Tag Archives: foreign policy

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.

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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.

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Trump or Clinton: who will be the best for our region?

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Everyone knows by now that the current, endlessly drawn-out electoral process in the US is remarkable, even by the standards of an increasingly weird political era. The consensus is that no matter who becomes the next president, it will be bad. If it’s Donald Trump, though, it could be apocalyptic.

Despite growing concerns about declining American power and influence, the US still dominates the region upon which Australia has increasingly come to depend. Therefore, the election outcome will have potentially major and enduring consequences for Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

What do Trump’s foreign policies suggest?

Even though many people have real and understandable doubts about Hillary Clinton’s historical baggage, inconsistency and proclivity for “misspeaking”, most serious analysts hope she wins. The alternative is too awful, unpredictable and frankly alarming to even contemplate.

Consequently, not many people – including Australia’s foreign policy establishment, it seems – have given much thought to what happens if Trump triumphs.

Consistency and measured reflection are not words often seen in the same sentence as Donald Trump, but it is possible to get some idea of what his foreign policy might look like. Most of it is alarming. And none of it is likely to be good for Australia.

Trump’s policies are frequently described as “neo-isolationist”. They resonate with many who are disillusioned with the supposed failings of the Obama doctrine, and sick of American involvement in seemingly intractable conflicts in places they neither know nor care about.

Many Americans are remarkably ill-informed and uninterested in foreign policy. This is not a unique national characteristic, but some of the widely shared beliefs that inform voting intentions in what is still the world’s most-powerful country are striking.

For example, the average American thinks something like one-quarter of its US$4 trillion national budget is spent on foreign aid. In reality it’s less than a miserly 1%.

Trump may share this misapprehension for all we know. Either way, he is threatening to make supposedly freeloading allies pick up more of the bill for America’s implicit defence guarantees.

What might it all mean for Australia?

Given Australians have made disproportionate sacrifices to underpin its alliance relationship with the US over the years, this is a bit rich.

Australia’s major parties seem to have a policy of not having a policy when it comes to dealing with a possible Trump presidency. The reality would – or should – force a rethink of some of the most enduring foundations of Australian foreign policy.

This is why so many of Australia’s foreign policy and strategic elites are pinning their hopes on Clinton. She wouldn’t welcome the label, but Clinton is clearly the establishment candidate and consummate insider who can be relied upon to do the right thing as far as Australia and the world is concerned.

One assumes this may include rediscovering her surprisingly lost enthusiasm for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Her habit of being economical with the truth is one of the reasons she is personally unpopular, such an electoral liability, and no certainty to knock off the most unlikely and unpredictable candidate in recent US political history.

As far as our region is concerned, most analysts will be reassured by the prospect of a Clinton presidency. She is one of the architects of the so-called “pivot”, or shift in American strategic priorities to the Asia-Pacific region and response to China’s seemingly inexorable rise.

Whether she has the will to confront an expansionist China is the big question. Whether smaller countries like Australia would want her to is another question altogether. But this is not an issue that often gets an unambiguous airing here, despite the amount we are currently investing in military modernisation.

The prospects for Australia could be daunting no matter who wins the election. It is conceivable that Trump may follow through on his threat to demand greater self-reliance on the part of traditional allies and simply pull American forces out of the region. This would allow China to assert its dominance, and fundamentally overturn the long-standing basis of Australian foreign policy.

If Clinton wins, though, the options don’t necessarily look any more auspicious, even if they are more predictable. If the US is ever to stand up to China and try to reassert its former dominance of our region, it will have to get on with it.

If we extrapolate from here, it is only a question of time before China overtakes the US on every significant measure of great power status.

Clinton may decide it is her historical destiny to reassert American primacy, not to mention defend the rules-based international order that the US has done so much to develop – if not necessarily abide by – over the last half-century.

Under such circumstances, Australia’s nightmare choice between its principal security guarantor and its most important trade partner may come one step closer. And that’s the good outcome.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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

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Time for a real debate about our most important relationship

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

While still considered unlikely, there is now a real and growing possibility that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. And yet, despite the fact that Bill Shorten apparently considers him to be “barking mad”, there has been almost no serious discussion about what this might mean for Australia.

Indeed, there has been precious little foreign policy debate so far in the election campaign. No surprise about this, perhaps: foreign policy is usually something of an afterthought during election campaigns.

Australians are not unique in being rather uninterested in foreign affairs, but one might have thought this time things would be different. We are subjected to a fairly relentless bombardment about the supposed threats to national security and the deteriorating regional strategic environment, after all.

One of the reasons there is so little discussion of foreign and strategic policy is that there are few significant differences between the major parties, or about the received wisdom among most of the commentariat. Whatever your views of the Greens’ policies in this area may be, they are at least willing to question the basis of a conventional wisdom that has seen Australia take part in every major conflict since the second world war.

Such a debate looks timely, given that prominent figures from both Labor and the Coalition have expressed deep concern about the implications of a Trump presidency. Even John Howard, who is now held in remarkably high esteem throughout the country, has suggested that Trump is “too unstable to hold that high office”.

One might have thought that under such circumstances, where there is a bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a Trump presidency, there would be an informed discussion of what this might actually mean for the security policy that has formed the foundation of Australia’s defence since the second world war.

On the contrary, though, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to shut down debate by suggesting that there should be no commentary on the politics of other countries during an election.

Opening up this debate might raise uncomfortable questions that neither of the major parties want to discuss. Most importantly, does it make sense for this country – or any other for that matter – to rely so heavily on a foreign power, no matter how intimate the relationship may have grown over the years?

Australian policy is essentially hostage to the preferences of the US and the expectations that they will always coincide with ours.

The dangers of such a strategy were revealed in the disastrous but entirely predictable decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Not only was this a folly of the grandest proportions, but it was also one that had no bearing on or relevance to Australia’s own security.

Important lessons could and should have been learned from this experience, which might be used to guide policy now when the potential threat is even more direct and unambiguous.

Australian policymakers and commentators have always assumed that what’s good for America in foreign policy terms will necessarily be good for Australia. This always looked like an exercise in wishful thinking and a dereliction of responsibility on the part of generations of Australian policymakers.

With the ascent of a potentially dangerous figure like Trump, who even prominent conservative commentators in the US have described as a fascist, the dangers of this policy are becoming painfully apparent.

Some debates are plainly too discomfiting to contemplate. It is noteworthy that, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Barack Obama has been attempting to develop a close strategic relationship with the still notionally communist government in Hanoi. Quite why two million Vietnamese had to die in the conflict, not to mention 60,000 Americans and some 500 Australians, is not entirely clear in retrospect.

One of the problems of failing to confront uncomfortable realities in the past or the present is that it becomes impossible to learn potential lessons and adjust policy in the future. Vietnam and Iraq look like entirely avoidable and pointless conflicts from this distance, especially for Australia, which was not threatened by either country and had little to gain – other than the good opinion of our notional security guarantor.

But it’s an odd sort of security that involves the continuing expenditure of so much blood and treasure to ingratiate ourselves with another country. The potential folly of this policy could be demonstrated by president Trump, who has nothing but contempt for loyal allies that are judged to freeload on American power.

Outsourcing responsibility for foreign and security policy is not wise at the best of times. There is undoubtedly much to admire about the US. As hegemonic powers go, things might have been a lot worse. But the time has come to have a mature debate about our relationship with the US and the world more generally.

There is potentially much that Australia could do as a creative middle power in conjunction with regional partners like Japan, South Korea or Indonesia. However, until we have an independent policy position on critical foreign and strategic policies that affect this country, the chances of such initiatives coming about look remote.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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

 

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A challenged democracy: wicked problems and political failures

The Conversation

Barry Jones, University of Melbourne

There is a crisis of confidence in the political system generally. The problem is by no means confined to Australia – it is endemic to the United States, many European states, Africa generally, most of Asia and South America.

I would define the crisis in contemporary Australian politics as a combination of interlocking factors:

  • sharply reduced political agenda;
  • refusal to analyse and explain complex (“wicked”) problems (climate change, jihadism, refugees);
  • convergence (largely out of fear) on major issues (taxation, national security); and
  • toxicity on trivial issues (personal attacks, “gotcha!” moments).

However, despite the frequently expressed low opinion of politics and politicians, and the toxicity and vacuity of our political discourse, paradoxically voters still overwhelmingly support the two major political groupings.

This is presumably pragmatism at a high degree. Voters say: “After all, I am voting for a government…”

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The maximum variation in the combined vote for the major parties over five sets of elections in Australia in the period 2013-15 is only 2.1%. That aggregate vote has shown a slight long-term decline since the 1960s. In the 2015 New South Wales election, the aggregate vote for the two major political groupings amounted to exactly 80.0% – 45.7% to the Coalition, 34.3% to the ALP. This is strikingly consistent with the bar charts set out above.
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Informal votes are generally higher than in the past, although the electorate is (at least on paper) far better educated.
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Voters are (so far) loyal to the major parties on polling day but many cast their vote with pegs on their noses – and they have no interest in joining parties. Our major parties claim to have a total membership of about 80,000 – about 0.6% of voters. In reality, it is likely to be less than 30,000, not all of whom will know that they hold party tickets.

By contrast, total membership of sporting, especially football, clubs would be somewhere north of 800,000.

A system stumped by wicked problems

The current iteration of the democratic system demonstrates a striking incapacity to address sets of major issues, many described as “wicked problems”. Rittel and Webber defined wicked problems as being messy, circular or aggressive.

They argued that wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements; solutions to them are often difficult to recognise as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex, problems.

Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”.

The complexity of wicked problems is a challenge to linear thinking, reductionism and much professional education. Foreign policy provides some striking examples.

Every Middle East intervention by the West since the invasion of Gallipoli in April 1915, with the (contested) exception of the creation of Israel in 1948, has been misconceived, failed in execution and has created a new set of unexpected problems.

Current wicked problems include:

  • Terrorism and security issues;
  • The clash of civilisations updated;
  • Telling the truth and winning elections;
  • Evidence v. opinion: the attack on scientific method;
  • Information or entertainment: speeding up through media;
  • Climate change paralysis;
  • Dumbing down of political debate;
  • The policy abyss;
  • Recruitment of political elites;
  • Institutional failures – churches, welfare groups, sporting clubs, armed forces, political parties;
  • Corruption: vested interest vs community interest, lobbyists;
  • Foreign and defence policies, ANZAC revisited, how many universities could a submarine buy?; and
  • Tackling budget deficits by emphasising (i) cuts, (ii) asset sales and (iii) borrowing, while ignoring revenue (i.e. tax adjustment);

There are inbuilt tensions between the nature of major challenges and attempts to understand them or address them.

  • Wicked problems (climate change, ageing, jihadism) are very long-term issues;
  • Our political cycles are short-term (three-year parliaments for the Commonwealth, three or four for the states);
  • Media cycles are very short-term (news editors get tired of a story after 24 hours or so);
  • Social media turn-round times are shorter still.

A fundamental mistake was made by many writers, myself included, about the impact of the IT revolution. We assumed that access to new technology would open people up to the world that people would seek out the universal and long-term. Instead, technologies such as the iPhone have reinforced the realm of the personal, as exhibited in social media, with its emphasis on the immediate, the next few minutes, concentrating on family and close friends, reinforcing existing views.

Choice vs no choice

If there is a united front between the major parties on issues such as asylum seekers or foreign policy, then voters will have to be reminded that (as Talleyrand remarked) “not to choose is to choose” and that Australia is – like the US – becoming a state in which government and opposition are essentially two wings of the same bird.

For Australian voters, it is like choosing between Coles and Woolworths. At present, Australia is ruled by a Grand Alliance, which refuses to engage in serious examination of, say, climate change, planning for a post-carbon economy, education reform, rethinking foreign policy, or securing an appropriate revenue base for an ageing society with increasingly sophisticated health needs and the shadow of Alzheimer’s.

A central failure in the current political debacle has been the pursuit of populism, fearful of serious analysis of the major ongoing problems that face societies like ours. Both the Coalition and Labor are at fault in this.

I have sometimes fantasised that there could be room for a new party, called Courage, but I don’t see it on the horizon.
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The problem for me is: how is an 82-year-old radical to vote if he wants to reform the world and get answers to basic questions, such as: how many submarines does Australia need? And how do we challenge a military culture? And plan for a post-carbon future? And protect the environment?

And preserve the rule of law? And entrench support for research, CSIRO, the ABC and the Bureau of Meteorology? And recognise the growing needs of an ageing population? And have a root-and-branch reform of the tax system? And put creativity and greater opportunity into the school system? And move towards a republic? And tackle reform on issues ranging from sexuality to urban land management (bad here, good in England)? And challenge the obsession that growth is an end in itself?

You tell me.

Tackling complex problems such as refugees and climate change will demand complex solutions. These cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”). “Retail politics”, sometimes called “transactional politics”, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected.

We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act
accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear.

A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis. This is compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

The electoral success of vision-free politics

To many voters, identification with a party is a reflection, not necessarily of self-interest, although that is important, but a reflection of their own values – values at a particular time.

The British Conservative Party has an outstanding record of having been consistently and demonstrably wrong on issues over 150 years, but had very forgiving supporters. The party actually benefited from the defeat of its great historic campaigns.

The Conservatives were for the Corn Laws, child labour, appeasement of Hitler and the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, and against Catholic and Jewish emancipation, manhood suffrage, Home Rule for Ireland, votes for women, the National Health Scheme and independence for India.

It is hard to identify a single issue that the Tories got right the first time round. That did not prevent them from winning elections. In the 20th century, under universal suffrage, the Tories held office for longer than Labour and the Liberals combined.

In Australia, the ALP alternative to conservatism is timidly progressive, fearful of causing offence, unable and unwilling to reform itself, totally controlled by factional apparatchiks.

Both major parties talk about “taxpayers” as if they were an entity with no function other than paying tax. In reality, they are people passing through a variety of changing roles, with higher or lower needs depending on what part of life they are in – but they are also spouses, parents, workers, students, patients, welfare dependents, customers, community activists.

After his near-death experience on February 9, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was questioned on ABC’s 7.30 and set out his vision-free priorities: “lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom”, emphasising that his government “believes in values and institutions that have stood the test of time” (unidentified, but presumably the Roman Catholic Church, the British royal family and the Institute of Public Affairs would be high on the list).

“Lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom.” Let’s unpick that.

In the next decades, will Australia’s population be rising, falling or static? If rising, will the percentage of Australians aged more than 60 be rising disproportionately? All demographers say “yes”.

Will this (in the absence of widespread euthanasia) mean a significant increase in the numbers of people requiring sophisticated, long-term medical treatment and/or hospitalisation, at great expense? How will any government, especially a smaller one, deal with a rising problem with increased numbers on a lower revenue base? How can it be done?

Will poverty, inability to afford medical assistance, decrepitude and isolation increase or reduce the prospect of “greater freedom”? For whom?

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


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