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Status and Prestige Are Driving Trump's Foreign Policy

19 Apr 2017

John Glaser

The last few weeks have been witness to a dramatic
transformation in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. But
perhaps not for the reason you think.

In early April, the president authorized a pinprick bombing of a
Syrian military base alleged to be the source of the recent
chemical weapons attack. This starkly contrasted with Trump’s
insistence in 2013, following a similar chemical attack in Syria,
that Obama keep America out of the bloody civil war. In fact,
nonintervention against Syria was one of the few issues the
habitually inconsistent candidate managed to keep to during the
2016 campaign.

In an even more flagrant change of heart, Trump met last week
with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and announced that
NATO “is no longer obsolete,” reversing one of his most
fervid lines in the campaign that the European military alliance is
purposeless. This newfound unity with our European allies coincided
with Trump’s apparent conversion from an obsequious
Russophile eager for an amiable relationship with Vladimir Putin
to a critic determined to show Moscow who is

The Syria strikes
satisfied Trump’s need for domestic acclaim and

Finally, Trump’s outsider take on North Korea seems to
have dissolved into a much more conventional view. As a candidate,
Trump’s solution was as ignorant as it was fresh: if we
threaten China with a trade war, we can bully it into using its
leverage over Pyongyang to solve the peninsular stalemate once and
for all. After meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping and
listening to ten minutes of history on
Chinese-Korean relations, our unschooled commander in chief learned
that things were much more complicated than he thought. Now
Trump’s view appears to emphasize a harsh economic sanctions
regime, ostentatious shows of force and explicit threats of preventive war should North Korea
move forward with its nuclear weapons program.

What explains these drastic changes in Trump’s approach to
foreign policy? One explanation says that he is simply making his
way along the steep learning curve that all presidents
experience. Another account puts it down to personnel. In the early
weeks of Trump’s presidency, the prominence of capricious
mavericks like Michael Flynn and radical nationalists like Steve
Bannon produced an approach that was hostile to the experts within
the national-security bureaucracy and amplified Trump’s
policy illiteracy. Now, with Flynn ousted and Bannon marginalized, the ascendency of
mainstream Republican foreign-policy views held by people like
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R.
McMaster and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have
come to dominate the White House’s approach to the world.

There is no reason to doubt either explanation. Both certainly
have played a role in recent weeks. But there is another, more
fundamental explanation that goes to the root of what motivates
state behavior, and especially leaders like Trump: the drive for
status and prestige. In assuming the presidency, the most powerful
and esteemed office in the world, Trump now sees things much

Status and
motivations are pervasive in international politics.
Hans Morgenthau
early on of “the policy of prestige.” Robert
Gilpin defined it as “the reputation for
power.” According to David Markey, the prestige motive is “the individual or
collective desire for public recognition of eminence,” and
“one of the central causes of conflict in international

It has often led to war, and frequently at the expense of more material interests. Richard Ned Lebow,
in his book Why Nations Fight, found that of
ninety-four interstate wars fought between 1648 and 2008, 58
percent were fought for status and prestige, and another 10 percent
for revenge. He found only 25 percent were motivated purely for
security or economic interests.

What tangible benefit did the punitive strike against the Assad
regime yield? None. It had no strategic or humanitarian purpose. It
was a purely symbolic gesture. Even if it did deter the further use
of chemical weapons, so what? Syrians are no less vulnerable to the
Assad regime’s brutality. And the limited nature of the
strikes means it neither had, nor was intended to have, any impact
on the balance of power in the civil war.

But it did serve the thirst for prestige on two levels. First,
it reinforced America’s status as the indispensable nation,
the unipolar power and the policeman of the world. That status
confers on the United States “informally legitimated
rights and responsibilities
.” Any state can attack
another to secure its national interests or defend its sovereignty,
but only the United States uses military force to punish rogues for
violating international norms. Trump bombed Syria to maintain that
American prerogative. As
Tudor Onea has written
, dominant powers often respond to
symbolic challenges that “raise a question mark as to its
will or ability to hold its status.”

And on a second level, this served Trump’s need for
prestige in the domestic sphere. As Xiaoyu Pu and Randall L.
Schweller have explained, “International status signaling
often arises from a domestic political struggle for
legitimacy.” The president rose to power as an outsider
desperately in need of establishing political legitimacy in
Washington, DC. In the aftermath of the strike, a vast array of
pundits, elite commentators and politicians on both sides of the
aisle, who typically lambaste Trump, suddenly heaped praise on the
president for using force. His approval rating in the polls also
inched upward several points. The Syria strikes satisfied
Trump’s need for domestic acclaim and recognition.

The Trump administration’s threat of preventive military
action against North Korea is similarly lacking in strategic
justification. This crude deterrence model-that enemy states become
docile peaceniks in the face of such threats-is a chimera.
It’s more likely to lead to a spiral dynamic. If anything,
convincing Pyongyang of our willingness to initiate preventive war
will only harden its determination to obtain a nuclear

But North Korea’s defiance of the international community,
and of the United States as South Korea’s patron, is
intolerable for a superpower obsessed with its status and prestige.
Threatening war and sending an aircraft carrier strike group off
the North Korean coast are taunts meant to restore America’s
honor in the face of Pyongyang’s insolence. Tangible security
objectives are secondary.

What about Trump’s sudden embrace of NATO? Prestige can
explain that too. In fact, club membership is a major symbol of
status in the hierarchy of nations. Our leadership of NATO and role
as protector of Europe is a conspicuous marker of high rank that
indicates America’s “reputation for power.” For
the United States, membership in NATO doesn’t enhance
territorial security or deter foreign threats. It certainly
overlaps with genuine security justifications, but, like being a
permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is more a symbol of
our status as a global power.

Take Trump’s proposal for a $54 billion increase in
defense spending as another example. As far as anyone can tell,
this dollar amount was plucked out of thin air. It doesn’t
reflect specific strategic requirements. Instead, boosting military
spending, as a New York Times report put
, reflects Trump’s “fascinat[ion] with raw
military might, which he sees as synonymous with America’s
standing in the world.” Trump, the report continued,
“has shown a flair for symbols and showmanship. By building
the world’s most expensive weapons systems, he repurposes
them as symbols of power.”

A foreign policy driven by status and prestige concerns is
strategically unwise, and can be very dangerous. First, it
subordinates tangible security and economic interests, which
actually matter, to intangible image maintenance, which matters
much less. Compounding this problem is the fact that costly
status-motivated policies are always justified in security and
norm-oriented language, so policymakers and the public buy into

Second, status and prestige motivations encourage activism at a
time when U.S. foreign policy should be more restrained. The United
States still has the biggest economy and the most powerful military
in the world, by a long shot. With weak neighbors to the north and
south, big oceans to the east and west, and a superior nuclear
deterrent, the United States is remarkably insulated from foreign
threats. To secure its core interests, it doesn’t need to
have a sprawling military presence around the globe, pose as the
policeman of the world, or intervene willy-nilly in far-off
countries for the sake of peripheral interests. But status and
prestige inspire an activist foreign policy and spurn the
moderation that would allow the United States to husband its power
and avoid getting sucked into wars of choice.

Unfortunately, Trump is the ideal candidate for using
foreign-policy activism to satisfy status and prestige. If anyone
thought these past few weeks of interventionism might be anomalous
in the course of Trump’s presidency, think again.

John Glaser is
Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal