Tag Archives: America First

Why it’s so hard to make sense of Trump’s foreign policy

The Conversation

Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

Under Donald Trump, trying to predict, dissect and understand the US’s attitude to the world has become almost impossible – not that plenty of observers aren’t giving it a go. Tellingly, they’re all coming to different conclusions.

Some see a spiral into outright chaos, citing the strain on crucial alliances, Trump’s strange embrace of Vladimir Putin, and his reckless rhetoric, which sometimes gets to the point of implicitly threatening nuclear war.

Other analysts claim to identify some semblance of order, but they disagree profoundly on what that order is. To some, Trump’s “America First” theme is an isolationist rallying cry, with its implications of economic protectionism and rejection of international agreements; others see an administration even more committed to military intervention than its predecessors. And still others say that for all Trump’s sound and fury, not much has changed – that US foreign policy, for better or worse, is hewing to the same methods and objectives pursued in the Obama era.

So how can we cut through all this noise and really make sense of it all? In the interests of clarity (and perhaps sanity) the first thing is to recognise that there isn’t just one Trump foreign policy. There are several. They frustrate each other with various irreconcilable differences. And collectively, they add up not to a coherent US strategy, nor even an incoherent one, but instead a gaping hole where a strategy should be.

The family-and-friends foreign policy

One key difference from his predecessors is Trump’s promotion in certain areas of a foreign policy set and pursued on an ad hoc basis by his family and their business allies. That approach has radically altered, even dismantled, the longstanding US approach to the Middle East – and in particular to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Instead of assigning someone with relevant experience to handle what may be the world’s single most intractable dispute, Trump instead tapped his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner has no grounding in Middle Eastern affairs, nor even in diplomatic negotiations more generally. Having failed to disclose his meetings with foreign officials before Trump became president, he doesn’t even have a full security clearance. And yet Trump reportedly told him, with not a hint of irony: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”

The reckless cronyism doesn’t stop there. To assist Kushner, Trump chose Jason Greenblatt, the executive vice-president and chief legal officer to Donald Trump and The Trump Organisation. The administration’s chosen US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was previously a member of the law firm Kasowitz, Hoff, Benson and Torres – which represents Donald Trump. Along with Kushner, both have helped support (individually or through foundations) Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Kushner Company continues to do business in Israel.

With Trump’s family and friends running the show, it seems that American influence in the Middle East writ large is no longer a sure thing. More than a year later, as Saudi Arabia still goes about its deadly business in Yemen, and the Syrian conflict remains intractable, this triad’s chief accomplishment has been to antagonise most of the world and endanger the peace process by having the US recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Twitter foreign policy

Then there are Trump’s tweets, which too often drive the global news cycle at the US’s reputational expense. His 280-character missives can recalibrate America’s foreign policy posture in an instant – whether contradicting his own secretary of state on North Korea, denouncing fellow NATO members, blowing hot and cold over China, or souring the “special relationship” with the UK by deriding the mayor of London and blithely retweeting videos from the far right Islamophobic group Britain First.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

What matters here isn’t just the content, but that Trump actually revels in the chaos it creates. As he said in his first speech on foreign policy during the campaign: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable.”

Trump probably did not think of his statement as a reworking of the Nixon-Kissinger “madman” ploy of the 1970s. Nor is he likely to have thought through its effects. What matters, in the end, is capturing the world’s attention and settling petty scores.

The alt-right foreign policy

Before Trump’s ascendancy, the “alt-right” had little direct influence on policy of any kind. But with Trump elected, its leaders suddenly had their foot in the door. Led by hard right White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, they pushed for confrontation with China and detachment from NATO as well as protectionism and departure from international agreements such as the Paris climate agreement. Bannon put himself on a key committee of the National Security Council, along with Fox News commentator-turned-Deputy National Security Adviser K T McFarland.

As 2017 unwound, the the “firebreathers” were eventually checked by pragmatists. General H R McMaster, brought in as National Security Adviser in March, removed Bannon from the National Security Council (he was later fired by Trump altogether). Senior staff Derek Harvey and Ezra Cohen-Watnick were dismissed, as was McFarland.

But one of the alt-right’s polyps is still at the heart of the Trump operation. Stephen Miller, who within two years went from e-mail spammer of Washington journalists to senior White House adviser, is not only the main architect of the crackdown on immigration but also the speechwriter behind Trump’s provocative UN General Assembly debut in September 2017 – an address that railed against “a small group of rogue regimes”, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, and called its leader Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man”.

As far as Miller is concerned, it seems, the more incendiary and derisory the US government’s tone, the better – whatever the diplomatic and strategic consequences.

The institutional foreign policy

These competing tendencies are a brutal test for the structures of US foreign policy, and the stewards of those institutions are clearly on high alert.

McMaster, Defence Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are all trying to contain Trump and his inner circle. They have championed the US’s traditional alliances, taken charge of operations in areas such as Afghanistan and Syria, toned down Trump’s fire-and-fury threats to North Korea by discreetly encouraging a diplomatic path, and tried to curb some of the family’s inclinations – especially a Saudi-first approach that threatens the security of a key American military base in Qatar.

But it’s hard to win a fight against true chaos. Kushner and his allies can brief the media against the pragmatists. Trump’s profound impulsiveness can unsettle any plan, especially given his widely reported lack of knowledge. And those who do know what they’re doing are jumping ship: Tillerson has overseen a dramatic depletion of expertise at the State Department, with 12% of foreign service officers departing in just eight months.

America on the sidelines

Amid all the competing philosophies and factions, the only thing that’s certain is unpredictability. The administration has issued a National Security Strategy, but with all the chaos and policy clash the inexpert Trump constantly introduces, any “strategy” is doomed to the paper shredder.

And just as Trump’s agencies try to contain him, other countries try to contain the US by sidelining it. Russia has seized the initiative in Syria; Iran wants it in Iraq; Saudi Arabia pursues it from Yemen to Lebanon; Turkey warns that it may walk away from the Americans altogether, and China increasingly calls the shots in East Asia, from the North Korean problem to the South China Sea and economic development. Even European partners are thinking twice about their reliance on what no longer looks like a dependable superpower.

Meanwhile, US-based analysts scramble to find a framework that can express what’s going on while still conveying some sense of American primacy. “Soft power”, which under Obama became “smart power”, is now proclaimed as “sharp power”. And all the while, US power – if measured in the respect for America at the centre of global affairs – plummets in the opinion polling of peoples across the planet.

In his UN speech in September, Trump declared, “As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.” It remains to be seen, for all his “American First” front, how his multiple foreign policies are defending those interests.


The ConversationOn February 21, Scott Lucas will be joining the panel for The Conversation’s joint event with the British Academy, Trump: How to understand an unconventional President. You can watch the discussion live on our Facebook page.

Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Trump’s arrival means it’s time for Australia to review our relationship – and perhaps learn to say ‘no’

The Conversation

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is discovering the political cliché “change the government, change the country” might have bigger implications for Australia’s relationship with the United States than anticipated.

We might re-engineer the cliché to read “change the government, change its foreign policy”, and thus how America manages its relationships with friends and foes alike.

If it has not already dawned on Turnbull and his foreign policy advisers then it should have: a new American administration like no other in recent memory will require a rethink in how Australia calibrates its relations with Washington.

Not since the Gough Whitlam’s Labor government of 1972-75 has such a potentially awkward relationship existed between Australia and its principal ally, or to use another description, custodial power.

Whitlam parted company with his predecessors in his testy interactions with the Richard Nixon White House. Whitlam felt under no obligation to espouse a “pro-American” perspective on matters relating to the war in Indo-China in particular.

Many Australians found this refreshing.

While it was inevitable that a moment would arise when Australian and US interests would find themselves out of kilter, it has perhaps come more quickly than anticipated, driven by the arrival in the White House of a man untethered from principles that have guided American foreign policy for generations.

In Trump’s Inauguration speech there was one passage that should have given Turnbull and his advisers pause, even if these words might be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish:

We assembled here today are issuing anew decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only American first, America first.

He added:

Protection will lead to greater prosperity and strength.

The latter observation could hardly have been more antagonistic to the free trade principles and practice on which Australian prosperity rests, or for that matter be regarded as anything more than an affront to America’s own history.

In 1930, Congressmen, Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored legislation that raised punitive tariffs on some 900 imports, and in the process added poison to the well of slowing global trade, as The Economist put it.

Smoot and Hawley did not cause the Great Depression or add significantly to it, but the legislation represented a populist response to political anxiety.

Nearly a century later, an American president appears to hold the view that an “America first” approach – or a form of isolationism – will serve his own country’s economy well and those of its friends.

This view, even if you accept that the trade liberalisation pendulum has swung too far, is not sustainable if economic growth globally is to be nurtured.

Otherwise, disaster beckons, including a global entrenchment that will serve no-one’s interests, including America’s.

Trump’s stroke-of-a-pen end to America’s involvements in the liberalising Trade Pacific Partnership gave expression to his antagonism towards trade deals generally and spelled a pause in American leadership of a laborious process of opening markets and reducing trade barriers.

From the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs Trade, to the formation of the World Trade Organisation, to progress towards open markets under the Uruguay Round – alongside a plethora of bilateral trade deals – an era of liberalising trade has underpinned global prosperity.

So, the question becomes: how should the Turnbull government respond to these new circumstances in a way that serves Australia’s interests, and in an environment in which the world is in disarray? And it is likely to become more so if the early stages of an idiosyncratic Trump administration is any guide.

Policymakers need to think outside the narrow confines of what has been regarded as “America first” policy postures that have dictated Australia’s foreign policy choices, to consider what might be regarded as a less dependent relationship on our security guarantor.

None of this is an argument to weaken Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS alliance, nor our alignment with what we have always regarded as America’s better angels. But the time has come for a reassessment.

Trump’s ascendancy to power reminds us there is no such thing as permanent alliances, simply permanent interests.

Australia is not obliged to make a choice between its security in the form of its treaty arrangements with the US and its commercial interests, namely with China. But it does need to move to a position where it gives itself more flexibility in addressing its security and other challenges.

In other words, arguments for greater self-reliance – including defence preparedness – grow by the day.

How Turnbull achieves such a shift will prove a test of his diplomatic and leadership skills, and indeed his understanding of our country’s history. After relying on great and powerful friends for our security, we may be entering a new and distinct phase.

Whatever judgements might be made about the likely trajectory of a Trump administration, early days suggest that what he said on the campaign trail will guide his actions in office.

So when he talks about a form of isolationism summed up by the phrase “America First” he must be taken at his word, until demonstrated otherwise.

This poses obvious challenges for Australian policy. Do we gravitate towards the sort of world defined by Trump – with its risks of a return to a 1930’s isolationism or perhaps a form of 19th century mercantilism – or do we assert our own separation from such a worldview?

Are we seeing the end of “pax Americana”, in which the US proved to be the indispensable cornerstone of global security in the rebuilding of Europe, the containment of the Soviet Union, and a security presence in Asia post the Korean war that has enabled an extraordinary economic transformation in our own region to our advantage?

Turnbull needs to ask himself whether it is in Australia’s national interest for institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to be weakened.

Is it in Australia’s interests for there to be a confrontation between the US and China on trade, or security in the South China Sea?

Or a return to a ground war in the Middle East that would demand a larger commitment from Australia with unknowable consequences?

Lessons might have been learned from an earlier disastrous intervention.

Finally, Turnbull should resist pressure from his the right wing of his party, salivating over the arrival of an authoritarian in the White House.

Turnbull was derided over his initial response to Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP, in which he said China may wish to fill the gap as if, reflexively, he needed to fall in line with Washington.

While the TPP may be dead, Turnbull and his ministers shouldn’t be blamed for trying to keep alive an idea that would have provided a basis for a liberalising trade and investment zone in the Asia-Pacific.

Contrary to the views of its critics, the TPP was always about more than simply a trade liberalisation mechanism. It was also aimed at providing a framework for further action in counterpoint to China’s growing dominance.

Finally, Turnbull might consider the example of former Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who politely declined when he came under pressure to join George W. Bush’s cavalry in the invasion of Iraq.

Chretien, as leader of a country that shelters under a US security umbrella and is a fellow NATO member, said “no”, or “non” in his native Quebecois.

Last time we checked the sky had not fallen in for Canada.

The ConversationTony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs