It only took a few months under Donald Trump’s presidency for the US to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, impose new sanctions on Russia, reverse the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Cuba, announce its intention to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, warn Pakistan, threaten Venezuela with military intervention, and declare a readiness to strike North Korea with ‘fire and fury … the likes of which this world has never seen before.’ The Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Israel are the only countries on better terms with the US since Trump’s arrival in the White House on 20 January.
Trump is not solely responsible for this increased tension: Republican neoconservatives, Democrats and the media all applauded him this spring when he ordered military manoeuvres in Asia and the launch of 59 missiles towards an air base in Syria (1). At the same time, he was prevented from acting when he broached a possible rapprochement with Moscow, and was even forced to sign off on new US sanctions against Russia. US foreign policy’s point of equilibrium is effectively being determined by Republican phobias (Iran, Cuba, Venezuela) often shared by Democrats, and by Democrat hatreds (Russia, Syria) endorsed by most Republicans. If there is a peace party in Washington, it’s currently well hidden.
US foreign policy’s point of equilibrium is effectively being determined by Republican phobias often shared by Democrats, and by Democrat hatreds endorsed by most Republicans.
Yet last year’s presidential debate suggested the electorate wanted to see an end to US imperial inclinations (2). Foreign policy issues were not initially on Trump’s campaign agenda, and when he did speak about them it was to suggest an approach mostly antithetical to that of the Washington establishment (the military, experts, think-tanks, specialist reviews) and to his current approach. He promised to subordinate geopolitical considerations to US economic interests, speaking both to supporters of economic nationalism (‘America First’) — there are many in states that have suffered economic devastation — and to those convinced it was time for realism after many years of continuous war that had led to stagnation and widespread chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. ‘We would have been better off if we [had] never looked at the Middle East for the last 15 years,’ Trump said in April 2016 (3), condemning US ‘arrogance’ that caused ‘one disaster after another’ and cost‘thousands of American lives and many trillions of dollars.’
This diagnosis, unexpected from a Republican candidate, chimed with the view of the Democratic Party’s most progressive wing. Peggy Noonan, who wrote some of the most notable speeches of Ronald Reagan and his successor George HW Bush, said as much during the campaign: ‘He positioned himself to Hillary Clinton’s left on foreign policy — she is hawkish, too eager for assertions of US military power, and has bad judgment. This will be the first time in modern history a Republican presidential candidate is to the left of the Democrat, and that will make things interesting’ (4).
‘Be prepared to walk’
And things are interesting, though not quite as Noonan predicted. While the left holds that peace comes from fairer relations between countries rather than intimidation, Trump, who is completely indifferent to global public opinion, operates like a horse trader looking for the best deal for himself and his voters, irrespective of consequences elsewhere. So for Trump the problem of military alliances is not so much that they risk amplifying conflicts rather than discouraging them, but that they cost the American taxpayer too much; as a result of picking up the tab, the US is becoming a ‘third-world nation’. ‘NATO is obsolete,’ Trump told supporters in April 2016. ‘We defend Japan, we defend Germany, and they pay us only a fraction. Saudi Arabia would not exist, except that we defend them. If we left it, it would fall. You’ve always got to be prepared to walk. If you can’t walk, you don’t make a good deal.’
Trump was after a good deal from Russia. A new partnership would have reversed deteriorating relations between the powers by encouraging their alliance against ISIS and recognising the importance of Ukraine to Russia’s security. Current US paranoia about everything Kremlin-related has encouraged amnesia about what President Barack Obama said in 2016, after the annexation of the Crimea and Russia’s direct intervention in Syria. He too put the danger posed by President Vladimir Putin into perspective: the interventions in Ukraine and the Middle East were, Obama said, improvised ‘in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp’ (5).
Obama went on: ‘The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.’ What he feared most about Putin was the sympathy he inspired in Trump and his supporters: ‘37% of Republican voters approve of Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave’ (6).