Trump: Maximalist or Retrencher?

Making Sense of the Incoherency of a Foreign Policy

I yearn for the good old days of U.S. foreign policy. The days before the Berlin Wall fell and American statesmen would religiously consult with its allies and vanquish the “right” enemies. I miss when national security leaders from both parties worked with the president and devised a judicious strategy to contain the Soviet Union. Those were the days.

Except those days apparently never existed.

In 2014, former U.S. diplomat Stephen Sestanovich wrote the book “Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama,” which argues that there has never been a cohesive grand American strategy of bipartisan consensus and global interdependence. In fact, Sestanovich believes U.S. foreign policy has alternated between two extremes: maximalism and retrenchment. Under former U.S. presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy ’40, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, the aphorism, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” seemed to encapsulate their foreign policy. When Soviet Russia threatened the American way of life, these presidents did not just strategically counter Russia’s geopolitical gains, they engaged in expensive arms races, divided Europe, entered protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam, and supported anticommunist resistance movements from Afghanistan’s mujahideen to Nicaragua’s “contras.”

When the maximalists go too far, “retrenchers” like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama attempt to do less and withdraw from costly entanglements while reorienting America’s strategic interests. At some point, however, this caution and hesitancy poses a threat to American security, upon which another maximalist is elected.

If that’s the case, what’s Donald Trump? Writing in 2014, Sestanovich had the luxury of not tackling one of America’s most baffling presidents — especially with regards to foreign policy. On face value, if this maximalism-retrenchment pendulum holds up, Trump must be a maximalist because Obama embraced retrenchment when it came to the Middle East and the Pentagon’s budget.


But Trump’s doctrine seems far more complex. Sestanovich says that every maximalist president paid “keen attention to American power and influence.” If these presidents did not respond to certain provocations, then the U.S. could not “defend its interests in the future.” Trump seems to fit this description. In an effort to maintain American primary, Trump’s foreign policy revolves around “America First” as he rips up the Iran nuclear agreement because it was “the worst deal ever” for the U.S. Concurrently, he has started a vicious trade war with China, which he accused of “raping” the U.S. economy via the trade deficit, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, or the fact that they are on track to surpass the U.S. on nearly all macroeconomic measures. These maximalist actions are contrasted with Trump’s professed desire to reduce America’s footprint in the Middle East and a doctrine of “disentanglement, retrenchment and realignment,” as New York Times columnist Ross G. Douthat ’02 described it.

While Trump made campaign promises to put “America First” he has also made bold, maximalist statements to foreign countries. He threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and insinuated a military intervention in Venezuela. But when his threats of military actions or oil embargoes fail, Trump embraces retrenchment. He ignores the threats he once made and diverts his attention elsewhere. This is accompanied by retrenchment actions, such as reducing America’s troop presence in Syria or Afghanistan. Trump talks like a retrencher and walks like a maximalist. But he also talks like a maximalist and walks like a retrencher.

While “the good old days of U.S. foreign policy” were not perfectly harmonized, at least that generation of American statesmen, who experienced the horrors of World War II, recognized that free and democratic nations like the U.S. had a responsibility to protect the world from dangerous regimes and ideologies. The U.S. had to be involved in world affairs. Trump does not believe this. He subscribes to this increasingly popular doctrine: U.S. intervention and involvement is a waste of time and money and America needs to return home.

All hope, however, is not lost. Since Trump’s foreign policy approach is erratic, proponents of sensible and principled U.S. engagement need to remind the American people that the U.S. should not support freedom on a case-by-case basis or selfishly pursue its own interests or dismiss all multilateral organizations. America is committed to building a better world and thwarting those who upend such progress. We don’t have to ignore global interests just to make America first. In fact, by prioritizing global interests America can continue to be first — just like it has for the past 70 years. As Harvard students graduate and enter increasingly globalized professional environments, they should remember that there is no correct answer to how the U.S. should conduct foreign policy — Cold War strategy ebbed and flowed for 40 years. Successful policy, however, does have one requirement: it has to make sense in the moment.

Nick J. Danby ’20 is a concentrator in History in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.