THE FOREIGN POLICY of Pres. Donald Trump, in as much as anyone can make sense of it, embraces contradictory and confusing points. His impulsive pronouncements leave his top advisers scurrying to clarify things. After a phone conversation with Pres. Recep Erdogan of Turkey, Trump announced the withdrawal U.S. troops from Syria. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was so dumbfounded that he announced his resignation. National Security Adviser John Bolton then assured our allies that the withdrawal would be gradual after certain security measures are in place. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hurried off to Iraq to assure their government that such a withdrawal would not allow ISIS to reassemble. So, what exactly had been decided?
Yet, in his crude blunderbuss way Trump is onto something. Hidden in this bar stool yammering is a germ of truth. The post-Cold War world he inherited was far from stable and hopeful illusions were fading. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the ever-escalating nuclear arms race, there was an expectation that a new international security and trade system would bind the major powers in mutually beneficial relationships.
The World Trade Organization included China and Russia. NATO would transform itself into a European security system in which Russia would participate. Defeating radical Islam with its wanton violence and mindless rejection of modernity would be a project all the major powers would join. From a rational perspective, this appeared to make sense. However, as we have learned from the bitter lessons of the 20th century, rational perspectives often give way to nationalist, religious, and tribal resentments.
Trump's presidential campaign voiced the American resentment that this economic and political order was failing to live up to its promise and was leaving millions of working-class U.S. citizens behind. International trade was benefitting the affluent in the information sectors, while damaging workers in the manufacturing and extractive industries. China was not willing to accept a role as a status quo power. Instead, it was acting as a revisionist hegemonic power, extending its might to the South China Sea; neither was it playing by the rules of international trade, brazenly stealing American intellectual property and technology secrets.
Our NATO allies were content to let U.S. troops shoulder most of the burden of fighting radical Islam. After American sacrifices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and...