Category Archives: Trump and US Foreign Policy

The end of the affair: US-German relations in the age of Trump

The End of the Affair: US-German relations in the age of Trump

 Introduction: The Body Language is that of an 80’s John Hughes Film

 Far too often, the press takes the garden variety meet and greet get- togethers of the world’s leaders overly seriously. Countries are–as they have been since the dawn of time—largely driven by interest calculations, rather than whether their leaders would be likely to go on a date together.

 Saying this, no one should doubt that personal chemistry does play a role at the margins as to whether states cooperate. It is simply human to be far more likely to take risks and make sacrifices for people we cannot help but like, even as it is a chore to do the same for those we simply cannot stand, even if it is in our interests to ultimately do so. That is what made the painfully awkward recent meeting at the White House between President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel so interesting, as it was palpably obvious these two creatures would never be fast friends, whatever the setting.

 Instead, Trump’s seeming refusal to even shake Merkel’s hand (despite her gentle cajoling) made the whole socially awkward situation resemble nothing so much as one of the wonderful 1980s movies of John Hughes, sympathetically if hilariously cataloguing the all-too-real angst and social awkwardness of American teenage life. Merkel resembled the class drudge—hardworking, socially awkward, conventional—forced to sit through a study hall with the High School jock in Trump.

 The President—bombastic, unpredictable, overly impressed with himself—looked at the Chancellor as though what she was and what she personally stood for came from another planet. As Hughes’s films wisely made clear, their frostiness on one level simply confirmed that they would never be going to the High School Prom together, as it is hard to imagine more different sorts of human being.

 Of course the lack of personal chemistry between Trump and Merkel matters more than usual just now as US-German relations have dramatically altered beyond all recognition. Their lack of personal rapport means that what would have invariably have been a hard landing for the two great powers—given their very different ideological and personal priorities—is in danger of becoming a free fall, not being cushioned by their two leader’s common affinity for one another keeping the show on the road. Instead, US-German relations in the age of Trump amounts to the end of the affair, when the two countries cease being allies in the classic sense of the term.

 Ideological canyons that cannot be crossed

 Even within the western alliance formed after World War II, the US and Germany always stood at opposite ideological ends of the common NATO spectrum, with Berlin being the most Wilsonian of the major powers while the United States was the most nationalistic. Strikingly, whoever ran Germany–be it the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under Adenauer, Kohl, and Merkel or the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Brandt, Schmidt and Schroeder–the overall schools of thought foreign policy orientation of Germany altered very little. To this day, everyone of significance in the German foreign policy elite is some form of Wilsonian.

 Wilsonians emphasise international law and norms, the importance of international institutions such as the UN and the EU, that diplomacy (often on its own) should be the primary tool used to solve problems, that countries should almost always act on the international stage as part of larger alliances, and that the world is growing increasingly interdependent, meaning individual countries’ sovereignty matters less and less.

 The striking ideological difference between Germany and America is that while practically everyone in the former would find this view of the world simply the way things are, Wilsonianism represents only one of three basic American schools of thought impulses propelling American foreign policy forward in our new multipolar era (along with neo-conservatism, and realism). This is a huge difference and explains much of the reason for the present Berlin-Washington low-simmering crisis.

 In the new Trump administration there are presently duelling forms of realism, with not a Wilsonian in sight. Trump’s own Jacksonian nationalism has been shamefully understudied in European capitals (as has been America and its history, ideology, and culture in general) so that the new President of the United States is the rudest of ideological awakenings for Europeans in general, and Germans in particular. For it is impossible to think of two foreign policy ideologies that differ as profoundly as Jacksonianism and Wilsonianism.

 Jacksonians–named after the bellicose, populist seventh president—have long been an important, if minority view in American foreign policy thinking. Epitomised by the President’s ideological guru Steve Bannon, Jacksonians are populist (so distrustful of elites in general, let alone foreign ones), strongly nationalistic (caring solely about the American people), transactional (allies are only as useful as what they have done for America lately), and utterly relaxed with using force to specifically preserve American honour and narrow American interests.

 Jacksonians constitute a minority branch of realism that has suddenly and dramatically found its day in the sun under the new administration. As is true for Trump and Merkel personally, it is hard to imagine two creeds more diametrically opposed than the Wilsonianism of the Germans and the Jacksonianism of the new White House.

 Even more classical realists like Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are likely to ruffle German Wilsonian feathers. While far more accepting of the need to work with allies (frustrating as they can be) and to work in national coalitions of the willing to tackle common problems based on having specific shared interests, garden variety realists still do not make a fetish of alliances for their own sake, and demand that Europeans contribute in a way they have seldom been pushed to do so.

 Mattis’s recent declaration to Washington’s NATO allies that the US cannot care more about European security and Europeans do (given their shameful free riding off the American military due to their anaemic defence spending), is a common theme expounded upon by these more polished internationalist realists, as well as the more rough and ready Jacksonians such as Bannon. Given Germany’s woeful defence efforts (a paltry 1.19% of GDP in 2015) and stubborn refusal to do much to change this, an ideological and policy collision of some sort is practically inevitable.

 Different Policies for Different Worlds

 If the US and Germany are universes apart in terms of the efficacy of defence spending in the international arena (and the corresponding funding of their militaries), driving a stake through the heart of NATO, the same holds true for their positions on the EU, the other pivotal international institution in German eyes.

 While the success of the embattled EU is by far Berlin’s number one foreign policy priority, the Trump White House looks on Brussels with a mixture of contempt for its weakness (compared to its over-puffed sense of itself) and ideological antagonism, due to its elitist, technocratic, supranational ethos. Over time, the best that the German government can hope for from the Trump White House over this issue is indifference.

 This is particularly hard on the Germans, used to ritual American protestations of support for the European project. While for many years now these declarations of support have been little more than rhetorical, in many elite German eyes the continued benign support of the world’s only superpower matters, as it illustrates that Europe (and Germany) are not alone in their desire to make the EU the greatest of successes.

 At a deep psychological level, American support for the EU meant Europe was not being left alone, with all the historical baggage that entails. Ironically, the best Berlin can now hope for from the Trump administration is to be left alone.

 Practically, in terms of policy, this means if Brussels continues to fail to master the north-south euro crisis or the east-west schisms that have developed as a result of the refugee crisis, it is Berlin alone—with scant help from Washington—that will have to make the existential decisions about the future of the European project.

 Assuming the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections, he will be the last, best, chance the French elite have to right the ship of state after thirty years ignoring economic realities and the corresponding pathetic rates of French growth. Five more years of less than two percent growth, more terror attacks (tragically highly likely), and a lack of serious structural economic reform means a Le Pen presidency is a real possibility the next time, as—given those circumstances—populism would continue to be explosively on the rise in France. 

 Years of ineptitude and inaction have already taken their toll. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic it is highly likely this year that both the two major, established parties of the French right (the Republicans) and the left (the Socialists) will not have a candidate between them in the final round of voting in the French presidential election.

 Coupled with the fact that Macron will not have an established party behind him, betting against his chances to on his own manoeuver structural economic reform through the French parliamentary system (let alone highly traditional French society) is a reasonable wager for the Front National (FN) to make. Macron’s demise would signal the end of France as a pro-EU country, as well as the obliteration of three generations of German foreign policy.

 Germany also has its eyes nervously on its neighbour to the south as well as the west. For Italy is also too big to fail, and near the edge of a political nervous breakdown. Again, the causes are clear. Tellingly, the IMF estimates the country will not return to its pre-Lehman crisis economic size until far off 2025. As is true in France, the Italian political elite is tarred with the brush of colossal, endemic economic failure, with both the left under Renzi and the right under Berlusconi being severely discredited in the process.

 This has opened the door to the populist, euro-sceptic Five Star movement, waiting in the wings for the present—and yet another—cobbled together weak establishment Italian government to fail, proving Five Star’s point about the haplessness of the present Italian elite, as well as its subservience to Brussels (for which read Berlin) over the economic issues that truly matter.

 The Italians must hold elections by February 2018. According to today’s polling, the most likely outcome is that Five Star win a plurality of the seats in parliament, but that the establishment parties of the left and right band together—in an unnatural, unsustainable coalition—not accomplishing much of anything in terms of structural economic reform. At this point, just a few years down the road, Five Star could well find itself in power. A referendum on Italy staying in the euro would be sure to follow.

 As in France, Italian populism is powered by the obvious failure of political elites to enact structural reforms leading to a steady two percent yearly rate of growth. Short of this, in German eyes, the European project has only two or three years to go before the real existential political crisis of populism hits, calling into question the survival in its current form of the European Union itself.

 It is in this policy context of looming existential political crisis for the EU that the Trump administration’s dramatic policy about-face on Brussels must be viewed. Frankly, it could not come at a worse time for Berlin, with the whole EU edifice noticeable wobbling, due to the rise of populism, Brexit, the endemic euro crisis and the unresolved tensions arising out of the refugee crisis.

 In German eyes, if ever there is a time for American support now would seem to be the moment. Instead, the Trump White House is hostile toward a European project that America has supported for generations, just at the very moment unstinting support is called for by Atlanticist Germans such as Chancellor Merkel. Over the EU, America has morphed from steadfast ally to at best, hostile onlooker.

 Conclusion: New words and new thinking are needed to describe the world

 Words matter, and in the new multipolar era we find ourselves in, it is time we learn again to use them correctly. Simply put, the US and Germany are no longer allies in the Cold War sense of the term. No longer forced into lock-step loyalty by the unbending logic of the global bipolar system of US-Soviet domination, in our new multipolar world, it was always highly likely that US-German relations would loosen, as both sides have the relative luxury to disagree about more things more often.

 But far more than this is going on just now. Personally, ideologically and over the two basic transatlantic institutions (NATO and the EU), Berlin and Washington simply do not agree about either how the world works, or what should be done to tackle its many problems. While neither the US nor Germany are enemies, based on this undisputed reality it is hard to see how they can be called allies at the moment, either.

 And perhaps this new reality is the key to understanding how states must work together in our new shades-of-grey multipolar world. As the US-German case illustrates, far fewer countries will be outright enemies or fast friends as was the case in the simpler bygone era of 1945-1991. Instead, countries will more and more work together over specific areas and over specific issues—based on shared interests—with all but a precious few countries (for the US say, Britain as lock step ally and ISIS as implacable enemy) sitting somewhere on the continuum between friend and foe.

 The new era that evolving US-German ties illuminates requires a new vocabulary for looking at how and why and when states will actually work together. More importantly, after decades of ossified geopolitical analysis, it requires new thinking to make sense of the fascinating, perplexing world we now find ourselves in.

 Published in Aspenia Italia, April 2017.  

 

          

  

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s Syria strike killed America First and a Putin rapprochement

“Events are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I would love to have never been in the Middle East.” –Donald Trump

Foreign policy is rarely what it seems to be. It is the rare leader (a Nixon or a Putin) who comes to office as a chess player, with a fully formulated foreign policy strategy, allowing the tactical details of life to be filled in as they go, all the while never deviating from their overall plan.

Far more common is for a foreign policy to evolve from the bottom up, as the accumulation of responses to a series of unplanned crises that must be dealt with. While in hindsight patterns and themes emerge, they mostly do so after the fact, with the crises themselves leading to grand theory and not the other way around.

What we saw this past week confirms that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is evolving in this garden variety manner. Enraged that the blood-soaked Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people in Idlib, killing 83 including women and children, Trump responded by unleashing Tomahawk missiles on the Shayrat air base near Homs where the hideous chemical attack was launched. Suddenly, American foreign policy didn’t seem so isolationist after all.

Ironically, the consequences of the shocking air strike—entirely out of character with Trump’s America First vow to avoid the cesspool of the Middle East—will be very limited regarding what is actually going on in Syria. The Pentagon confirmed the strike was a one off, meaning that it does nothing to actually alter the strategic reality on the ground in Syria. Assad, Russia and Iran will continue to win the war in a limited sense, even as the wretched country itself dissolves into a series of feuding fiefdoms.

But the airstrike does have huge strategic ramifications for Trump’s ever-more forlorn pivot to Russia. By directly striking Russia’s client Assad for the first time, the Trump White House has driven a stake through the heart of any chance at a real rapprochement with the Kremlin. With military activism back on the agenda as a foreign policy option, and with the proposed pivot to Russia stillborn after the Trump airstrikes, it is not too much to say that the first iteration of Trump’s America First foreign policy has ceased to exist. Real world events in Syria killed it.

So what is likely to take its place? Earlier in the week, a much less reported on event took place in Washington that in the long run will have an even greater impact on the overall direction of the Trump foreign policy than the dramatic Syrian missile strikes. Steve Bannon, the ideological guru behind Trump’s America First foreign policy, was ousted from the US National Security Council at the behest of the increasingly powerful NSC Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Not only was Bannon shown the door, but McMaster and Defence Secretary James Mattis’s allies—Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats–were added to the Council, in what amounts to the victory of the grown-ups.

This is hugely important for two reasons. With so few foreign policy appointees making it through the confirmation ordeal on Capitol Hill, the National Security Council is presently the only foreign policy game in town, being fully staffed, as confirmation is not necessary for its senior members. And in McMaster it has a forceful and able head.

If the NSC is dominant bureaucratically, with Bannon being ousted the thrust of Trump’s foreign policy is strikingly establishment and realist. Mattis, McMaster and even weak Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could have fitted comfortably in the administration of the first George Bush, or even that of Ronald Reagan.

They are realist, internationalist, national interest-driven establishment Republicans, and for at least the moment they are in the ascendancy in crafting the new administration’s foreign policy. This is shockingly good news for those of us who have for a while now woken up in a cold sweat, worrying Bannon might have a say in global matters of war and peace.

Of course, the problem with Donald Trump not being a chess player in foreign policy is that, as welcome as this shift is, he may prove to be a human weather vane, and dramatically alter course once again as the wind of events shifts. But for now amid the all the turmoil in the world, the thought of Republican realists actually running the most powerful country in the world is the best news we have had in quite a while.

Published in City AM London, April 10, 2017