A key source of volatility in today’s international system is the propensity of the U.S. government to reject any conventionally ordered hierarchy of American global interests. Washington’s deterritorialized policy of full-spectrum dominance is based on ideological suppositions that are unreceptive to rational debate. America’s “global engagement” constantly creates results—notably in Iraq and Libya—that run counter to any conventional understanding of U.S. security interests.
The 2016 presidential election, on the subject of foreign affairs, seemed to confront two polar opposites. It appeared that Donald Trump, an outsider victorious against all odds and predictions, had an historic opportunity to make a fresh start. His “America First” campaign was a call for a return to realism based on the awareness that the United States needs to rediscover the value of transactional diplomacy aimed at promoting America’s security, prosperity, and cohesion in a Hobbesian world.
Trump’s strategic concepts seemed less ideologically coherent than Hillary Clinton’s carefully rehearsed orthodoxy, but he was far more the realist in policy detail. In the early days of his candidacy he repeatedly asked why the United States must be engaged everywhere in the world, playing global policeman. He raised the issue of NATO’s utility and core mission, a quarter-century after the demise of the Soviet Union, which NATO was created to contain. He repeatedly advocated rapprochement with Russia and declared Crimea none of our business. He criticized the regime-change mania of earlier administrations, pointing out the “disastrous” consequences of toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He said that he would leave Syria’s Bashar al-Assad well alone, and focus on degrading the Islamic State.
In November 2016 the possibility of a paradigmatic shift toward a national-interest-based approach apparently did exist. It was conceivable that Trump would effect a strategic pause in order to take stock of the global map, reconsider priorities, and devise policies on the basis of their likely costs and benefits. Some resistance was to be expected. Giving up the desire to dominate the world, and recognizing that it cannot be shaped in line with the “values” of the bicoastal elite class, was never acceptable to the mainstream media and taxpayer-subsidized think tanks.
Trump’s biggest obstacle all along was that the shadow government’s key components in the national-security apparat and the military-industrial complex rejected all key tenets of his stated agenda. Its operatives were able to penetrate Trump’s inner circle with impressive speed and agility. The pivotal moment came exactly four weeks after his inauguration. At the security conference in Munich (February 17) and at the E.U. headquarters in Brussels two days later, Vice President Mike Pence offered profuse assurances to the European elite class that the Trump administration supported unity and cohesion in the face of various threats allegedly facing the Western alliance. Newly appointed Defense Secretary James Mattis, who also attended the Munich conference, made similar points—notably about supporting NATO. Earlier that week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Germany for the Group of 20 foreign ministers’ meeting. As he left the meeting, there was a palpable sense of relief among the Europeans that “adults were back in charge.” The final clue was provided by the appointment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as Flynn’s replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, McMaster saw Russia as an adversary and rejected the possibility of partnership. In addition, a paranoid, visceral Russophobia was unleashed on the public, making any form of long-term rapprochement impossible. Already by early March 2017, Trump had effectively caved in to the establishment.
As we enter 2018, it looks as if the Swamp has turned its would-be drainer into its pliant captive. Foreign risks have escalated accordingly. Topping the list is North Korea. Instead of testing China’s willingness to provide good offices in de-escalating the conflict, Trump has returned North Korea to the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” It is now even less likely that Kim Jong-un will give up his nuclear arsenal: This designation means that, as far as the U.S. government is concerned, regime change in Pyongyang is a legitimate objective.
Other risks, in descending order of probability, are a fresh attempt by Washington to support Syrian jihadists (“moderates”) against Assad; possible war with Iran, likely after a Saudi false-flag operation; providing U.S. arms to Ukraine and thus reigniting that currently frozen conflict; reinforcing failure in Afghanistan with another “surge”; and seeking to turn the notion of an “Indo-Pacific” panregion into a de facto anti-Chinese alliance.
None of the above (possibly excepting Iran) would loom darkly on the horizon, had Trump been able to follow his election agenda. His inability to do so and apparent unwillingness to confront the Beltway Leviathan has been detrimental to the American interest and to the prospects for peace and stability in the world.
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