“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.