Being a Real American is always an asset for U.S. presidential candidates. Voters like it, identify with it, feel reassured by it and they will even excuse some wild behavior by those they feel fit the bill.
This time around, Donald Trump is the Real American par excellence. Trump has for decades done deals around the world but he remains a cliché, the stereotype of an Ugly American. Other Republican candidates are also provincial, each in their own way: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and several others, not excluding Jeb Bush in spite of a foreign-born wife and his bilingual talent.
Only Marco Rubio, despite his youth the most knowledgeable and intellectually sophisticated Republican candidate especially about foreign policy, looks as if he wouldn’t feel totally out of his depth geopolitically in a room with the likes of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Hassan Rouhani, King Salman or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Nevertheless, Rubio is perhaps too young, his potential as yet unrealized, too lacking in international experience and in personal relationships with foreign leaders. An American president needs to personify the full weight of American strength and success. Even Hillary Clinton, despite all her international experience as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation and her long involvement with the international women’s movement, is cast in a typical American mold.
An aspiring candidate needs a larger worldview than domestic politics can offer. He or she must demonstrate the potential for statesmanship—an American patriot deeply rooted in the country but who understands international relations as well. An aspiring president must be a heavyweight world leader who will not be shy about using American power but is cosmopolitan in mindset.
Cosmopolitan instincts are a framework for statesmanship because they conceive of international politics as more than how the rest of the world related to the United States. The world order is a network of interacting states, international institutions and peoples in which America is the strongest military power, the most resilient economy and whose dynamic society is an attraction for people around the world—but the United States should not think of itself as a magnificent hegemon. A cosmopolitan mindset incorporates domestic politics and voters’ attitudes without letting them determine all U.S. foreign policy.
Statesmanship requires a mastery of broad interests: a grasp of history and geopolitics; of international business and economics; and a personal interest in other countries and cultures because that creates empathy with the way people around the world live and what their problems are. American political culture tends to be, to the contrary, suspicious of candidates who seem foreign in some way. Presidential candidate John Kerry was accused of being “French,” for example. Barack Obama was accused of not being born in the U.S., being a secret Muslim and anti-American because his father was Kenyan.
Understanding the way the world works—the clash of national interests, the competitive strains of globalization, the legitimate interests of other countries—doesn’t mean U.S. presidents should be internationalists first. Presidents must put American interests first. From that point of view they must work with the world as it is. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and compare them then with Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Presidential elections are won on likeability and on domestic issues—candidates have to feature a “plan” for economic growth, tax reform, immigration, and so on. It’s bad form to notice that plans rarely work out. Congress plays its own role, and any plan issued 18 months in advance can only serve as a guide to intentions. Republican candidates’ discussion of foreign policy so far has basically been an exercise in bad-mouthing: Europeans are weak, Putin is a thug, Tehran is conniving. As for Xi Jinping, saying any good word about China will garner no votes.
However, foreign policy becomes of primary importance once in office. Electing neophyte bravado leaders is dangerous. The George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq depended on the uneducated assumption that democracy would quickly develop. Our military overthrew Saddam but also broke the entire country politically.
Ronald Reagan is an exception to the rule, a Real American who was lucky to have one overarching strategic issue about which his resolve was unshakeable: the Soviet Union and international communism. Reagan knew little history but he (and his advisors) knew what was needed if he was to deal with Moscow, and he showed an unexpected talent for getting it. He overwhelmed Gorbachev and made a pal of Margaret Thatcher. (How well he might have done with Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Stalin is an open question.) Reagan drew other leaders toward himself and thus toward the U.S. His personality was a considerable aspect of American soft power. As Peggy Noonan once wrote, “when Reagan walked into a room, America was there.”
In the best of worlds, American presidents would combine the patriotic cosmopolitanism of FDR with the political charm of Ronald Reagan. How far is this flight of fancy from what’s now on offer.