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The Second World War and the subsequent threat of Communism persuaded Americans that their security depended on assuming world leadership, justified by a material commitment to liberty. This bipartisan approach to grand strategy equated US security with a stable international system. For a country long hostile to permanent alliances, the decision to join international institutions, such as Nato, was a remarkable conceptual leap. In the traditional game of great power politics, alliances were mainly superficial alignments that shifted. Nato changed that. It was kept alive through the maintenance of common values directed but held together by the US.

The major split in US foreign policy for the following 70 years, according to the commentator Walter Russell Mead, was between Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. The former emphasised international stability through a financial and security architecture that would lead to global economic revival. Wilsonians also supported the creation of a global liberal order, but they conceived of it in terms of values rather than economics: peace through the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. There were of course serious disputes between these factions, but they took place within a common commitment to the project of global order. Above all, they shared a common sense of American exceptionalism.

The project begun by Obama and continued by Trump was to break with this internationalist orthodoxy. The 2016 presidential race turned these aspects of Obama’s presidency into a goal common to the far-Left and the alt-Right. Hillary Clinton became emblematic of the elite liberal cosmopolitanism that blue-collar Americans felt had betrayed their interests, and the consensus values of both parties were defeated. Obama and Trump shared a similar narrative, diagnosing a malaise at the heart of their country and placing domestic economic regeneration at the core of their agenda. Although now largely forgotten, Obama’s solution was reflected in a campaign pledge to renegotiate Nafta unilaterally, a position that he reversed in office.

Obama and Trump belong to two older schools of thought on America’s place in the world. Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian. In broad terms Jeffersonians, following the example of Thomas Jefferson, believe that the US should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”. Both Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz tried this platform during the Republican presidential primaries. Donald Trump picked up on a different current in American politics — populist nationalism as pioneered by a later President, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians the US is not defined by an Enlightenment intellectual project with a universal mission. The main preoccupation is domestic. If they see America as exceptional, it is because of the commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. National security should be concerned with securing American physical and economic well-being and to interfering as little as possible abroad. The Jacksonian tradition is almost apolitical in conventional terms. However, some events do trigger intense political engagement by Jacksonians. One is war and the other is the perception of domestic attack, or rather oppression, by internal enemies, whether elites or immigrants. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians is quasi-isolationism unless moved to action through significant provocation. More importantly, both deny that American exceptionalism means that America possesses a “special mission” in the world.

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