Introduction: The world has actually changed
Far too often, modern political risk analysts cleave to the intellectual shore in a desperate search for analytical safety, when events have already shaken up the comfortable world they have grown used to describing. Knowing when a game-changing event has occurred (for instance the recent, decades-long economic rise of China), and how it changes the old rules, is invaluable for any world-class political risk analyst.
With the election of Donald Trump now is such a time. For rather than playing the old strategic game of favouring either Iran or Saudi Arabia, a Trump administration will clearly favour neither, either in terms of Congress’s adoption of the JASTA law or the Iran nuclear deal. The world has truly turned upside down.
But hold on a minute, will bleat every self-satisfied, mediocre risk analyst, surely Trump’s rhetoric is just hot air. In the end, the realities of American interests and longstanding commitments will make a Trump foreign policy in the Middle East much like that of any other US President. But such nonsense is lazy, wrongheaded analytical whistling by the graveyard.
For Trump’s ideology is not an act. Better than pretending the world has not changed, it would be far more useful to analyse the new president’s worldview, particularly over the Middle East, rather than pretending his election did not matter.
Trump’s Jacksonian Nationalism
Donald Trump’s overall foreign policy views are not the mystery the highly-discredited commentariat presently make them out to be. He largely hews to what Walter Russell Mead calls the Jacksonian nationalist strain of American foreign policy, long a minority (if important) view in both American political parties.
Espousing a form of realism, the Jacksonians believe that the US should pursue a very limited but overriding view of the American national interest, seeing that every US foreign policy initiative furthers American interests to the exclusion of all other competing imperatives.
The idea that America is somehow impelled to ‘lead’ over any specific issue such as the Middle East as the global ordering power strikes Jacksonians as dangerous claptrap of the highest order, just another example of global elites caring about esoteric issues (global warming, pandemics, nuclear proliferation), all the while ignoring the concrete economic plight of their own workers, the Springsteen Democratic base which actually elected Trump president.
As such, Jacksonians are deeply distrustful of alliances, fearing the US too often allows itself to be shackled to the wishes of others, who may have quite different interests from those of America. While Jacksonians are not against NATO or any other bi-lateral alliances in the Middle East per se, they are only for such commitments in transactional terms, if America ‘gets a good deal’ out of them.
Jacksonians are not isolationists; they will do things in the world that they believe suit them and their interests. To ask them to do anything beyond that—as America regularly has as the global ordering power for the past 70 years—is not going to happen anymore. At its essence this is what Trump means when he talks about ‘America First’, a laser-like focus on American national interests to the exclusion of all else.
Jacksonians favour using force, but only when it is clear that a winning strategy is at hand, and never in the interests of esoteric goals, such as ‘upholding the international community’, ‘humanitarian intervention’, or to ‘nation-build’ others. Any nation building that occurs ought to be for the Springsteen Democrats, rather than (rightly in my view) wasting literally trillions of desperately-needed dollars in swamps like Iraq around the world. Again, with his focus entirely on American nationalism, Trump—weirdly echoing the very different Barack Obama—wants nation-building to begin at home
However, should America decide that the use of force is in its interests, Jacksonians are for prosecuting war, regardless of what others—including international institutions like the irrelevant UN or the smug and hopeless EU—might say. As Jacksonians believe so fervently in American nationalism, they readily accept that other countries might also wish to use force, and are not over-worried by that reality, as long as American interests are not threatened.
Hence, Trump’s blithe unconcern for whatever President Putin gets up to in either eastern Ukraine or Syria. America has no primary interests in either place so Jacksonians like Trump—to the horror of the international rules-loving Wilsonian elite—simply don’t care.
To put it mildly, this Jacksonian tilt will force the rest of the world to think about America again, in a way few have bothered to do over the past several generations, as Jacksonian precepts, world view and policy prescriptions are so entirely novel to foreign eyes.
Jacksonianism in the Middle East
What this means is that after seventy years, American foreign policy will decisively shift, as we have never had a Jacksonian-inspired presidency in the modern era. Not seeing primary American interests at play in Syria—and more determined than even President Obama to stamp out ISIS—Trump will find tacit common cause with Russia, Iran and the puppet Assad regime it supports, tilting the conflict strongly in their favour. In turn, he will work with Moscow to decimate what is left of the dwindling would-be caliphate.
But this is not a tilt towards Iran, either. The Trump White House is determined to hold Tehran’s feet to the fire over the nuclear deal, either rescinding it outright (which would cause a firestorm of controversy with America’s European allies) or just as likely harrying the Iranians endlessly over the legal details of the accord, hoping hard-liners in Tehran convince Grand Ayatollah Khamenei to walk away in disgust.
In turn, The Trump administration is bad news for Saudi Arabia as well. Trump strongly supported the JASTA legislation while running for president, and is unlikely to back-track on that populist pledge. Likewise, in the pursuit of energy independence, Trump means what he says in cutting back on Saudi energy imports to America.
Instead, look for a Jacksonian America to position itself in the Middle East as the off-shore balancer of last resort, not nearly as concerned with the day-to-day goings-on in the region as American presidents have been in the past and only roused to action when primary American interests—such as the destruction of ISIS—are in play.
Like it or not, Trump’s Jacksonianism means the Middle East will be increasingly left to its own devices in a way it has not been for several generations.
Printed in Al Arabiya online, November 21, 2016