Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the fifth of a five-part article looking at US foreign policy in historical context and its global implications under President Donald Trump.
BERGAMO, Italy (IDN) – If Trump wanted to be unpredictable, he certainly succeeded. It is the reason for the uncertainty, confusion and variety of assessments about the course of his foreign policy.
Unpredictability itself is destabilising and can be understood as an effective strategy against an opponent, but against allies? And for how long can it work? How useful is it for the credibility of the aims pursued? Is it not the attitude of a poker player inclined to bluffing? And what happens when the other players want to “see” the cards?
For more than twenty years, the government of North Korea has been following a tactic with a pattern that is now clear: periodically and deliberately raising tension, then negotiating to obtain something in return for an apparent step backwards in its nuclear programme, until the next tension-negotiated time.
When Trump ‘tweets” in response to the dynastic heir of North Korea: “I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his”, it could bring to mind certain confrontations between kids, but it also shows a dangerous tendency towards brinkmanship.
In this scheme of things, a first risk is that the game gets out of hand; or that the boasted about North American “button” proves to be a disappointment, with consequent loss of credibility.
From the point of view of the interests of imperialism, Trump’s foreign policy is inconsistent and wrong in method and merit – he is the worst president since the Second World War, probably even for a century. Optimists hope he can be properly corrected: but they must come to terms with the definitive imperial nature that the presidency assumed around the middle of the 20th century.
Presidential power in the fields of defence and foreign policy has extended far beyond the letter of the Constitution and is defended in terms and for situations that would have been unacceptable even for the most interventionist of 19th century presidents.
The trend is irreversible because it rests on structural changes in American society and relations with the world: for this reason the “imperial presidency” can be understood as a gradual accumulation of precedents and a voluntary delegation of powers by Congress.
With resolutions such as those on Formosa’s defence in 1955, on the Middle East in 1957, following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the authorisation to use military force on September 14, 2001 – to cite some historical examples – the US Congress has voluntarily and enthusiastically handed over to the President of the day the power that the Constitution attributes to it: deciding when and against whom to declare war and to authorise limited military operations other than in self-defence.
The fact is explained by bipartisan convergence around the fundamental objectives of foreign policy and is legitimised by the ever-increasing extension of the concept of defence up to preventive action even before a threat is manifested concretely. The thesis is at the least constitutionally very debatable, but materially consistent with the global dimension of US imperialism and the resistance it has to deal with.
However, the strength of the “imperial presidency” is not an invariable given. When Congress wants to exercise its deliberative and controlling powers, then the imperial character of the presidency is reduced (as in the first years after the Watergate scandal), or it must take directions that are politically and criminally risky.
The worst moment for Reagan, for example, was the Iran-Hezbollah-Contra scandal, originating from the fact that the administration had to find a way to circumvent the limits and prohibitions imposed by Congress on the financing of anti-Sandinista guerrillas: a completely illegal intercontinental fraud involving the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and then channelling the 18 million dollars gained from the exchange to the Contras in Nicaragua.
Clinton’s foreign policy was heavily influenced by the Republican majority in Congress: the situation of a divided government – presidency and majority of both chambers from different parties – is now more frequent than in the past and may therefore weaken the administration’s line or reject initiatives, such as the ratification of treaties.
The contrast concerns the means and methods not the fundamental aims of foreign and defence policies: nevertheless, in certain crises it can have important consequences.
In addition to the rivalry between parties, the attitude of Congress towards the president’s foreign policy depends on factors such as the success of presidential initiatives, the popularity of the president (and thus the convenience or not for legislators to align with the administration), and the intensity with which an international threat is perceived, which makes it possible to play the patriotic card of rallying round the flag of national unity.
On the other hand, the stronger the opposition to war in society and the lower the popularity and legitimacy of a president – and Trump won 2.9 million votes less than Hillary Clinton, a negative record – the greater the repercussions on relations between president and Congress and the divergences among and within elements of the state apparatus.
The unsurpassed levels of popularity peaks for Bush Sr. at the beginning of the attack on Iraq and for Bush Jr. after the attacks of 2001 did not prevent the former from losing the 1992 presidential elections and the latter from sinking into unpopularity, again unsurpassed.
Trump was unable to prevent Congress from approving a law that envisaged new sanctions against Russia (and Iran and North Korea) at the end of July 2017. A certain freedom for manoeuvre in the more or less rapid and effective application of these sanctions obviously remains with the head of the executive, but the obligation remains: on this basis, in fact, he is criticised.
It is a constraint determined by an overwhelming two-party majority that is a clear sign: 98 in favour and 2 against in the Senate, 419 in favour and 3 against in the House of Representatives. Curiously, the votes are almost identical to those for the resolutions on the Gulf of Tonkin (88 to 2 in the Senate, 416 to 0 in the House) and of September 14, 2001 (98 to 2 in the Senate, 420 to 1 in the House).
Consequently, the optimists’ hopes are not without foundation; however they are very precarious and uncertain. Adjustments to worldview, rhetoric and electoral promises should be so important as to result in a decidedly non-Trumpian foreign policy. This would be quite a problem for the coherence and credibility of the president of the major world power, who cannot be easily removed nor does he appear to have serious health problems at the moment.
From the point of view of the oppressed and exploited, is this good news? Not exactly, because the “normal” imperfections of imperialism are compounded by the dangers that can arise from incoherence and unpopularity.
Gallup polls reveal that the approval rate for Trump is at the level of that of Bush Jr.’s second term: an average of 39 percent and 37 percent respectively – a disaster that is all the more significant because the United States is not currently in recession and the unemployment rate is at the lowest since the beginning of the century.
A final consideration is that if the idea that the 9/11 attacks were fabricated by some body of the US government is idiotic, we cannot exclude that Trump will create some international crisis in the hope that the people will unite around the flag he has waved.
* 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 – 12 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
US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 4
Photo: Donald Trump speaking on US foreign policy: YouTube
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