You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Trump’s White Nationalist Foreign Policy

In Asia, the president makes friends with autocrats. In Europe, he uses soft power to energize the populist masses against democratic leaders.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s extensive five-nation Asia tour concluded abruptly on Tuesday when he skipped a meeting with regional leaders in the Philippines and headed back to the United States. “It’s been an incredible 12 days. I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” Trump said while leaving the East Asia Summit in Manila. Sounding more like an insecure social climber than the leader of the world’s lone superpower, he added, “I’ve made a lot of friends at the highest level.”

Making friends, not making deals, was the major theme of Trump’s trip. “My feeling toward you is incredibly warm,” Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We have great chemistry. I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the U.S.” He was equally enthusiastic about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying they had an “extraordinary relationship,” and adding, “We like each other, and our countries like each other, and I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Japan than we are right now.” Trump also boasted of his “great relationship” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and laughed when the autocrat denounced reporters as “spies.”

Trump believes strongly in bilateral diplomacy and in his own mastery of the “art of the deal,” and he scorns alliance systems (like NATO and the United Nations) and the lumbering bureaucracy of the State Department. So it’s only natural that his major foreign policy tactic is cultivating personal ties with foreign leaders, with all the awkward handshakes that requires. He even sees hostile powers in personal terms, as seen in his aggrieved tweets about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un:

“Trump thinks of himself as the only person who matters on foreign policy, he equates good personal relationships with foreign leaders as good foreign policy,” Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner wrote on Monday. “This is one reason Trump goes out of his way to be nice to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It’s also why other countries are smart enough to give him the red-carpet treatment.”

Whether all this glad-handing will result in real accomplishments remains to be seen; Trump reportedly will hold an event later this week to discuss the Asia trip’s results. But the trip’s central failure is already apparent: Trump’s utter neglect of soft power. As passionate as he was about making friends and negotiating deals in Asia, he was completely uninterested in the more public diplomacy of engaging with its citizens. That’s starkly distinct from his last trip abroad, to Europe, where he used soft power to energize the populist masses in Poland—and effectively so, based on Saturday’s enormous demonstration in Warsaw, where banners called for “White Europe” and “Clean Blood.”

In the contrast between these two trips, we see the emerging outlines of a Trump foreign policy ideology to match his domestic one: white nationalism.

The United States has long excelled in the use of soft power. Going back at least a century to Woodrow Wilson’s speeches in France advocating for the League of Nations, American presidents have addressed not just other statesmen but the people of the world, often to promote human rights and democracy. This is the tradition of John F. Kennedy promising to end world hunger, Ronald Reagan calling for Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, and Barack Obama’s affirmation in Cairo that democracy is a universal creed.  

Trump has no apparent human rights and democracy promotion agenda. His only substantive remarks on human rights were aimed at North Korea. As the Post reported on Monday: “Trump had yet to utter a word about the military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Burma, which the United Nations’ top human rights official has called ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Earlier, in Vietnam, Trump embraced the communist nation’s leaders during a state visit to Hanoi without publicly raising an ongoing crackdown on political speech and independent journalists. In Beijing, he praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who oversees an authoritarian system that sharply limits press freedoms, as ‘a very special man.’ And here in Manila, human rights issues were barely discussed—if at all—in Trump’s first meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has garnered worldwide condemnation for waging a bloody, extrajudicial drug war that has killed thousands....”

And Trump barely engaged with ordinary citizens in Asia. In a Twitter storm on Saturday, Post reporter David Nakamura drew a contrast between Trump’s trip and Obama’s visit to Asia in 2016:

What stands as contrast for me in covering Obama and Trump here in Asia is that Obama sold his personal charisma as part of American “soft power.” Soft power is a foreign policy theory of trying to persuade other nations to move closer to the U.S. through means other than traditional “hard power”—military might or trade. It wasn’t just impulsively shaking hands. Obama did town hall meetings with young people (including one in Vietnam where a woman freestyled a rap for him) and he did speeches at universities. Trump has done essentially none of these types of things. The only cultural events he’s done have not involved ordinary people—golf with Abe, touring Pearl Harbor, private tour of Forbidden City with Xi.

But Trump showed earlier this year that he’s capable of exercising soft power when he wants to. On July 6, 2017, he gave a major address in Warsaw where he proclaimed that he would fight “for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.” Sarah Wildman at Vox noted that the speech “often resorted to rhetorical conceits typically used by the European and American alt-right. It sounded, at times, not just like the populists of the present but the populists of the past.” Trump quoted a line, “We want God,” from a venerable Polish song, and was applauded when he proclaimed:

In those words, the Polish people recalled the promise of a better future. They found new courage to face down their oppressors, and they found the words to declare that Poland would be Poland once again.

As I stand here today before this incredible crowd, this faithful nation, we can still hear those voices that echo through history.  Their message is as true today as ever.  The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out “We want God.”

The God-loving people Trump was rallying in this speech all live in predominantly white regions (Poland, Europe, and America). The unspoken suggestion was that the non-white world shared no such desire for the divine.

The Independence Day events in Poland on Saturday suggest that Trump’s speech made a lasting impression. More than 60,000 people marched in a rally led by three nationalist groups and marked by anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and homophobic rhetoric. Amid slogans like “White Europe of brotherly nations” and “Europe will be white,” there was also the chant “We want God.” Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who specializes in East European affairs and is fluent in Polish, observed:

The Warsaw demonstration clarified why Trump ignored the hopes and fears of the people of Asia: His soft-power message is one of white nationalism, which, of course, will find no purchase in the non-white world. But Trump’s echoing of alt-right themes is likely to find a receptive audience in other European countries like Britain, Austria, Germany, France, and Denmark, all of which have seen a rise in nativist political movements in recent years.

Trump has a dual foreign policy: He seeks solidarity with white-nationalist forces in Europe, thereby undermining democratic leaders who have been America’s longest allies, and he cozies up with the ruling elite of the rest of the world, even murderous dictators. Taken to its logical conclusion, this vision of the world is a troubling one. If successful, Trump’s foreign policy would create a Europe dominated by right-wing populists intent on controlling borders, while the people of Asia would be ruled by despots untroubled by calls for democratization and eager to cut bilateral trade deals. It would be a New World Order held together by illiberalism.