Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the first of a five-part article looking at US foreign policy in historical context and its global implications under President Donald Trump.
BERGAMO, Italy (IDN) – During a speech on foreign policy in April 2016, US President Donald Trump thundered: “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Uncertainty and variety of assessments about the course of the Trump administration’s foreign policy continue to be significant. What unites critics and supporters of the administration’s foreign policy is the fear or hope that, driven by nationalism, the United States may withdraw into what is called isolationism.
Confusion is such that it is worth examining the elementary parameters of US foreign policy and some fundamental concepts, which are also useful for understanding the particular contradictions of the current administration.
It should be recalled that among US foreign policy specialists during the presidential elections and in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, there was an area of diehard critics who considered the billionaire candidate for the US presidency totally inadequate – because of lack of preparation and temperament – for performing the functions of head of the executive and commander in chief.
There were even those who called him a sort of “Manchurian candidate”, that is, an agent of Russian interests. Critics of candidate Trump included great part of the most important Republican Party intellectuals and neoconservative functionaries who were severe in their judgment.
In Europe, on the other hand, Trump’s success was greeted with enthusiasm by the xenophobic and nationalist right wing in favour of leaving the European Union and the eurozone. In this case, enthusiasm for Trump was instrumental and seasoned with a considerable dose of hypocrisy that glossed over the fact that in any negotiation their small homelands would count for nothing in the face of the North American giant. But Trump is (was?) also appreciated by the Putinian and Russophile left as “another blow to imperialism”.
This could be a combination of incompetence, ignorance, ingenuity and stupidity, but it is more a question of simple dissolution of the most basic criteria of understanding and evaluation of what imperialism is, be it North American or Russian or Chinese.
For centrist allies and opinion leaders, the label of isolationism serves as an instrument for taking a position in diplomatic negotiations. These know very well that a US administration can raise its voice and beat its fists on the table, demand this and that (for example, a more adequate contribution to NATO costs), but never terminate the alliance itself.
They understand well that it is precisely the limits of the great American power – and the global dimension of North American capitalism – that make the reproduction of alliances indispensable.
A third position is thus outlined, in practice an obligation for those who have responsibility for government and must necessarily negotiate with the North American administration. If Trump is incompetent and inadequate, a “madman” prone to dangerous blunders, argue the optimists, the government officials and functionaries who put US foreign policy into practice can moderate the lines of the president or bring them back on track within normal limits.
For the optimists, the National Security Strategy (NSS) issued in December 2017 moves in this direction. However, for others the interest of a document like the NSS depends on the extent to which it is consistent with the worldview and personality of the president. For this reason, it is not very reliable on important points.
What a president of the United States will never do
Since the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the beginning of the construction of an ocean fleet commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt (assistant of the Navy Secretary in 1897-1898, under McKinley, and president from 1901 to 1909), and certainly since the First World War, the United States has acquired the capacity to project its military power all over the planet; and to a greater extent than any other advanced country, US capitalism extends far beyond national political boundaries, continuing to maintain a structurally central position in the world economy.
In this context, attention has to focus on the constitutional duties of the president of the United States as head of the executive and commander-in-chief – to preserve, protect and defend America and the Constitution.
America and the “American way of life”, of course, are no longer those of the founding fathers, so that the interests implicit in those duties are now vastly greater and more complex than they originally were.
Consequently, since the Great Depression and especially since the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, the dimensions of the apparatus that make up the executive and the powers of the President have grown such as to alter the original constitutional balance.
The presidency is also imperial in domestic politics, but it is in foreign policy and in the use of military force that it has thrived in the most dramatic way.
This is clear from the words of various US presidents – from Bush to Trump – in the last two decades: “We are inescapably the leader of free world defence, the connective ring in a global alliance of democracies” (George H. W. Bush, 1990); “The need for American leadership abroad remains strong as ever” (Bill Clinton, 1996); “America cannot know peace, security and prosperity by retreating from the world. America must lead by deed as well as by example”(George W. Bush, 2006); ” … our national security interests must begin with an undeniable truth – America must lead” while renewing its leadership (Barack Obama, 2015); “The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the re-emergence of American leadership (Donald Trump, 2017).
It is interesting how both Obama and Trump tie world leadership to internal renewal and the economy, albeit in very different – if not opposed – ways.
The notion that the United States should guide the development of world society is the political core of what is called hegemony, a term that has acquired a variety of meanings – especially when applied to international relations – and understood here in the Gramscian sense: not mere dominion, but a “combination of force and consent which balance each other so that force does not overwhelm consent”, in order to achieve “intellectual and moral direction”.
That the combination of force and consent presents extreme variations in different regions of the world is an integral part of the exercise of hegemony. It must be emphasised, however, that the effectiveness of the foreign policy of a US administration in exercising leadership over allies consists precisely in being able to maintain the balance between force and consent.
The fact that the rulers of Europe and Japan fear the nationalistic isolationism of the United States, but not its internationalist commitment, is the best evidence of the extent to which North American hegemony has been internalised. The argument can be extended to cultural influence and to the fact that the United States remains an exceptional pole of attraction for immigration.
The position of leadership is indispensable both in the case of a policy that can be called “realist” and oriented towards maintenance of the balance of international power, and in the case that it appears animated by an “idealist” activism of the Wilsonian type (after US President Woodrow Wilson), both in the case of a “defensive realism” approach – oriented towards maintenance of the status quo – and in the opposite case of “offensive realism”, aimed at preventing the emergence of a competitor.
It is clear is that a US president will never give up the absolute military superiority of the United States on the world stage, but what does that imply? In the words of the 2014_Quadrennial Defense Review issued by the US Department of Defense:
“… the U.S. Armed Forces will be capable of simultaneously defending the homeland; conducting sustained, distributed counterterrorist operations; and in multiple regions, deterring aggression and assuring allies through forward presence and engagement. If deterrence fails at any given time, U.S. forces will be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale multi-phased campaign, and denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – a second aggressor in another region.“
At least since the end of the Cold War and for all administrations, the criterion that defines the military primacy of the United States is the ability to conduct military operations and win in “two major regional conventional contingencies” or “major regional conflicts”, that is, in two important theatres and involving substantial enemy forces.
The reason the United States needs to be able to intervene in two theatres, calibrating priorities and pace of effort, is simple: to prevent an opponent from feeling it can seize the opportunity to act while American forces are blocked in a distant theatre.
Operationally, this is what defines American power and at the same time its limits, imposing the selection of areas and ways of intervention. The effective “great strategy” is the one that employs power with awareness of its limits.
The formula may vary and the threat of conventional forces has come to be applied to terrorism and in some cases the opportunity for humanitarian intervention in the name of “responsibility to protect”, but the point – as stated in the 2017 NSS – still remains: “to ensure that the regions of the world are not dominated by one power”.
* 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 Politica Estera degli Stati Uniti e le Contraddizioni di Trump: Questioni di Metodo’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 March 2018]
Photo: President Trump explaining a ‘New National Security Strategy for a New Era’ on December 18, 2017. Credit: whitehouse.gov
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