Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

If Trump Returns

| May 31, 2023

What would a second Donald Trump presidency mean for US foreign policy and the world? While the man himself is unpredictable, his first term and his behavior since losing re-election in 2020 offer plenty of clues, none of which will be comforting to America's allies.

As the 2024 US presidential primary campaign season begins, the most likely final contest is a rematch between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Judging by the electoral map in 2020, Biden would be well-placed to win. But American politics is unpredictable, and any number of health, legal, or economic surprises could change the outlook. Hence, many foreign friends have been asking me what would happen to US foreign policy if Trump were to return to the White House.

The question is complicated by the fact that Trump himself is unpredictable. The presidency was his first political office, and his background translated into a highly unconventional political style. His success as a reality-television star meant that he was always focused on keeping the camera's attention – often with statements that were more outrageous than true, and by breaking conventional norms of behavior.

Trump also intuited that he could mobilize discontent by decrying the uneven economic effects of global trade and stoking resentment over immigration and cultural change, particularly among older white males without a college education. With a constant drip of populist, protectionist, and nationalistic statements, he earned himself equally constant media coverage.

Back in 2016, many expected Trump to move to the center to broaden his political appeal, as most normal politicians would do. Instead, he continued to play to his loyal base, which he used as a bludgeon against any congressional members of his party who dared to criticize or contradict him. Those Republicans who openly opposed him tended to lose their primaries to Trump-endorsed challengers. As a result, Trump has established almost complete control of the Republican Party. In the 2020 election, however, his appeal to the extreme right may have cost him the support of some moderate Republicans and independents in key swing states.

As president, Trump was different from all his predecessors. He often announced major new policies (or the firing of cabinet secretaries) on Twitter, and seemingly on a whim. His administration thus was characterized by frequent changes in top personnel and contradictory policy messages, with the president undercutting his own top officials. What he lost in organizational coherence, however, he made up for with his near-complete domination of the agenda. Unpredictability was one of Trump's most potent political tools....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“If Trump Returns.” Project Syndicate, May 31, 2023.