From the day the United States entered the Second World War until the day Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, “you could never say” that “an American president wasn’t standing up for the democratic world.”
Or so Nicholas Burns, a top foreign-policy adviser to Joe Biden, recently suggested in an interview with The Atlantic. Burns’s ostensible argument was that President Trump’s crass approach to foreign affairs — which elevates the narrow interests of select American industries (and/or kleptocrats) above the core American values of democracy and human rights — constitutes a radical break from eight decades of bipartisan tradition. Biden’s adviser is hardly alone in making that case.
The notion that, under Trump, U.S. foreign policy has aberrantly betrayed our nation’s highest ideals is a fixture of nearly every Democratic candidate’s campaign rhetoric. And in less emphatic form, the sentiment pervades mainstream news coverage of the Trump administration. (To name one example, a recent Washington Post report described Trump as an “unconventional president, who has an affinity for autocrats and an aversion to traditional allies,” a phrasing that suggests conventional American presidents have not displayed such an affinity and that America does not traditionally ally with autocrats.)
It is indisputably true that Trump’s open contempt for human rights and unabashed admiration for authoritarians have no modern precedent. Richard Nixon may have ordered the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, but he never explicitly called on the U.S. military to exterminate the wives and children of enemy combatants. Dwight Eisenhower oversaw a coup against Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz to (among other things) protect the holdings of the United Fruit Company, but he never publicly promised to make expropriating the natural resources of occupied countries a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. And every postwar president has allowed crass economic considerations to temper their critiques of Saudi human-rights violations. But only Trump has explicitly argued that preserving U.S. arms sales to Riyadh is more important than deterring the regime’s murder of dissidents. Meanwhile, Trump’s antipathy for NATO and the European Union — and his often sycophantic sympathy for Russia’s authoritarian regime — represents a genuine reversal of presidential convention.
And yet, as this litany suggests, Trump’s substantive betrayals of democratic ideals are far more precedented than his rhetorical ones. Perhaps before 2017, Burns could never have said that “an American president wasn’t standing up for the democratic world,” but plenty of (small D) democrats in the Third World could.
Newly uncovered details of America’s efforts to prop up Iran’s dictatorial regime in 1979 hammers this point home. Over the weekend, the New York Times revealed the central role that Chase Manhattan Bank played in persuading the Carter administration to let the deposed Shah of Iran into the United States, an action that triggered the Iran hostage crisis. Drawing on the newly unsealed papers of Chase’s former chairman David Rockefeller, the Times reconstructed a “secret history” of the bank’s “Project Eagle” — a scheme for securing the Iranian dictator (and extremely valued Chase customer) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi asylum in the United States, promoting an Iranian counterrevolution that would restore Pahlavi’s allies to power and prolonging the Iran hostage crisis so as to increase Ronald Reagan’s prospects for winning the 1980 election.
The Times’s story focuses on Rockefeller’s unseemly efforts to bend U.S. foreign policy to his bank’s will. In that narrative, President Carter is a hapless victim of the plutocrat’s machinations. Hoping to make inroads with “the new government rising out of the chaos” in Iran and concerned for the safety of America’s diplomats in that country, Carter initially refused to provide harbor to the Shah. Only after Chase mounted a ten-month-long pressure campaign and Pahlavi’s health took a turn for the worse did Carter finally cave. When the Shah’s arrival in Florida triggered the exact scenario Carter had feared — and the U.S. embassy in Tehran fell to the revolutionaries — here’s how Chase rewarded the president for his benevolence:
[T]he team around Mr. Rockefeller, a lifelong Republican with a dim view of Mr. Carter’s dovish foreign policy, collaborated closely with the Reagan campaign in its efforts to pre-empt and discourage what it derisively labeled an “October surprise” — a pre-election release of the American hostages, the papers show.
The Chase team helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release, a propaganda effort that Carter administration officials have said impeded talks to free the captives.
Apparently, one need not be an “unconventional” Republican president to see undermining U.S. foreign policy as a legitimate campaign tactic.
Yet the most shocking detail in the Times report — or, more precisely, the one that best illustrates the alarming normality of Trump’s illiberal foreign policy — may be this:
Over lunch at the Knickerbocker Club in New York, Mr. Carter’s special envoy to Tehran, Gen. Robert E. Huyser, told the Project Eagle team that he had urged Iran’s top military leaders to kill as many demonstrators as necessary to keep the shah in power.
If shooting over the heads of demonstrators failed to disperse them, “move to focusing on the chests,” General Huyser said he told the Iranian generals, according to minutes of the lunch. “I got stern and noisy with the military,” he added, but in the end, the top general was “gutless.”
In American political discourse, the name Jimmy Carter is a byword for (naïvely) humanitarian foreign policy. His administration established the practice of issuing an annual report on human-rights conditions the world over, and was genuinely less belligerent than any other Cold War-era White House. And yet when the Iranian people rose up against a dictator who routinely tortured and executed political prisoners, the most “dovish” administration in modern U.S. history ostensibly encouraged Tehran to murder as many protestors as retaining its power (and/or safeguarding Chase Manhattan Bank’s balance sheet) would require.
This revelation is difficult to square with mainstream accounts of America’s foreign-policy traditions or the “liberal international order” they cultivated. But it’s quite easy to reconcile with the avowed priorities of the men who established those traditions and architected that order. Donald Trump is not the first U.S. policy-maker to cast geopolitics as a zero-sum game in which America can’t afford the luxury of concern for democracy or human rights. George Kennan, the secular saint of the U.S. foreign-policy Establishment, beat him to it by seven decades, writing in a 1948:
[W]e have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. 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 without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
In fact, Kennan didn’t just see democracy promotion as a “luxury” America couldn’t afford but as an inadvisable objective on the merits. At times, both he and his fellow architect of the “liberal international order” Dean Acheson argued that democracy was an undesirable form of government, even at home. As the historian Perry Anderson notes in American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,
Kennan, an admirer of [Chancellor of the Federal State of Austria Kurt] Schuschnigg and [Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira] Salazar, rulers who showed that ‘benevolent despotism had greater possibilities for good’ than democracy, argued on the eve of the Second World War that immigrants, women, and blacks should be stripped of the vote in the United States. Democracy was a “fetish”: needed was “constitutional change to the authoritarian state”—an American Estado Novo. After the war, Kennan compared democracy to “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin,” and never lost his belief that the country was best governed by an enlightened elite immune to popular passions. Acheson dismissed “the premise that democracy is some good,” remarking, “I don’t think it’s worth a damn—I say the Congress is too damn representative. It’s just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as dumb, just as selfish.”
Kennan and Acheson do not speak for all of America’s postwar foreign-policy strategists, of course. And the remarks excerpted here are not necessarily representative of their lifelong views. But the actions of the U.S. state between the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Trump presidencies largely affirm Kennan’s stated priorities. Where the values of liberal democracy have come into conflict with the interests of American capital, U.S. foreign policy has almost always privileged the latter over the former — even when that bleeding-heart peanut farmer was at the wheel.
None of this means Trump’s handling of foreign policy isn’t aberrant in lamentable respects. Hypocrisy has its virtues. Having a global hegemon that preaches human rights while propping up dictators and incinerating schoolchildren is bad. But having one that does those things while preaching nihilism is worse: not least because even a nominal commitment to liberal values can function as a constraint against their violation. Trump’s distaste for the whole “shining city on a hill” shtick has, among other things, enabled the Pentagon to tolerate higher levels of civilian casualties in the Middle East, the Israeli government to accelerate settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the Saudi crown prince to take a bone saw to international law. Making America a hypocritical, opportunistic champion of human rights again would be an improvement. But we must aim for more.
Trump has rebranded U.S. foreign policy in his image. Which is to say he has put the ugliest possible face on American empire. For liberals, there is a strong temptation to call this hideous visage a mask and to insist that “this isn’t who we are.” But it would be more accurate to say this is who we’ve too often been. This hateful sociopath, immune to all human sentiments save fear and greed, devoid of all principles save a will to power, incapable of seeing the world from anyone’s perspective but his own — this is who we were to the peasants of Vietnam and the people of Árbenz’s Guatemala, Salvador Allende’s Chile, João Goulart’s Brazil, Mohammad Mosaddegh’s Iran, and so many other fragile republics yearning to breathe free.
Trump’s great gift to the American people is that he has made our government’s ugliest features easier to see — and thus, to change. But if we respond by burying Uncle Sam’s deformities beneath the concealer of our national myths, the change we make won’t even be skin deep.