“I’m shocking myself. I’m the diplomat here,” explained a bewildered Bill O’Reilly last February on Fox News in defending the Bush administration’s decision to allow Dubai Ports World, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates, to manage several U.S. ports. “If America spits in the eye of the UAE, which is a huge help in the war on terror right now, if we tell these people to take a hike just because they’re Arabs, we’ll lose the help of all the rest of the Arab world.”
When Bill O’Reilly warns against spitting in another country’s eye, something strange is afoot. Ever since September 11, commentators like O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and The New York Post editorial page have been the Republican Party’s foreign policy id. They give voice to the unapologetic nationalism that frames much of the GOP’s foreign policy. They represent the tradition that Walter Russell Mead has called “Jacksonianism”—populist, militaristic, jealous of national sovereignty, more interested in making other countries respect and even fear America than in making them love us.
The story of how Bill O’Reilly and George W. Bush moved away from Jacksonianism—and Democrats moved towards it—says a lot about the shifting currents in American foreign policy. As Mead argues in his 2001 book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, Jacksonians can be isolationist when they don’t feel threatened by foreign enemies; they don’t like foreign policy as social work. But when such enemies emerge, they demand a maximalist, bone-crushing response.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.