UO Donald Trump campaigned to be a radical and disruptive president, and not just on the domestic front. His views on America’s role in the world suggested he would drastically re-orient the country’s global economic and political priorities, turning away from the US’s traditional superpower role. Many observers expected his presidency to rupture the Western world order, with serious risks to America’s allies.
But in recent weeks, Trump has started veering closer to the usual model of American supremacy than many of his worried critics expected.
US primacy is a fundamental element of the global order. Since the end of the Cold War, both Republicans and Democrats have been committed to preserving the US’s position as the world’s sole superpower, and even with the rise of other “great” powers – China, India, latterly Putin’s Russia – the US is determined to shape and guarantee an economic order that disproportionately benefits it and its allies.
This effort is underpinned by a worldwide military establishment with more than 700 bases in over 70 countries, and via military interventions in every region of the world. This military might supports an economic system that depends on freedom of the seas, broad political stability (if not necessarily democracy), and unimpeded trade.
Trump’s nationalistic campaign rhetoric shunned and dismissed this system. For that, he was variously labelled isolationist, transactional and protectionist, but he put it differently: “I’m not isolationist”, he said “but I am America first.”
Though he didn’t entirely rule out foreign military intervention – notoriously pledging to “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State and “take the oil” – he emphasised that the US “should never have been in Iraq”. He declared NATO “obsolete” and said allies who rely on American security guarantees would have to stump up more money to contribute more to the cost of their own defence: “We’re not being reimbursed for the kind of tremendous service that we’re performing by protecting various countries.”
He also questioned the neoliberal trading system, of which the US is the leading architect. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) were bad for America, sending “our jobs, our wealth and our factories … overseas”.
Since Trump was elected, his rhetoric has retained its nationalist tone. But the substance of his foreign policy is a different matter. Maintaining American supremacy means embracing neoliberal commerce, military pre-eminence, and the alliances that project US power into every region of the world.
To change this system would require both a viable alternative and immense organisational, political, and diplomatic skill. And neither is so far evident in the Trump administration, which looks like one of the most chronically disorganised in US history.
Still number one
The administration has yet to articulate anything resembling a coherent worldview. Instead, it offers a list of grievances, revolving around the notion that America has, in Trump’s words, been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many many years”. These grievances have not been translated into a viable alternative strategy: aggressive American import tariffs, after all, will not make the international trading regime any more equitable, and may well ignite a trade war.
What Trump is discovering is that the neoliberal order is a genuinely global system and that dismantling it demands multilateral diplomatic work for which he has neither the temperament nor the inclination. This may explain why he’s already visibly regressing to the foreign policy mean.
Along with bombing Syria and rattling his sabre at North Korea, Trump is now calling for free trade agreements with Britain and Japan. He apparently no longer considers NATO obsolete and is now publicly committed to defending Japan. He dispatched his secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, to South Korea to reassure Seoul of Washington’s security guarantee. The vice-president, Mike Pence, visited both South Korea and Japan, where he issued stern words directed at North Korea.
Within a month of his election, Trump broke with decades of precedent to take a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, but once inaugurated, he endorsed the US’s long-held One China policy, which aligns it with Beijing. His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, is far from reticent in Security Council meetings, publicly condemning Russia’s activities in Ukraine and and the recent chemical attack in Syria. Trump now intends to seek a US$54 billion increase in defence expenditure and is investigating an expansion of the campaign against IS.
Whatever becomes of his radical and populist domestic agenda, Trump’s foreign policy platform is yet to become a reality. With no credible alternative to the status quo, and as Trump begins to understand the advantages that the US accrues through its leadership, it seems he will run a foreign policy far more traditional than he originally intended.