Photo: U.S. President Trump and Chinese President XI. Source: The United States Studies Centre, Sydney. - Photo: 2018

Competitive Diplomacy Under the Trump Administration – Part 1

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

This is the first of a two-part article which was written before the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels – The Editor.

ROME (IDN) – The goal of the diplomacy of George W. Bush under his National Security Strategy (NSS) was to be “transformative”, that is, aimed at building and supporting democratic states in collaboration with “many international partners”.

In other words, the armed export of “democracy” presupposed the ability and will to build variable alliances tailored on military intervention. Except for the fact that, for the purpose of partial political legitimation and outside any UN Security Council mandate, unilateral military action had to be combined with multilateralism.

Without ever excluding unilateral action “if necessary”, the administration of Barack Obama – similar to that of Bill Clinton – stressed multilateral cooperation and within international institutions.

What is the difference between the administration of Donald Trump and the others?

One of its features is the idea of the rebirth of geopolitical competition with Russia and economic competition with China, in addition to criticism of the theory of “democratic peace”. However, this must be considered as relative.

With the explosion of the civil war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, another president would have used a different language, but in any case the Western powers would not have been able to supinely accept the reconstitution of its own sphere of influence in the former Soviet European area by the Russian government (the discourse is partially different for the former Soviet states of Central Asia: see below).

In fact, the main criticism of Trump when he was a presidential candidate was, in fact, that of being nothing short of accommodating towards Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, with the pivot to Asia and the launch of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration had already begun to come to terms with foreign policy and with China.

The problem of competitive diplomacy

Another and more specific feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is its competitive diplomacy. Now, one can well say that this is a new formula for an ancient truth; that is, geopolitical competition and the pursuit of economic advantages are always present in the foreign policy of a great power.

There are, however, different ways of applying this principle and it is therefore necessary to exit from generic formulas and go into detail.

In short, I think that the peculiarity of U.S. foreign policy as it really was defined in the first period of the current Administration consists in the extension of competition simultaneously towards China and Russia, and – with an obvious distinction between methods – towards its allies, both in international economic policy and in that of national security. This foreign policy is the expression of a particular pseudo-populism in domestic politics and has its particular contradictions.

Competitive diplomacy, the UN and the Security Council

The NSS of December 2017 (NSS 2017) recognises the historic importance of the U.S. contribution to construction of the institutions of the international order after the Second World War and, in particular, that the United States “led the creation of a group of financial institutions and other economic forums that established equitable rules and built instruments to stabilise the international economy and remove the points of friction that had contributed to two world wars”.

The Administration declares that it is committed to playing the role of leader in – not of withdrawing from – the agreements and institutions that “shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values.”

These are the basic parameters of the foreign policy of any U.S. administration – something that should be obvious – that are reasserted here. The problem therefore is not the alleged and impossible isolationism of the United States. The problems of the Trump administration’s foreign policy related to alliances and international institutions are on another level.

Above all, it should be noted that in the twenty-first century the threshold for taking preventive military action by the U.S. government has been significantly lowered. One need think not only of large-scale operations such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of targeted small-scale actions, such as the series of attacks carried out using armed drones – even outside war zones. By definition, this type of action is independent of the consensus of the UN Security Council and often also of the state in which they occur.

Republican presidents have a long history of polemics with the United Nations and the many specialised agencies of which it is made up, for example around resolutions concerning Israel, abortion, the rules of engagement of UN peacekeepers and non-condemnation of certain human rights violations (for Russia in Chechnya and for China in Tibet).

In practice, this has been expressed in the threat or fact of suspending US financial contributions: for this reason, Obama settled the arrears due to the United Nations inherited from Bush Jr. However, the Trump administration has considerably raised the quality of criticism at the United Nations.

In NSS 2017, it seems that this has been distorted: “Authoritarian actors have long recognised the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens”; according to the current Administration, in the past, the United States has allowed the use of international institutions against the national interests of the country.

Apart from the fact that it cannot be understood why – unless as an indictment of these institutions – “authoritarian players” also need multilateral bodies to oppress their citizens, it follows that, on the one hand, the United States is internationally engaged in leading international institutions and, on the other, having recognised that there exists competition for influence in these international institutions, the United States will nationalistically protect North American sovereignty and will not cede this sovereignty “to those that claim authority over American citizens and are in conflict with our constitutional framework” (an apparent reference to the International Court of Justice in the Hague).

The engagement in multilateral institutions is moreover selective: “All institutions are not equal, however. The United States will prioritise its efforts in those organisations that serve American interests, to ensure that they are strengthened and supportive of the United States, our allies and our partners”.

In NSS 2017, the United Nations is mentioned only twice: the first as a historical reference, the second expresses the hope that reform – and this is no novelty – that it will return to its founding principles.

To make a comparison: in the NSS of 2010, the United Nations was mentioned at least ten times. In that document, the difficulties of the institutions born after the Second World War in the face of unprecedented threats was admitted, but in the NSS of the Obama administration the “international architecture” had to be defended and strengthened, and “those nations that defy international norms or fail to meet their sovereign responsibilities will be denied the incentives that come with greater integration and collaboration with the international community”, while not reducing US efforts in certain institutions.

Obama made constant reference to norms and the vaguest international standards valid also for the United States; on the contrary, NSS 2017 refers to law only in terms of law enforcement on the part of the US government and respect for the rule of law within the other states. It would be fair to say that the normalisation of preventive war by the Bush Jr. administration and by Obama is a lethal blow to international law – not only to jus ad bellum but also to jus in bello – while the openly nationalist perspective of the Trump administration not only reinforces the existing fact, but extends it to other fields of international politics.

In the budget presented by the Administration to the Congress at the beginning of 2018, the intention to reduce funds for international commitments of a non-military nature by about one-third was clear.

Particularly affected were funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). These are agencies whose activities, however insufficient overall, can still make the difference between life and death: food and health aid, aid for refugees, for disasters, for education and for birth control. In this, the U.S. Congress did not follow the Administration, but it is known that the problem will recur with the next budget.

Take the example of the budget for UNICEF, which deals with humanitarian assistance to children. In 2016, total revenues were 4.8 billion dollars, including 3.5 from interest, procurement services and other sources; the remainder, classified as ‘regular resources’, was obtained from funding from governments and intergovernmental organisations and from the collection of funds from private donors and non-governmental organisations.

Overall, 119 governments contributed 562 million dollars to UNICEF, or just over 10 percent of the agency’s total revenue and 43 percent of “regular resources”. The highest contribution was that of Sweden with 132.5 million dollars, followed by the United States with 117. To make a comparison: depending on the version, volume of orders and the point in time, the price of just one F-35 multi-role fighter jet is now around 100 million dollars.

Let us now consider the military face of the United Nations: peacekeeping missions. The total cost of these missions is 6.8 billion dollars and the Trump administration intends to reduce its financial contribution from 28 to 25 percent of the total: however, this amounts to about 0.2 percent of the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense. It must also be taken into account that, of the total force of 104 thousand people (including soldiers, police officers and civilians) engaged in 2018 in 15 missions, the greatest contributions come from Ethiopia (8,331), Bangladesh (7,007), India (6,711) and Rwanda (6,548); Italy provides 1,074, France 835, Germany 829 and the United States 53.

It is certainly not the contributions to agencies and missions under the flag of the United Nations that feed the public debt of the United States, nor do the latter currently involve the shedding of blood of U.S. soldiers more than other countries.

Turning to the UN Security Council, its original virtue and contemporary defect is that its composition expresses the structure of world power as it was in the post-Second World War period and, more precisely, the division between the world dominated by capitalist powers and that of totalitarian pseudo-socialism: the late replacement of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China in 1971 is confirmation of this.

The UN Security Council is an oligarchic body whose main real political function is not to ensure respect for international law – let alone the right to rebellion against national and social oppression, which can only be exercised by those directly concerned – but promote a degree of cooperation among the great powers.

Given that, in its decisions and non-decisions, the Security Council registers the state of relations among the great powers that are permanent members with a right of veto, during the Cold War this was in fact inoperative and vice versa was to some extent revitalised after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, approving – unanimously – a series of military interventions, from the invasion of Iraq in 1991 to that of Afghanistan ten years later.

Crucial is the state of relations between the United States and Russia – beyond and more than with China – which have had different and conflicting phases straddling the 20th and 21st centuries: they cooled after the war in Kosovo, improved in 2001-2003, worsened – but not too much – with the coloured revolutions of the early 2000s and the war between Russia and Georgia (2005), and warmed up with the resetting of relations by Obama (2009). Only since 2014 have these relations come close to a condition of quasi-Cold War.

Given a capacity for the projection of military power far below that of the United States, what is pressing for China and Russia – as the United States is ready to act unilaterally and in disregard of international law and national self-determination whenever it has the need and possibility – is the mediation that can be achieved in the Security Council.

Thus, it is according to their own national interests that the great powers accept or not the role of the Security Council as an oligarchic institute that is an authentic interpreter of international law.

The Security Council is now no longer adequate, and not only because it excludes Germany, Japan and other large states like India and Brazil, which can aspire to enter the oligarchy of world power.

A more profound reason for the inadequacy of this institution is that, since the contraposition between the two systems is lacking and with China and Russia today capitalist powers, the geopolitical scene has become enormously more fluid.

There is no longer a Soviet bloc and it is not possible for the United States – and its allies – to accept the reconstitution of a Russian zone of influence in the former Soviet area or the Warsaw Pact countries; and with the Afghan war, the United States developed a stable interest and precarious connections even in Central Asia, although there the real long-term competition is between Russian influence – which largely depends on the Soviet past and control of deposits of energy resources – and the rising influence of China, which is economically unbeatable in all other respects.

As far as the global dimension of its economic and geopolitical interests is concerned, the United States cannot have its hands tied by Security Council mediations. Another issue is the position of the Trump administration with regard to the most important US military-political alliance: NATO.

Competitive diplomacy and NATO

Candidate Trump stirred up a hornet’s nest when he declared:

“I think NATO’s obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today. I’m not saying Russia’s not a threat. But we have other threats. We have the threat of terrorism and NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism, NATO’s not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism”.

In the National Security Strategy of President Trump, we read:

“Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States. They add directly to U.S. political, economic, military intelligence and other capabilities. Together, the United States and our allies and partners represent well over half of the global GDP. None of our adversaries have comparable coalitions. We encourage those who want to join our community of like-minded democratic states and improve the condition of their peoples”.

This declaration expresses the obvious reason why alliances are indispensable for the world’s major power and demonstrates the absurdity of attributing an isolationist nature to U.S. foreign policy.

NSS 2017, the statements of President Trump, the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense also destroy the equally absurd fear – or crazy hope – that the United States can do without NATO. They reaffirm the loyalty of the United States to the Atlantic alliance and to Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty signed in 1949, according to which aggression against one of the signatories will be considered an attack against all the others and the United States will undertake to respond with all the means necessary to counter it; the NSS recalls that the US nuclear deterrent protects over 30 allies and partners.

From Europe to the Pacific Ocean, alliances are indispensable for maintaining the balance of international power and promoting prosperity; and it is for this reason that NSS 2017 states that Russia aims to divide the United States from its allies, while the US Administration intends to work with allies and partners in the fields of security, economy and strengthening mutual bonds.

On closer inspection, although expressing himself over the top (after all it was during an election campaign), candidate Trump referred to the particular threat of terrorism – and Russia remained one of the threats – and to the allied financial contribution to common defence.

In any case, Trump explicitly engaged in self-criticism during the press conference of April 12, 2017 with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg: “I said it [NATO] was obsolete; it is no longer obsolete”. He continued, however, to insist on what has always been the central question for him: money.

In previous administrations, the question of costs for military missions was not at all ignored. For example, the section of Clinton’s NSS of July 1994 describing the criteria for deciding on the ways and levels of US participation in specific military operations says, among others: “Fourth, our engagement must meet reasonable cost and feasibility thresholds. We will be more inclined to act where there is reason to believe that our action will bring lasting improvement. On the other hand, our involvement will be more circumscribed when other regional or multilateral actors are better positioned to act than we are.”

In NSS 2002, the same document that consecrated the “war on terror” of unilateralist Bush Jr., an entire chapter is dedicated to “developing agendas for cooperative action with the other main centers of global power”, that is, the European Union (the efforts of which to forge its own foreign and military policy are welcomed), Japan, Russia, China and India, “one of the two largest democracies in the world”.

From a strictly economic point of view, it was said that NATO should develop new capabilities and structures – such as a rapid intervention force – and that it was necessary to ” take advantage of the technological opportunities and economies of scale in our defense spending to transform NATO military forces so that they dominate potential aggressors and diminish our vulnerabilities”.

And as for Obama’s strategy, NSS 2010 provided for the review and rationalisation of Department of Defense programmes and the reduction of U.S. military spending, but did not require spending increases of the European allies – “the cornerstone of the United States’ commitment to the world” – with which it was, however, to strengthen overall economic cooperation.

Obama’s problem was that “when we overuse our military might, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched, Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military force”.

Hence the emphasis on the division of labour among local, national, and global institutions that seeks to leverage relative capacities, programmes “to strengthen regional capacities for peacekeeping and conflict management to improve impact and share burdens”, and the shift of dialogue around the coordination of economic policies, from the G8 to the G20.

What Trump seems to have turned into a commandment is the commitment made in 2006 – and reaffirmed in 2014 by NATO members – to take defence spending to two percent of GDP within a decade, that is, by 2024, allocating 20 percent of the increase to military resources.

In addition to the United States, according to official estimates, of the 29 NATO states (including new member Montenegro), Greece, Estonia, United Kingdom, Romania and Poland destined at least two percent of GDP to defence (at 2010 prices); France, Latvia and Lithuania were around 1.7-1.8 percent.

From the U.S. perspective, the point is that, while it is no coincidence that the spending of the Baltic countries and Central-Eastern Europe is quite high, the European average is 1.5 percent compared with the 3.6 percent of the United States and – particularly irritating – that of Germany stands at 1.2 percent. And it was to Germany that Trump was referring when – as a presidential candidate – he spoke of an “extremely rich” nation that did not spend enough on defence, and of which he was willing to say: “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself”.

*Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published the full version of this article in Italian under the title ‘La Diplomazia Competitiva dell’Amministrazione Trump’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 July 2018]

Photo: U.S. President Trump and Chinese President XI. Source: The United States Studies Centre, Sydney.

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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