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President Trump is a new phenomenon on the American political scene. Not a professional politician begging for funds but a rich man who spent his own money and raised money on his own name: he arrived in office unencumbered with obligations. Free from a history in politics, he owes nothing to anyone. Add in his personality, grandiosity and late-night tweets and the punditocracy is in a state of angry incomprehension. Even more offensive to their notions of propriety is that this “dangerously incompetent“, unqualified, mentally ill man beat the “most qualified presidential candidate in history“. No wonder so many of them believe that only cunning Putin could have made it happen – even if they don’t know how. But the punditocracy is as befuddled about him today as it was last year and the year before. (Scott Adams, who got it right, reminds us just how clueless they were.) The very fact that Trump won despite the opposition of practically every established constituency in the United States shows that there is more to him than readers of the NYT and WaPo or watchers of CNN and MSNBC (can) understand.
What follows is an attempt to divine Trump’s foreign policy. It proceeds from the assumption that he does know what he’s doing (as he did when he decided to run in the first place) and that he does have a destination in mind. It proceeds with the understanding that his foreign policy intentions have been greatly retarded by the (completely false) allegations of Russia connections and Russian interference. There was no Russian state interference in the election (the likelihood is that Moscow would have preferred known Clinton) and, as I have written here, the story doesn’t even make sense. I expect when the Department of Justice Inspector General completes his report that the Russiagate farrago will be revealed as a conspiracy inside the US security organs. We do not have a date yet, but mid-January is suggested. Readers who want to follow the story are recommended to these websites: Dystopiausa, CTH and Zerohedge.
We start with four remarks Trump often made while campaigning. Everyone would be better off had President Bush taken a day at the beach rather than invade Iraq. The “six trillion dollars” spent in the Middle East would have been better spent on infrastructure in the USA. NATO is obsolete and the USA pays a disproportionate share. It would better to get along with Russia than not.
To the neocon and humanitarian intervention crowd, who have been driving US foreign policy for most of the century, these four points, when properly understood (as, at some level, they do understand them), are a fatal challenge. Trump is saying that
- the post 911 military interventions did nothing for the country’s security
- foreign interventions impoverish the country;
- the alliance system is neither useful nor a good deal for the country;
- Russia is not the once and future enemy.
A Chinese leader might call these the Three Noes (no regime change wars, no overseas adventures, no entangling alliances) and the One Yes (cooperation with Russia and other powers).
Which brings us to his slogan of Make America Great Again. We notice his campaign themes of job loss, opiates, lawlessness, infrastructure, illegal immigration, the stranglehold of regulations, the “swamp”, the indifference of the mighty, the death of the “American Dream”. None of these can be made better by overseas interventions, carrier battle groups or foreign bases. But they can be made worse by them. There is every reason to expect that by MAGA he means internal prosperity and not external might. Trump has little interest in the obsessions of the neocon and humanitarian intervention crowd. “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military – can take care of our vets… The fact is, the American Dream is dead.” No foreign adventures there. So, in summary, Trump’s foreign policy of Three Noes and One Yes is a necessary part of making America “great” again. If I am correct in this and this is indeed his aim, how can he do it?
There is a powerful opposition in the United States to the Three Noes and One Yes. And it’s not just from the neocon/humanitarian interventionists: most Americans have been conditioned to believe that the USA must be the world’s policeman, arbiter, referee, example. Perhaps it’s rooted in the City on a Hill exceptionalism of the early dissenter settlers, perhaps it’s a legacy of the reality of 1945, perhaps it’s just the effect of unremitting propaganda, but most Americans believe that the USA has an obligation to lead. Gallup informs us that, in this century, well over half of the population has agreed that the USA should play the leading or a major role in the world. The percentage in the punditocracy believing the USA must lead would be even higher.
Interventionists are becoming aware that they do not have a soulmate in the White House and they’re wagging their rhetorical fingers. “The fact is, though, that there is no alternative great power willing and able to step in“. “If nations in the South China Sea lose confidence in the United States to serve as the principal regional security guarantor, they could embark on costly and potentially destabilizing arms buildups to compensate or, alternatively, become more accommodating to the demands of a powerful China” warns the intervention-friendly Council on Foreign Relations. The US has an obligation to lead in North Korea. It must lead for “Middle East progress“. A former NATO GenSek proclaims the US must lead. “US should be the great force for peace and justice globally“. “The absence of American leadership has certainly not caused all the instability, but it has encouraged and exacerbated it.” The ur-neocon tells us that America must lead. Chaos is the alternative. Must resume (resume??!!) its imperial role (which apparently means even more military expenditure lest its military lead be lost). Innumerable more examples calling on the US to lead something/somewhere everything/everywhere can easily be found: it would be much more difficult to find one pundit advising the US to keep out of a problem somewhere than find twenty urging it to lead.
If I have understood him aright, what would Trump see if he read this stuff? Lead, lead, lead… everything everywhere. The South China Sea, the Middle East and North Korea specifically but everywhere else too. More infrastructure repairs foregone so as to ensure what?… That ships carrying goods to and from China safely transit the South China Sea? “Friendly” governments installed in “Kyrzbekistan“? Soldiers killed in countries not even lawmakers knew they were in? 40,000 troops out there somewhere? Trying to double the Soviet record for being stuck in Afghanistan? How many bridges, factories or lives is that worth? Trump sees more entanglements but he sees no benefit. He’s a businessman: he can see the expense but where’s the profit?
How to get out of these entanglements? It’s too late to hope to persuade the legions bleating that “America must lead” and, even if they could be persuaded, there isn’t enough time to do so: they salivate when the bell rings. President Trump can avoid new entanglements but he has inherited so many and they are, all of them, growing denser and thicker by the minute. Consider the famous story of the Gordian Knot: rather than trying to untie the fabulously complicated knot, Alexander drew his sword and cut it. How can Trump cut The Gordian Knot of American imperial entanglements?
By getting others to untie it.
He walks out of the Paris Agreement (“a watershed moment when it comes to debating America’s role in the world“). And the TPP (“opened the door toward greater Chinese influence, and won’t benefit the U.S. economy in the slightest“). His blustering on Iran caused the German Foreign Minister to express doubts about American leadership. He brusquely tells NATO allies to pay their own way (“America’s NATO allies may be on their own after November if Russia attacks them“). By announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel he unites practically everybody against Washington and then uses that excuse to cut money to the UN. His trash talk on North Korea has actually started the first debate about the utility of military force we’ve seen for fifteen years. He pulls out of Syria (quietly and too slowly but watch what he doesn’t talk about). One last try in Afghanistan and then out. Re-negotiate all the trade deals to US benefit or walk away. Be disrespectful of all sorts of conventions and do your best to alienate allies so they start to cut the ties themselves (his tweet on the UK was especially effective). Attack the media which is part of the machinery of entanglement. Confiscate assets. It’s a species of tough love – rudely and brusquely delivered. He (presumably) glories in opinion polls that show respect for the USA as a world leader slipping. He doesn’t care whether they like him or not – America first and leave the others to it.
The Three Noes and One Yes policy will be achieved by others: others who realise that the USA is no longer going to lead and they will have to lead themselves. Or not. Perhaps, as the neocons love to say, US leadership was necessary in the immediate postwar situation, perhaps NATO served a stabilising purpose then but there has been nothing stabilising about US leadership in this century. Endless wars and destruction and chaos and loss. Thus abroad and – the part that Trump cares about – so at home. It’s not incompetence, as the people who fail Adams’ test tell themselves; it’s a strategy.
(All real theories must be falsifiable; let’s see in a year’s time whether the US is more entangled or less entangled. It should be pretty apparent by then and, by the end of Trump’s first term, obvious to all.)
(Afterword: I have been thinking about this for some time as I ponder the Trump phenomenon. But I was inspired to write by Israel Shamir’s piece about how the Jerusalem decision has united everybody against it. I was also pleased to see that Andrew Korybko has just published a piece that argues along the same lines as I. The principal difference between his take and mine is that he sees the plan as using the chaos to strengthen the US’ world position whereas I see Trump as essentially an isolationist. But we both see the same mechanism at work.)