted signature of U.S. policy. Disregarding norms offered evidence of defective statecraft. Trump was a norm-buster par excellence.
In many respects, Trump is worse than a bad president. Time and again, he has proven himself to be an abysmal one – but not because he disdains norms.
In fact, pre-Trump U.S. adherence to international norms was never better than spotty. We can’t blame Trump for Washington’s refusal to resolve disputes by “conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement … or other peaceful means,” as the Charter of the United Nations requires. Nor is Trump to be held accountable for our noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which obligates signatories to “facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons.” And we certainly can’t tag Trump with responsibility for U.S. refusal to sign or ratify norm-setting international agreements such as the Law of the Sea (1991), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996), the Ottawa Treaty (1997) banning anti-personnel mines, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008).
All the hand-wringing about Trump’s disregard for norms is a dodge. It’s an excuse to avoid confronting what his election in 2016 actually signifies, and one particular implication stands out: Trump won votes by promising to repudiate the post-Cold War approach to foreign policy. That approach promised peace, prosperity and perpetual American primacy; it delivered war, division and American decline.
By putting “America First,” Trump vowed to turn things around. Yet he is a huckster, not a strategist. Since taking office, he has created little and disrupted much. As far as America’s role in the world is concerned, Trump is an agent of chaos.
“In the midst of chaos,” Sun Tse observed, “there is also opportunity.” Sometimes chaos paves the way for enlightenment. It clarifies. If we are lucky, this just might define Trump’s legacy.
We have arrived at an inflection point in history. Whether defined by a reshuffling of great power rivalries, the demise of white supremacy, or the onset of ruinous climate change, that inflection point exposes as illusory the claim that America is history’s “indispensable nation.”
The evidence? It’s found in grotesque military miscalculation. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq squandered lives and treasure to no purpose. Perhaps worse, they destroyed the U.S. military’s reputation of invincibility.
The American foreign policy establishment has yet to acknowledge the immensity of these twin failures. Its members have merely chosen to move on to a new problem set, with a Cold War pitting the United States against China the flavor du jour.
It has long been my view Trump will rank among our least significant presidents. Yet I cling stubbornly to the hope Americans may actually learn something from this dismal chapter in our history. The Trump Moment invites Americans to disenthrall themselves from further neo-imperial delusions. Should Americans avail themselves of the opportunity to learn from the recent past, then the Trump Moment may actually yield something of benefit: foreign polices based on prudence, pragmatism and restraint rather than ideological fantasies.
Trump may be a lousy president, but he may yet prove to be a great clarifier.