Is Donald Trump the exception that proves the rule—or is he business as usual? When it comes to the narrative politics of national security, the answer is: a little of both.
Trump has (inconsistently) challenged pillars of US grand strategy that have long received bipartisan support. He has, among other things, envisioned the spread of nuclear weapons to America’s East Asian allies, questioned the enduring commitment to NATO, and defied the presumption that the United States is, as Bill Clinton once put it, “indispensable” to global order. Some have hailed his “foreign policy heresy” as “refreshing.” Others have derided it as “fantasy and folly.”
Regardless, the result has been an unusually broad debate on foreign policy among the leading presidential candidates. Yes, you will struggle to find a candidate who believes America can be anything other than great. But, thanks especially to Trump and to a lesser extent Senator Bernie Sanders, Americans—at least those who are paying attention to the presidential campaign—are being exposed to an extraordinarily diverse range of views, grounded in strikingly different visions of the world and America’s place in it.
This is not typical. One of the central arguments of Narrative and the Making of US National Security is that unspoken, seemingly natural premises commonly underlie debates over national security (and, for that matter, other policy domains). Contending policy recommendations are normally rooted in a shared narrative that weaves together present challenges, past failures and triumphs, and potential futures into a coherent tale, with well-defined characters and plot lines. Dominant narratives establish the boundaries of legitimate argument, and policy stances that cannot be justified in their terms are rarely given voice.
Throughout the 2000s, for instance, two competing approaches to terrorism waged epic battle in the United States: the militarized War on Terror and the law enforcement paradigm. They framed differently what had transpired on 9/11 and who the perpetrators were—war vs. crime, soldiers vs. criminals. But these contending frames were still rooted in a common narrative that cast the United States as a victim of baseless hatred, represented the adversary as ideologically driven and evil purveyors of violence, insisted that terrorism constituted the premier threat to the nation, and treated 9/11 as a moment of historical rupture. The law enforcement paradigm held less sway, but it remained in the realm of the legitimate: it was the stance of the responsible, loyal opposition. In contrast, those who partly blamed US foreign policy for the attacks were at odds with the dominant Terror narrative and were either ignored or treated as beyond the pale.
Among the candidates for president in 2016, Trump, but also Sanders, are less restrained for three reasons. First, staking out narrower bases of support, they have made their names as challengers to the establishment. Consequently, charges that their preferred policies are not just unwise but illegitimate reinforce their reputation for telling unpleasant truths. Second, Trump’s enduring popularity—despite countless mis-steps and contradictions—may suggest that his supporters are drawn to his personality more than his policies, but it may also hint that there are popular narrative strains that are persistently at odds with consensus elite narratives. Finally, this year’s presidential campaign has been proceeding on less confining narrative ground in the national security domain. Buoyed by the Great Recession and the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration quietly undid key pillars of the then-dominant Terror narrative, by downgrading terrorism to but one problem among many and by narrowing the adversary to “al Qaeda and its like-minded affiliates.” Yet its narrative authority has since waned, as political opponents blamed it for, among other things, the continuing chaos in Libya and Syria, persistent state-building failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its not-so-covert war against Ukraine, and China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea. When it came to foreign policy, its critics alleged, the Obama administration had the opposite of the Midas touch. The result has been a more permissive narrative environment with respect to national security.
Still, there remain lines that even anti-establishment candidates cannot easily cross. As Trump regularly tests the limits of the acceptable, he has often gotten burned and been compelled to reverse himself—on nuclear proliferation, on immigration, and on many other issues. In a campaign otherwise full of surprises, this is not especially surprising. In that sense, the narrative politics of national security in campaign 2016 have been awfully familiar.
Will all this have any enduring effect on US foreign policy debate? The answer hinges on unknowns: Will Donald Trump become the Republican nominee? Would Trump the party standard-bearer pose as open a challenge to Beltway common sense as has Trump the anti-establishmentarian? Assuming former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, will she run as the candidate of the bipartisan establishment, or will she succumb to populist pressure? We’ll just have to wait and see…