Americans have enjoyed nearly a century of leading the liberal world order and benefiting from it. The post-war era has been dominated by America guiding the democratic world, with president after president having relatively similar ideas of America’s role in the world. The 2016 election put an end to that.
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We now have a President who is ready and willing to change the status quo. Hal Brands’ American Grand Strategy in the age of Trump dives into the realities of Trump’s ideas and plans regarding foreign policy. There are a few main themes throughout the book that grapple with what Trump’s grand strategy might look like such as; President Trump must have a grand strategy, America’s grand strategy is in for big changes, and what the consequences of a new grand strategy might be. President Trump’s erratic policy ideas lead many to ask questions regarding what role the United States should play in the world and what a truly America first policy could look like in today’s world. Brands attempts to address these questions themes throughout the text.
Brands begins the book by pointing out that since the beginning of the post-war era, America has formed a highly profitable grand strategy through diplomacy and military commitments. America’s grand strategy has been effective, so president after president chose to model their strategies off of a similar model with emphasis on military and diplomatic actions. In today’s world, with Donald Trump as president, many people think we need a new grand strategy, yet as Brands states, the United States does not need a fundamentally revised grand strategy; it already has one that has worked well over time and remains broadly consonant with global power realities today(17). Regardless of what strategies America has adapted in the past and no matter how successful it may be, we should still examine possible alternatives. This brings us into the next chapters that focus on the potential differences we may see in strategy and the benefits and drawbacks to these new ideas. Brands then dives into an alternative referred to as offshore balancing. This refers to the idea of promoting offshore power to govern rather than using American effort, almost as if America were to delegate its influence on other players. However, after a deeper look into the pros and cons of such an idea, Brands concludes that the negatives far outweigh the positives. He concludes that there was no guarantee offshore balancing would significantly improve American relations with places like the Middle East, for example. Brands even goes far enough to suggest that perhaps offshore balancing could worsen our relationship with the world.
The following chapter dives into the values and ideas of presidents that preceded Trump, specifically Obama. Brands writes about Obama’s approach to light-footed military intervention rather than full scale military operations in every conflict that presented itself during Obama’s administration. This military approach was in response to President Bush’s mistakes with the invasion of Iran. Obama wanted to learn from Bush’s mistakes, but many critics say he overlearned which affected the overall success of Obama’s military interventions. Concerning Obama’s light-footed approach to military intervention Brands writes, Yet the light footprint was no panacea. It disrupted extremist organizations, but did little to address the underlying failures of governance that allowed terrorist groups to thrive(65).
The next section of the book finally dives into Trump and what he means for America, specifically American internationalism. Brands’ analysis seems to point to the fact that Trump is harmful for the well-being of internationalism. Expanding on this, he states his personal belief that the 2016 election was a blip due to the extreme unpopularity of both candidates running for president. Nonetheless, 2016 has come and passed and Donald Trump is the President of the United States, which raises the question: what does that truly mean for American internationalism? In the past, American policymakers had the belief that promoting internationalism and integration was not only good for America, but good for other countries involved, too. Brands writes, they sought to sustain democratic allies, and to advance liberal concepts such as democracy and human rights.(81) However, that was before Trump, so what is the difference? Donald Trump has been engaging in an assault to the established order and seems determined to do the opposite of everything that has been established previously by international integration. He scorned the idea that the United States had either a moral or a practical calling to promote democracy and human rights abroad, and he advocated a partnership with Vladimir Putin, whose country often seemed to pose the greatest near-term danger to the global order.(83)
Brands goes on to present ways in which American internationalism could transform under President Trump. His first solution is Fortress America which is considered a new isolationism that benefits America, and America alone. Brands describes it as a hardline, nearly zero-sum approach that would actively roll back the postwar international order and feature heavy doses of unilateralism and latter-day isolationism.(102) Fortress America is supposedly supposed to help America unload thankless global burdens and increase America’s security. However, this plan will end up hurting America in the long run, because isolation can be seen as agression. The second solution Brands suggests is a bit more tame and has to do with America being more globally cooperative while still having nationalism in mind. This approach would involve striking better trade deals, releasing some of America’s international burdens, and still preserving America’s global image. Brands notes that this strategy truly would put America first by enhancing its relative position with a positive-sum order that has served the nation so well.(114)
In the following chapters, Brands offers further solutions in relation to the United States’ declining military influence and credibility. He begins with the idea of investing in a large, long-term overhaul of our military that will in turn make our words and actions line up. Next, he suggests that our reputation counts for everything and relying on it would be greatly beneficial to America. As George W. Bush declared, America must possess strength beyond challenge. We have a large influence over the rest of the world and we should be using it to our advantage in a more profitable way, like investing more resources into diplomacy. Finally, the United States could lean on the Cold War strategy of using nuclear power as a bargaining chip. Overall, Brands believes that increasing our defensive budget has the least number of drawbacks in the short-term.
Brands gives the reader a straight forward look at what American grand strategy has been in the past and what it may look like in the future. Deep analysis of possible new directions that President Trump plans on taking us offers Americans new insight on what foreign policy really looks like in today’s world. Trump’s idea of nationalism may seem ideal to nationalist now, however, these ideas have many negative drawbacks in the long-term that could hurt America’s image as well as soft and hard power that could hurt us in the years to come. This multi-sided narrative around American grand strategy attempts to show the whole picture when it comes to our foreign policy and how America plans on interacting with the world with a President that likes to break the status quo. Brands ultimately states that American grand strategy has an overall positive impact on the world and the implementation of grand strategy must continue regardless of short-term drawbacks. America has a role in the world that is most beneficial when we have an attitude based on internationalism, and a truly America-first policy would only hurt American image and power in the long term.
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