Photo: Donald Trump and ‘America First’: YouTube - Photo: 2018

US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 4

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

This is the fourth of a five-part article looking at US foreign policy in historical context and its global implications under President Donald Trump.

BERGAMO, Italy (IDN) – All US administrations between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have experienced considerable fluctuations, both in the face of development of their actions and because of unforeseen events.

Each administration has its own characteristic slogan “to sell” on the domestic and international political market, a certain rhetoric with which it seeks to differentiate itself from the previous one and which conveys a certain basic vision, attitude or political priority.

Sometimes, more or less appropriately, there is talk of “doctrines”: containment of communism, “never another Cuba”, Vietnamisation, “hands off the Persian Gulf”, rollback (retreat of communism) and support for “freedom fighters”, “new world order”, engagement and enlargement, and so on.

These must be understood as tactical assumptions of the exercise of more or less soft or hard forms of power, ways of articulating relations between economic and geopolitical interests, of selecting political and military priorities, but always within the limits of the fundamental purposes indicated above.

All administrations inherit problems and policies, just as they all have to face new international problems with their internal repercussions. This is how both the relative continuity of the problems and policies and the specificities of the various administrations of US imperialism are defined.

They are in fact variations within historical periods which, taken together, are the result of developments in world society in which the American superpower plays its own cards – as indeed the Soviet Union in the past and Russia and China today – which however escape the control of any political power.

The dangerous contradictions of the Trump administration’s foreign policy

With reference to foreign affairs, US President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far”. Trump instead shakes a big stick dangerously, but at the same time talks or “tweets” a lot, continuously and provocatively.

On strategic ground, the Trump administration intends to relaunch the “unipolar moment” following the Soviet collapse – when America emerged as the lone superpower – recovering, in his opinion, the time wasted since the early 90s and especially, of course, by Obama which allowed other players “to implement consistently their long-term plans to challenge America”.

A first consideration is that this “unipolar moment”, even if it ever existed, sank in the first decade of the 21st century. The window of opportunity has closed and cannot be opened with nostalgia, but it can still be dangerous precisely because it is unrealistic.

Secondly, the maintenance or restoration of a unipolar system of unquestionable primacy requires what in jargon is called multilateralism, which does not at all mean privileging the United Nations and the imperialist oligarchy of its Security Council (as China and Russia which have veto power would like) but strengthening and extending alliances, avoiding above all irritating and offending political allies and international economic partners in various ways for internal propaganda purposes.

Even the neoconservatives most prone to unilateral actions that spurn the United Nations have never underestimated the importance of NATO and the creation of ad hoc alliances: from their point of view, the determination of the United States to act, “if necessary” in a unilateral way – an omnipresent formula – is not the opposite of multilateralism, but a way of promoting it in terms corresponding to the “national interest” of the United States, which would be that of the world.

The neoconservative principle states that it should be the mission that creates alliances, not vice versa. In the meantime, however, Republican neoconservatives have at least partly learned the lesson, tending to converge with neoliberal Democrats on the idea of ​​building a “concert of democracies” that can act collectively: in this case the mission would coincide with the nature of the alliance.

Finally, political primacy and military intervention require that concessions be made at the economic level: reconciling the claim to be the international political leader of an open world economy with intransigent and narrow-minded economic nationalism is improbable.

All US administrations have placed the problem of costs on the allies, and not without positive results; nevertheless the question should be treated diplomatically and delicately, not trumpeted to the four winds with blackmailing tones.

This explains the harsh judgments of Trump by so many aggressive neoconservatives, as well as neoliberals.

Before assuming the presidency it would have been possible to interpret Trump’s foreign policy as vaguely Nixonian, but inverted: approach Russia to put pressure on China. Already very problematic, this possible line seems to have fallen and been almost overturned.

Richard Nixon worked coherently in a particularly critical moment: in a nationalistic move, declaration of the inconvertibility of the dollar extended the freedom of economic manoeuvre of the United States, albeit also with unexpected effects.

At the same time he started “Vietnamisation” of the war and began a special relationship with Mao’s China, thus putting pressure on the Soviet Union, almost a de facto alliance which, in retrospect, can be understood as the beginning of the end of Stalinist-style “communism”.

Further, after the Soviet collapse, a certain coherence of intent between political strategy and economic strategy can also be seen in the policies of Bush Sr. and Clinton in the management of transition in Central and Eastern Europe, in enlargement of NATO, in promotion of international economic agreements, in liberalisation of economies – the so-called Washington Consensus – and in multilateral military interventions.

Obama tried to scale back the political failures of the adventurism of Bush Jr. – who for a few years had been favoured by a giant speculative bubble – by re-launching economic multilateralism and “resetting” relations with Russia, until explosion of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, a popular revolt against one of the oligarchies that alternated in power (in this case the one centred on the Donbass and most linked to Russia) in which the Western powers and Russia obviously looked after their interests and played their dirty games.

Finally, Obama began an economic and a politico-military reorientation towards Asia.

As already mentioned, the unilateralism/multilateralism dichotomy is not adequate for explaining foreign policy, which is always a mixture that varies with situations, time and also fields: it is a problem to create situations of mediation that lead to a balance between national security strategy and international economic policy.

Trump, however, disregards already agreed economic agreements, threatens trades wars and withdraws from climate agreements. He says he wants to put an end to the most important strategic agreement in which the European Union participates, the one with Iran on its nuclear programme.

He uses brinkmanship to handle the nuclear issue with North Korea while it should diplomatically involve China, Russia and Japan, as in the past. He also recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a symbolic move that is a slap in the face of the hypocrisy of international diplomacy.

His restructuring of taxation, together with the increase in military spending and the request to finance a vague investment programme in infrastructures, is likely to lead to an increase in public debt that is indigestible for the tax orthodoxy of members of Congress.

Trump moves like a bull in a china shop, so that contradictions are added to contradictions.

In the language of international relations, as regards the strategy of “national security”, the unipolarist intent is in contradiction with the line of unilateralism; in turn, that intent is contradicted by the nationalism of economic strategy which allows a multipolar world, but populated by unfair competitors that have to be brought back to order.

The America First strategy essentially seems to have been designed to win the elections and from a reductively nationalistic point of view, not up to the global, long-term interests of American capitalism and its allies.

America First is actually ‘America Alone’, and this cannot last. Paradoxically, it combines a megalomaniac line that ignores the limits of American military power with underestimation of the force of attraction of its capitalism.

* 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 – 11 March 2018]

Related articles > US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 1
US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 2
US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 3

Photo: Donald Trump and ‘America First’: YouTube

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