Category Archives: China and Asia Pivot

Trump’s foreign policy twists are not as odd as they seem

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

 –Andrew Jackson, Seventh President of the United States

 Like all bad analysts, most of the world’s foreign policy commentariat have been in a state of perpetual surprise this past stormy year. They were surprised by the Columbian referendum on ending the war there, by Brexit, by the Italian referendum and above all else by the ascent to power of Donald Trump in the US.

 Over this past year, to read most of the papers in this country is to dwell in a parallel universe, with all right-thinking people needing smelling salts to be revived, as the word, over and over again, did not behave as it ought to. Of course what was really happening was that an elite world view was dying, one that simply did nothing to explain the facts of political life as they were being lived.

 Nowhere was this shock more evident than over the election of Trump, the first truly populist President to run the United States since his hero Andrew Jackson, back in 1829-1837. But this past ten days, a further ‘shock’ has been in store for our befuddled commentariat, one of an altogether more pleasant kind for them.

 For reasons that still pass their (limited) understanding, the new regime has acted more like the well-regarded establishment Republicans of the past (Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) and less like the fire-breathing Voldemort of opinion page nightmares. Uneasily, the raft of stories on this sea change make it clear that the vast majority of the writers have no idea why this happened, or for how long this pleasant shock can be maintained.

 But the primary answer to the riddle is there, in plain sight, but it requires a real study and understanding of American history, something I have always found surprisingly lacking in the foreign policy elites across the Atlantic. All that Trump has done can easily be put down to his heartfelt Jacksonianism, an American foreign policy school of thought that has been around now for almost 190 years. But again, knowing this would require some analytical knowledge of America and its history.

 While many of the rest of us like Johnny Cash, Jacksonians are Johnny Cash. Jacksonians—a minority view in first the Democratic and now Republican parties—finds its most vociferous adherents traditionally clustered in the lower-middle class in the south and the industrial Midwest. I have often called them Springsteen Democrats; think of one of the Boss’s songs about the mill closing somewhere and the damage that has done and in your mind’s eye you will know who I am talking about.

 Because so few Jacksonians are running around in elite policy circles—in my decade in Washington I never met one—they have been conveniently forgotten by American foreign policy thinkers, let alone foreign commentators. But in Trump, Jacksonians have at last found their champion. However he imbibed this world view (my guess is it came from working on building sites for his father’s company when he was impressionable) Trump is a true Jacksonian believer.

 Jacksonians care deeply about the United States and its welfare and only about the rest of the world insofar as it has a direct impact on the country. As such, their view of the American national interest is far narrower than almost every other US foreign policy school of thought.

 A Jacksonians view of global warming is instructive. Jacksonians care less about whether the science underlying global warming is real, and wonder more why we are talking about islands in the Pacific sinking into the sea—only to be stopped by America spending billions on foreigners—when the local mill has closed in Pennsylvania. It is the elites’ misplaced sense of priorities—whether the issue is transgender bathrooms or icebergs melting, rather than focusing on the massive dislocation of the American lower middle class—that angers Jacksonians, as for them the American elite has done worse than fail them; it has utterly ignored them while worrying about peripheral issues.

 Given this tight focus on an America-First view, Jacksonians have a transactional view of alliances in general, not valuing them for their own sake but readily accepting them if they obviously and directly promote these sacred American interests. As such, as candidate Trump said, NATO–despite being the most successful military alliance in the history of the world—was past its sell-by date, as the allies shamefully free-ride off American and British defence spending.

 On the other hand, after the US missile strike on Syria two weeks ago NATO has value if it serves as a clubhouse to round up allied support for Washington’s actions. Likewise, the Chinese are the enemy if they militarise the South China Sea but can be an ally if they apply pressure to the North Koreans, as only they can. Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed America’s commitment to Japan and South Korea—to the wailing and gnashing of teeth in North Korea—allies who during the campaign Trump had suggested need to take care of their own defence. Likewise, the White House congratulated President Erdogan of Turkey for his tainted referendum victory giving him monarchical powers, as he is needed if Syria is ever to be stabilised. These are not contradictions but display the fixed Jacksonian ideology’s penchant for being utterly relaxed about tactical shifts as long as core and specific American interests are served.

 The last major plank of Jacksonianism revolves around the use of force. With the end of the era of the draft, the children of Jacksonians do the actual fighting and dying in most modern American wars.

 As such, Jacksonians, despite their hearts-on-sleeve patriotism, are very cautious about the use of force. For them force should only be used when it will lead to clear-cut victories. But when the decision has been made to go to war, Jacksonians are loathe to abandon a conflict short of total victory. They are the last ones in, the last ones out, as was shown in wars from Vietnam on.

 Looked at through the Jacksonian prism, all that Trump has done with Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, China and NATO suddenly makes sense. That is what an understanding of American history will do for you.

 –Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Drake’s Prayer: A History of Political Risk, is due to be published by Princeton University Press at the end of the year.

Published in the London Evening Standard, April 18, 2017.

 

 

 

Trump’s surprisingly positive foreign policy–and some unanswered questions

Despite a surprisingly upbeat and coherent first address to Congress on February 28th, given these polarised times it is highly unlikely Donald Trump changed anyone’s mind. Those who rather fanatically support him will have found nothing particularly objectionable with what he said. Those who rather fanatically oppose him will have heard nothing to alter their opinion, either. This is both the political strength and the weakness of the man who first sensed—and then supremely capitalised on—the canyon-like divisions lying submerged just beneath the surface of American life.

The speech isn’t the problem

The power of persuasion–already dying when the supposedly great orator Barack Obama failed to bring a single congressional Republican with him over his signature Health Care initiative—is dangerously just not a part of American politics anymore. Battle lines are drawn and compromise in any form is out, a dolorous development which would have horrified the country’s founders, wise men who crafted a wondrously enduring system based precisely on the notion of political give and take.

This is perhaps America’s great secret to success, constitutional stability (having one republic to France’s five) allowing for the great economic prosperity that has followed. Watching the Democrats studiously not clap for a trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative that the left of their party has been calling for over many years is a striking example of the death of policy discourse in American life, and the dangerous rise of tribalism. It simply does not matter what Trump says; the Democrats will fanatically oppose it (and vice-versa). This is the whirlwind Trump’s revolution is reaping.

People are foreign policy

However, contrary to all our fears, there has been a lot to commend the first moves of the Trump White House over foreign policy. As I know well from my many days in Washington, actual people make policy and to some extent are policy. In selecting the highly-capable General James Mattis to run the Defence Department and in picking the innovative General H.R. McMaster to run the National Security Council (after the brief, but disastrous General Michael Flynn detour), President Trump has put in place a creative, realist national security team that George H.W. Bush would be comfortable with. The huge question remains whether the highly mercurial and intellectually unformed president will actually heed their advice.

Worse, he might actually grow weary of the real-world restraints they make clear to him in conducting American foreign policy and fire them. There is no better analytical canary in the coal mine for the future of American foreign policy than this; what is the bureaucratic fate of the undeniably able national security team Trump has assembled? Following their personal fates will go a long way in tracing the new trajectory of American foreign policy itself.

So far, so good

Yet on his own over this past month, President Trump has managed to succeed in doing two seemingly contradictorily but useful big things; he has questioned the tired, old shibboleths of American foreign policy, even as he re-affirmed of number of their basic precepts. This has finally moved the intellectual clock, as it has been stuck for two decades, a desperately needed innovation, as the Cold War has long been over and it is well past time for intellectual thinking over foreign policy to catch up.

For whatever the policy conclusions, it is well past time both foreign policy opinion-formers and decision-makers treat their craft as more than a dreary recitation of a policy catechism that made great sense in the far-away Cold War, but—following the elite being discredited over both Iraq and the Lehman global recession—makes far less natural sense now.

Does the One-China policy actually serve American interests today? Is NATO obsolete, and what can possibly explain the European allies’ shameful strategic free riding to the detriment of the hard-pressed American public? Does the two-state solution, after all these many years of failure, actually stand any hope at all of success? I must admit (and I am no friend of the president) that before Donald Trump came on the scene, when I raised these very points I was rather arrogantly waived away by a sclerotic, discredited (though amazingly they don’t seem to know it) foreign policy elite in favour of the received wisdom of a bygone age. To put it mildly, that is no longer the case.

Yet the new foreign policy team also seems to have so far constrained the mercurial president from throwing the policy baby out with the bathwater. During his speech to Congress (and in earlier addresses to European leaders by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis) Trump made it clear he still is committed to NATO, but it is past time the allies meet the long-agreed two percent of GDP spending target for the common defence.

Trump and Mattis are merely repeating the truism I have long argued for, that continued failure to do so is a European choice, which will ultimately signal the end of the most successful military alliance in history. Trump is not wrong to bring this up; it is the European allies who are wrong to continue to free-ride on the backs of the American people.

Likewise, in his call to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Trump reaffirmed the American commitment to the One China policy, which he had previously flirted with doing away with. But while the American horse is back in the stable, in questioning this long-held shibboleth, Trump has made it crystal clear to a surging Beijing that a tougher, less predictable America awaits it.

Given the advances in Chinese adventurism during the time of Barack Obama, in constructing and militarising islands in the South China Sea, such an approach has a lot to commend it, perhaps leading to Beijing’s resumption of its earlier, less reckless foreign policy, inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping.

And finally, if ever there was a policy that needed a creative update it must be efforts to successfully conclude the endless Palestinian-Israeli standoff. By calling the never-achieved two-state solution into question, the Trump White House makes is clear that in terms of geo-strategy this stalemate has eaten up vast amounts of American time and effort over the past decades, while frankly more important issues (such as the rise of China and India and the advent of the multipolar world itself) have been fecklessly neglected.

And yet….

And yet for all this good news, there remains deep unease for many of us who have been pleasantly surprised in terms of foreign policy by the first month of the new, startling era of Donald Trump. First, there is the grave damage he may still do domestically and to the American constitutional system more broadly. Second, as a man who seems to decide things more by untutored instinct than deep thought, even when President Trump is right, there should be deep concern about how set in stone his new foreign policy actually is.

It is this fear of the erratic behaviour of the United States, that the world’s ordering power will lapse into incoherence, that rightly worries all those of us who wish America well. In both his opening speech to Congress and in his first month in office over foreign policy, President Trump has surprised for the better. But there remains an awfully long way to go.

Published in Aspenia online, March 1, 2017.

War with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions is now a very real possibility

Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that recently an internet falsehood spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.

According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim—chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek—decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.

While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.

As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.

However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.

For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.

Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.

In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.

The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.

The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.

All this makes for the most dangerous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.

War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.

Published in City AM London, February 6, 2016