Neo-nationalism and America’s international relations

The aim of this chapter is to examine how the Trump presidency's neo-nationalism affected America’s international relations. It argues that, in line with the president's neo-nationalism, which found favour with both America First nationalists and Christian nationalists, US international relations reflects concerns of the domestic culture wars, which we examined in Chapter 2. Two aspects of the culture wars were especially salient to America’s international relations during the Trump presidency: first, replacement of long-term US support for the post-World War II liberal international order by policies which primarily reflected American national interest concerns according to Trump, including when these went against the preferences of the USA's main allies. This was apparent in the decline in America’s support for the universalist post-World War international human rights regime, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and long championed by the United Nations. Second, America’s national selfinterest was expressed in a particularistic policy, championed especially by Christian nationalists, to privilege international religious freedom above other human rights, such as gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities. Overall, the chapter assesses how neo-nationalist policies affected the USA's international relations during the Trump presidency.

The first section of the chapter examines Trump's neo-nationalism in the context of the decline of the post-World War II liberal international order. The second section of the chapter surveys the Trump administration policies on human rights and international religious freedom. The third section concludes the chapter and summarises the impact of Trump's neo-nationalism on America’s international relations.

Putting America first: neo-nationalism and the decline of the liberal international order

Until the Trump presidency, successive US administrations pursued international democracy promotion and religious freedom as key components of the country’s foreign policy and international relations. As a result, some countries were encouraged to democratise and to improve their human rights, including religious freedom. After the Cold War, the USA spent a decade promoting liberal democracy and human rights around the world, notably in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Soviet bloc (Haynes, Hough. Malik, and Pettiford, 2017). US foreign policy, however, was turned on its head by the al-Qaeda attacks on 11 September 2001. While the US did not officially jettison its liberal democracy and human rights preferences, they were partially overshadowed and replaced by a new goal: elimination of Islamist violent extremist and terrorism.

Liberal democracy and universal human rights are characteristic of what is known as the liberal international order (LIO). Di Maggio (2019: 341) notes that the LIO was characterised by "democratic peace theory and idealism" to which Western political leaders, including successive US presidents, were committed, involving the pursuit of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and religious freedom. The LIO was pursued under American leadership for most of the period following World War II. The Trump presidency diverged from this well-trodden path: it sought to reshape America's foreign policy in line with the objectives of neo-nationalism, which the president claimed were in America's national interest. LIO goals were now decidedly secondary - if not downright irrelevant. Christian nationalist influence was apparent in relation to two of the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals: prioritisation of international religious freedom and conservative social goals in the Global South, including severely restricting abortion availability by withholding funds to those countries which had a liberal policy in this regard (Haynes, 2020a).

In line with President Trump's neo-nationalism, US international relations during his presidency reflected concerns present in the country's domestic culture wars. Two facets of the latter were salient: abandonment of US support for the post-World War II LIO and less support for a universal-ist human rights regime (Bob, 2019a). Instead, under the foreign leadership of Secretary of State Pompeo, the USA pursued a particularistic policy, moulded by Christian nationalism, to champion international religious freedom above other human rights.

These were major changes to US foreign policy which for decades had pursued objectives that transcended the ideological preferences of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Following World War II and during the Cold War, successive US presidents sought to further America’s role as ‘the leader of the free world'. The USA claimed an international leadership role via involvement in universal organisations built on extensive international cooperation, notably the United Nations (UN). America's goal remained constant over time: to spread and disseminate America’s perceived core values: democracy, human rights, religious freedom, and tariff-free international trade. Such goals were believed to be not only good for America but also appropriate for the rest of the world: they reflected the qualities which facilitated the USA's claim to be leader of the ‘free world’. President Trump changed the policy, promising to “make America great again” by following the self-interested national interest policies exclusively.

It is important to stress what a sea change this was in American foreign policy. Since World War I, many Americans, including the then president, Woodrow Wilson, “viewed national self-determination as one of the building blocks of a new, more humane global order” (Lind, 2001). Wiebe (2002: 1) notes, however, that "disillusionment after the First World War turned to revulsion after the Second, and at mid-cenuiry Western intellectuals dug in to battle the nationalist spirit” (Wiebe, 2002: 1). As World War II drew to a close and it was clear that Nazi Germany was bound for defeat. America became a pillar of the emergent UN, a key supporter of the organisation's universalist human rights approach. The outcome of World War II was crucial for the global advance of human rights, seen after the war as a key international priority, especially in the context of decolonisation and the West's Cold War with the Soviet Union and international communism. At this time,

the United States dropped its historic support for national self-determination, partly from a sense that German National Socialism, Italian fascism, and Japanese imperialism had discredited nationalism, but mainly out of a fear of instability that might be exploited by the communist bloc.

(Lind, 2001)

During the Cold War. America sought to project the values of both liberal democracy and of its Christian civilisation in contrast to what it claimed was the Soviet Union’s godless communism.

Prior to the Trump administration, the George W. Bush (2001-2009) and Barack Obama (2009-2017) presidencies continued with the traditional policies of strong US support for human rights, democracy, and gender equality. President Trump’s priorities were different (Bettiza, 2019: 223). According to Ziv, Graham, and Cao (2019), the Trump administration's preference for "America First implies a definitive turning away from the United Nations, part of a wider strategy to achieve America’s foreign policy goals by reducing dependence on international cooperation”. Trump's America First foreign policy privileged the singular pursuit of America's goals seemingly unimpeded by internationalist commitments. The USA's foreign policy priorities included a turning away from international efforts to tackle the climate emergency as well as reducing its role in helping resolve humanitarian crises in various countries. The Trump administration's scepticism about the value of working collectively with international organisations to achieve collective goals was not however limited to the UN. It also informed US relations with other international and regional organisations, including the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and America's partners in the North American Free Trade Association, Canada and Mexico. Overall, President Trump's America First foreign policy demonstrated that in his view international commitments were often undesirable, while globalisation is not good for the USA: Trump claimed repeatedly that ‘globalism’ was detrimental to America’s national interests (Ziv, Graham, and Cao, 2019; Haynes, 2019a)

Like an earlier president, Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), the Trump administration’s foreign policy approach was populist in the sense that it sought to pursue goals which many Americans believed were appropriate, including side-lining the UN and not attempting to export democracy and development via foreign aid (Moran, 2021: 367). According to Russell Mead (2010), populist nationalists such as President Trump hold the opinion that the fundamental government priority is to protect “the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home”. American diplomat and historian George Kennan asserted that it was vitally important for America's national interest to combat communism globally to protect the USA's international position. In 1948, Kennan wrote, in a manner reminiscent of Donald Trump nearly three-quarters of a century later:

We [the US] have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming ... we need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. ... We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

(Kennan quoted in DiMaggio, 2019: 345)

In 2020, the USA had an estimated 4.23% of the global population and 29.4% of global wealth (Desjardins, 2020). Since the late 1940s, the USA's share of global wealth has shrunk by more than four-tenths (from about 50% to 29.4% of the global total) and its share of the world’s population has fallen by a third (from 6.3% to 4.23%). Bryant (2015) noted that by 2015 almost 60% of Americans felt that the country’s power was on the wane. Undoubtedly still a leading global power in 2020, the USA was however strongly challenged - economically, diplomatically, and ideologically - by several countries, notably China, as well as others, including Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Perhaps in response to what was objectively a changing global picture. Trump employed language reminiscent of Kennan's in highlighting his administration’s America First foreign policy priorities: the USA could "no longer afford” an “altruistic” approach to international relations by playing a lead role in the liberal international order, in pursuit of universal “human rights, the raising of [global] living standards, and democratization”. Trump's inaugural address in January 2017 made clear his administration's foreign policy priorities: “From this moment on it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families”. This reinforced his campaign message that “we are getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world” (cited in Moran, 2021: 368).

The shift to an America First foreign policy occurred at a time when the post-1945 Pax Americana, “when the US used its power to shape and direct global events, was weakening” (Moran, 2021: 366). Walt (2011) claimed that the world was moving towards the end of the “American Era”. Trump highlighted differing opinions of what should be the US global role in the 2020s. On the one hand, there were those who argued that the USA should continue to play the main global role in maintaining international peace and security - because it was strongly in America’s national interests to do so. On the other hand, there were those who did believe it was not in the USA's national interest to continue in this role (Moran, 2021: 368). The Trump administration adopted the latter approach, while the opposition Democrats chose the former.

The America First foreign policy was reflected in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), the first of Trump's presidency. The NSS made it clear that Tramp prioritised an America First strategy over maintenance of the liberal international order. President Obama had expressed determination to pursue a “rales-based international order” via US leadership to promote “peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges”. Trump's NSS put forward a different approach: “We will pursue this beautiful vision - a world of strong, sovereign and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams, thriving side-by-side in prosperity, freedom and peace” (Moran, 2021: 368-369). Tramp's NSS committed America to “pursue bilateral trade and investment agreements with countries that commit to fair and reciprocal trade” (cited in Moran, 2021: 368) According to Moran, with the use of such language,

"Trump appeared to view the world in terms of zero-sum interactions, not the multilateralism of the Liberal International Order whose supporters had argued that it guaranteed US security”. Also published in 2017, the US Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy’ (NDS, 2017) portrayed a similar world to that in the NSS: increasing anarchy and global disorder, “characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order - creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory” (Moran, 2021: 368-369).

The Obama administration both was globalist in orientation and sought to build bridges with the Muslim world, which were in bad shape following 9/11 and the subsequent American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both Muslim-majority countries. President Obama's overtures to the Muslim world after 9/11 were explicit recognition that while the 9/11 attackers were all Muslims, this did not mean that all Muslims were America’s enemy. The Trump administration took a different approach both to America’s global role and to the country’s relationship with many Muslim-majority countries. With the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 via an intensive bombing campaign led by the USA, President Trump's security focus remained on ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, although now the target was to deter Islamic terrorism at home via lone wolf attacks. The second facet of a new security orientation was on ‘inter-state strategic competition', which became the primary concern of American national security. In particular, Russia and China were seen as the main challenges to America’s continued prosperity and security. In the Middle East. Iran was judged to be the primary threat to America's main allies in the Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (Moran, 2021: 373].

Despite multiple challenges, for Trump and many Americans, the United States remains a world leader. Whereas after the Cold War, the United States played a key role in international ‘democracy promotion' and sought to disseminate America’s democratic ideals around the world, the Trump administration saw things differently. Rather than democracy, the Trump administration sought to spread another set of values: America’s core ‘civilisational' values which, reflecting the influence of Christian nationalism, focused on protecting the religious freedom of Christians, especially in ‘unfriendly’ Muslim countries in the Middle East. This policy was led by Secretary of State Pompeo and supported by Vice President Pence and Attorney General Barr, all of whom believed in the importance of disseminating America's ‘Christian values’ to societies and countries around the world.

To conclude this section, the Trump administration’s America First foreign policy was a major, even a fundamental, change to the consistent international objectives of the USA following World War II. The defeat of

Nazism and fascism ushered in an era of championing Western values -including democracy and universal human rights - via the United Nations. The Trump administration had different strategic priorities and foreign policy goals, especially in relation to countries with differing cultures and civilisations, such as China and Iran. In the next section of the chapter, we turn attention to a key area of foreign policy divergence between the USA and many other Western countries: human rights, with a focus on international religious freedom.

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