Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Sows Confusion

EDITORIAL, 16 Sep 2019

#604 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Among the “Experts” . . .  and His Opponents

What to make of the Trump administration’s foreign policy?  Over the course of one week in September 2019, U.S. president Donald Trump threatened to impose new tariffs on Chinese goods, but then postponed the imposition and announced new trade negotiations with China; canceled peace talks scheduled for Camp David, Maryland between his chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalizad, and representatives of the Afghan Taliban, but then fired his ultra-hawkish National Security Advisor, John Bolton; held out the possibility of negotiating an agreement over nuclear facilities with Iran, but then threatened to hold Iran “accountable” for drone strikes against Saudi Arabian oil refineries by the Yemeni Houthis.

According to many of Trump’s opponents, this frenetic, often inconsistent activity reflects the incoherence of a personalized and amateurish foreign policy.  Although such criticism contains more than a grain of truth, it misses an essential point.  In 2016 Trump campaigned on a promise to put an end to costly, unwinnable military struggles like the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – a promise that he has since repeated.  He has portrayed himself as a fierce negotiator who will put “America First” by winning victories at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield.  And he has embraced the nationalist vision (which some have labeled “sovereigntism”) proffered by his former advisor, Steve Bannon, which views the United States as a global leader, but as a Great Power primus inter pares rather than the world’s policeman.

There is evidence that this altered approach to foreign policy is more than cosmetic.  Although urged by National Security Advisor Bolton and “cleared” by the Pentagon to attack Iranian facilities in June 2019, Trump called off attacks on three sites ten minutes before they were scheduled to begin, citing his reluctance to take civilian lives and the possibility of engaging in peaceful negotiations.  Similarly, while imposing punishing economic sanctions on Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, he apparently views these exercises as “soft power” alternatives to the use of military force – indeed, as bargaining chips to be used in negotiating eventual settlements with those nations. Furthermore, to the dismay of many foreign policy professionals, Trump’s inclination to challenge orthodox views regarding both the Atlantic Alliance and U.S. security agencies (the “deep state”) does not seem to have waned much since his election.

However, this is but one side of the coin.  The other side is that Trumpism (or Bannonism) in foreign policy is not constructed or applied as an alternative to imperialism, but represents an attempt to maintain the American Empire more securely at a lower cost in lives.  (One is strongly reminded of the imperial reforms undertaken by later Roman emperors like Diocletian and Constantine.)  Thus, the current Administration evinces no interest in reducing the number of U.S. military bases abroad (currently more than 800 bases in 80 or so nations), or in cutting the military budget and converting military-industrial production to peacetime uses.  On the contrary, it has insisted that Congress appropriate approximately $800 billion in military-related expenditures – considerably more than the Joint Chiefs requested, with enormous sums going to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to develop methods of cyber-warfare and new weapons of mass destruction.

Given the nature of Trump’s foreign policy, this ultimate reliance on weaponry is necessary, since for all its emphasis on negotiation, Trumpism relies at bottom on coercive force.  Philosophically, the current Administration is 100% Realist, without the slightest appreciation of the limitations of a power-based approach to conflicts.  Negotiation for this president (and for officials like Secretary of State Pompeo) is always “negotiation from strength” rather than an attempt to identify and solve conflict-generating social problems.  Thus, the possibility that punitive economic sanctions could lead directly to military confrontation, as they did in the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sanctions against Japan in 1938-41, is not something that the Administration publicly recognizes, although it seems clear that they feel compelled to prepare for this eventuality.

Under the circumstances, one would hope for critiques by Trump’s opponents that would call attention to the persistence of imperial ambitions and delusions, and the absence of conflict resolving ideas and initiatives, in his foreign policy.  Occasionally, Congressional voices on the progressive left (e.g., Rep. Ro Khanna) and libertarian right (e.g., Rep. Ron Paul) can be heard making these points.  But these are still rare occurrences.  Unfortunately, where foreign policy is concerned, there has always been a strong tendency in American politics for the party out of power to accuse the party in power of jeopardizing the nation’s security by being too “soft” in dealing with its enemies (or, to use the euphemism now in fashion, its “adversaries”).

Republican candidates accused every Democratic president from Harry Truman on of being “soft on Communism.”  John F. Kennedy alleged (falsely) that the Republicans in power had fallen behind the Soviets in nuclear weaponry: the so-called “missile gap.”  Ronald Reagan excoriated President Jimmy Carter for permitting the Iranians to seize the American Embassy in Tehran and failing to stop the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.  And, presidential candidate Donald Trump insisted that Barack Obama was hopelessly out-negotiated by the Chinese in matters of trade and by the Iranians in nuclear diplomacy.

Now it is the Democrats’ turn to accuse Trump of being insufficiently bellicose and security-conscious: a temptation to run to the President’s Right made even more attractive by the opportunity generated by the election of 2016 and the Mueller Report to accuse him of being a Russian “agent” under the influence of Vladimir Putin.  Defending the pre-Trump globalist order, former intelligence chiefs and neo-cons have made common cause with Democratic centrists (i.e., neo-imperialists) to criticize Trump’s “naïve” embrace of authoritarians like Kim Jong-un and even to suggest that John Bolton’s departure exposes the nation to the clear and present danger of a president who fancies himself a peacemaker.  If you can believe it, there are Democrats calling themselves “progressives” who are happy that Trump canceled the Camp David talks with the Taliban!  Apparently, they prefer continuing the butchery in Afghanistan to a denouement that might cast the President in a favorable light.

No, friends, Mr. Trump is not a peacemaker.  But he is also not the type of warmaker who earns plaudits from the likes of John Brennan, Max Boot, Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and other apostles of the Iraq and Afghan wars.  The Democrats who continue to attack his foreign policy for the wrong reasons do so because they have so little understanding of the right reasons.  Emperors make war not because they like to kill people, but because they are emperors, governing entities that cannot help but generate violent rebellion and ultra-violent repression.  If Trump’s opponents are unable to recognize or name the entity “empire,” they will not understand either the contradictions of this Administration’s foreign policy or the steps needed to set the U.S. on the road to peace.

Similarly, if they are unable to recognize Trump’s (and their own) addiction to power as the sole means of dealing with conflicts, they will not understand that “toughness” and “softness” constitute a false dichotomy in foreign affairs – and in governance generally.  Power does not solve the social problems that generate war.  Creativity, empathy, analysis, and determination are needed to solve those problems and generate effective options for conflict resolution.  We have reason to believe that younger members of the opposition, in particular, have already begun to understand this.  May their insights deepen and their numbers increase.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Virginia.  His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed was published by Routledge in 2017.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Sep 2019.

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