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Competitive Diplomacy Under the Trump Administration – Part 2

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

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

ROME (IDN) – It is evident that the reduction or even wiping out of U.S. spending on United Nations agencies is essentially irrelevant from the point of view of reduction of its public debt and revival of its domestic economy. The reason for cuts can only be political and ideological.

With regard to family planning, contraception and abortion, it is a question of satisfying the domestic fundamentalist right. In more general terms, the Trump administration’s competitive diplomacy is a way of blackmailing the United Nations because of the prevailing disagreement in organising certain positions of the US government: the most recent case is that of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

So far the US Administration is continuing with a stronger emphasis on a known line: the current National Security Adviser, John Bolton, was already well known for the controversies aroused as an ambassador to the United Nations, within the organisation and in the United States itself.

Reasons for and contradictions of a pseudo-populist foreign policy

The dimension of the attack of the current Administration on the United Nations can be seen as a coherent part of a broader and more specific picture: it refers to and at the same time nourishes the idea – strong on the right, but in different terms also on the left – of the United States as a giant wrapped in the laces of treacherous Lilliputians and of globalisation as a conspiracy of the transnational and multi-culturalist political and cultural elite on the skin of the “forgotten men and women of our country”.

This is why Trump’s “criticism” of globalisation has enthused nationalists, “sovereignists” and national-monetarists of the right and the left.

However, the former have understand nothing about the implications of Trump’s economic policy for their small homelands or pretend to ignore them, because they prefer to be strong on the success of a xenophobic nationalist, all “law and order” and shamelessly reactionary like Putin. The latter have shown that they have trashed not only the categories of Marxist analysis, but more simply something that could be called “good sense of class”, and demonstrating in this a far lower political conscience than that of the right.

The president disputes the international commitment of money and U.S. citizens to protect other countries and peoples because – he believes – his country is not adequately rewarded. Also in this case it seems that Trump attacks a two-party dogma that can be summed up as a theory of “democratic peace”, according to which democracies are not prone to war and it is therefore in the national interest of the United States to commit itself to the promotion of democracy and human rights throughout the world; the last concrete expression of this theory had a decidedly militaristic and megalomaniac form under the administration of Bush Jr.

Yet, despite the demagogic language and the characteristic and not particularly “presidential” style, not even candidate Trump ever intended to undermine NATO as such. What he posed with unusual programmatic determination is the question of the allocation of costs within the organisation. Add to this the unquestionable fact that Trump never proposed replacing a higher level of defence spending for European allies with less US spending: on the contrary, he always supported the need to increase national military spending. And he has done so.

A first logical conclusion is therefore that, from a financial point of view, the Trump line has always involved a strengthening of NATO, not its crisis.

In this area it makes sense to increase the contribution of European countries: in fact, since 2006, the alliance as a whole has made it its goal to raise the level of military spending as a percentage of GDP, many European countries are well on that bad road and since the Ukrainian crisis the growth rate of military spending of the European members of NATO has gone from an average of -1.35 percent (2014) to 3.7 percent (2017), with peaks of over 22 percent for Latvia and Lithuania. The growth rates of German military spending in 2016 and 2017 were 3.2 and 4.12 percent respectively.

What is being discussed between the United States and European states is the rate of growth of military spending according to the 2 percent GDP target by 2024, if this is to be considered an obligation or an approximation and the way in which the total amount of defence spending is to be calculated.

For example, it is not just a matter of taking into account the contribution to NATO of its European members, but also other expenses which they consider to be inherent to national security. Proof of this is the German government, which in 2016 planned to spend 93 billion euro on refugees by 2020, while official figures for 2016 and 2017 indicate an estimated expenditure of around 21 billion euro.

Second logical conclusion: the European allies and the American opponents of Trump have instrumentally brandished the bogeyman of a crisis of the Atlantic alliance – the former to strengthen their own contractual position and both because, from the point of view of the overall interest of the Atlantic imperialisms, there is indeed a reason to object to the praxis of the US president.

However, it is a “something” quite different from the hope that right and left nationalists have cultivated out of simple-mindedness. From the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, Trump’s “critique” of the theory of democratic peace and the secondary role of “human rights” in foreign affairs has excited both conservatives and reactionaries – who have felt rightfully reassured – on a world-wide scale.

For conservatives and reactionaries, the fact is logical; for Putin’s sympathisers on the left, this is indicative of the fact that as regards the ideals of freedom they are effectively to the right of liberal thought – which is not new – and that they have finally thrown the sense of socialist internationalism onto the scrap heap in favour of great Russian imperial nationalism (and in reality not even this is a novelty).

The “something” mentioned above is not a question of isolationism.

From the point of view of the general interest of the various imperialisms – those of the United States and of Europe – the crucial problem posed by Trump’s world view is not the obvious goal that the president cares about the prosperity of US capitalism, but the emphatic definition of national (capitalist) interest as a zero-sum game rather than mediated by the commitment to cooperation for the stability of the international system and the prosperity of the world economy.

What makes no sense is that the relationship between costs and benefits is set in a nationalistic way, in the perspective of “protection” of the United States, and in terms that are immediately economic.

If the intention is to pursue an aggressive security policy, doing without the search for mediation in the UN Security Council, a minimum of foresight is needed in the definition of trade-off or necessary compromises between national security policy and international economic policy: this is the “something” that the Trump administration lacks, if possible to an extent even greater than that of Bush Jr.

On a whole series of issues – funding of UN agencies, Paris Agreement on climate, nuclear agreement with Iran, the issue of Jerusalem capital, financial contributions from NATO members, North Korea’s nuclear programme – the Trump Administration continues the traditional polemics of the old and neoconservative right, but amplifies them qualitatively, transforming them into a source of irritation for the allies and of propaganda aimed at US voters.

As noted above, the funds for UNFPA and UNICEF are essentially irrelevant for US budget problems; and the US contribution to NATO’s funding is not 80 percent, as Trump “tweets”, but 22 percent, being also the cost of maintaining North American troops in Europe, at least 90 percent of the costs of which are borne by the countries of Europe. This is without mentioning the fact that US global strategy would be seriously compromised and without NATO would cost much more: these are the reasons why NATO is simply indispensable for any president of the United States.

If Trump really wanted to commit himself to reducing the public debt, what he ought to do is reduce – instead of increase – national military spending; and if he really wanted to satisfy his “forgotten” fellow citizens, he would not have proposed cuts in social funds and a tax reform that would benefit only the richest layers of society and corporations.

And finally, the crux of the matter. The Trumpian “competitive diplomacy” of America First is a pseudo-populist way of externalising the domestic problems of the United States, using the logic of “protection” – whether it be the wall with Mexico, tariffs, the United Nations or polemics with allies – to circumvent the problem of domestic reform, behaving however as racketeer, or blackmailer.

This foreign policy is combined with an economic policy that is at the same time neomercantilist towards foreign countries – which does not at all mean contrary to financial liberalisation and, for others, commercial – and brutally neoliberal at home. This pseudo-populism, however, is inherently contradictory and poses serious problems of overall political coherence.

As for national security, non-recognition of the limits of American power can only result in backward steps, but possibly also in dangerous leaps forward. And the contradictions multiply when we consider its application in the field of economic policy, both national and international.

*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]

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