Category Archives: Trump and US Foreign Policy

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

Shale’s victory could spell the end of the US-Saudi alliance

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

–Victor Hugo

Amidst the endless sturm und drang of the present unholy political risk trinity of Trump, Brexit, and Europe, perhaps an even more important systemic change has gone largely unnoticed. The victory of America’s shale revolution—and the failure of Saudi Arabia to strangle it at its birth—means that the global price of oil will never be the same, with a permanent ceiling being placed over energy prices. This has almost incalculable geopolitical and macroeconomic consequences for a world that has largely missed its monumental significance.

The Permian Basin in west Texas, accessed through the fracking engineering revolution, is estimated to have as much oil beneath it as Ghawar, the largest field in Saudi Arabia. Further, the oil is cheaper to extract than are the riches in most countries within OPEC. It is estimated the bounty could last for 100 years. Almost overnight, the United States has risen phoenix-like from energy mendicant to one of the global big three–along with Russia and Riyadh, a setter of the global price of energy.

Coupled with the tar sands of Canada and the liberalisation of Pemex, Mexico’s heretofore state-controlled oil company, North America now stands as close to energy self-sufficiency as it is possible to be in the modern, interdependent world. This US does not have to worry overmuch—and with such tragic results—about the Middle East for the first time in modern history. At last, a policy of off-shore balancing vis-a-vis the snake pit of the region is possible.

If fracking is unambiguously good news for the US, it is a long-term threat to Saudi Arabia, America’s ultimate frenemy. Since World War II, the US-Saudi alliance has been based on a simple trade: America provides Riyadh with strategic stability while Saudi Arabia manages the steady and reliable flow of energy across the globe. With the advent of the shale revolution, and the relative diminution in Saudi power it underlines, however, the basic contours of this deal are being called into question as they never have been before in modern times.

While the Trump administration seems to have gormlessly fixed on a return to the pre-Obama stasis in the region—supporting repressive Sunni states such as Egypt and Riyadh instead of Shia-champion Iran—over time it is highly doubtful as to whether this old wine will retain its potency.

First, it was the Saudis themselves who have mightily tried to destroy America’s shale bounty, by pumping oil in ever higher volumes to drive the global price downwards, effectively negating the incipient shale revolution. This unfriendly economic act has failed. Shale rigs can be turned on and off like a tap, coming back online far more easily and at negligible cost compared with the fixed rigs of the Saudi desert. Thus, all the gormless Saudis have managed to do is make shale the ceiling of the overall global energy price, with shale coming back online whenever the price rises.

Second, while the Saudi’s John D. Rockefeller strategy (as we have coined it) did drive some US shale firms out of business, Riyadh—with its state-controlled oil company—knows precious little about how private American energy companies work. Throughout all of modern Texas commercial history, small-time Texas wildcatters with vision have been driven out of business, only to be replaced by East Coast money. The ownership of the energy may change but the drilling goes on. While the Saudi Rockefeller strategy has made life miserable for some wildcatters, it has not managed to destroy the thrust of the shale revolution at all.

Of course, unfriendly Saudi economic acts have been matched for years by murky political practices, from the country’s internal medieval repression, to funding radical madrassas throughout the world, to 15 of the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 being Saudi. Given the country’s litany of hostile acts, the shale revolution finally allows America to cut the doleful ties that bind it to such a treacherous ‘friend.’ Such a break would be world altering, indeed.

Published in City AM Money, March 24, 2017