By Arnaud Blin (Center for Global Policy and Governance Studies (New York), author of The History of Terrorism with Gérard Chaliand.)
François Soulard (Forum for a New World Governance (Buenos Aires), contributor to the Dictionary of World Governance)
After several weeks of uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump’s foreign policy, in the space of a few days events have got ahead of themselves, with the military intervention in Syria and Afghanistan together with a new, as yet informal, plan for the United States’ great strategy. What can we make from all this? A lot of things.
Despite various conspiracy theories unceasingly revealing the architecture of disinformation now intensifying on a planetary scale, the decision to intervene in Syria after the sarin gas attack, attributed rightly or wrongly—probably rightly, though it doesn’t much matter as events are following their course—to the Syrian armed forces, will in some way define Donald Trump’s whole policy for the coming years. In fact, this intervention indicates the thundering return of the United States into the big boys’ game and marks a break with President Obama’s policy, which was a long way from being less militaristic but was at least less showy in the way it projected power. Aside from the official rhetoric about the need to uphold international standards, the sole aim of this intervention is to send a signal to the international community, particularly Russia and China, that the United States now intends to take the spotlight once again.
In parallel to this, the sudden rapprochement with China, after Trump severely criticized the country during his campaign, and the brutal freezing of relations with Putin indicate that Trump is going to play the balance of power card, siding with one or the other of the two major players on the global chessboard. In Trump’s government, the sudden edging-out of the worrying Steve Bannon, heretofore Trump’s main advisor, in favour of his son-in-law Jared Kushner (for many years closer to the Democratic Party) and daughter Ivanka Trump, herald a narrowing of the core of decision-making down to a nuclear family around which the rest of the government will orbit.
Faced with the domestic policy difficulties that Trump has already come up against, all signs point to him concentrating on foreign affairs. On the one hand because the White House enjoys greater power in that area than domestically, and on the other hand because Donald Trump is going to find in the negotiations with his peers a terrain that is in his best interests, much more so than squabbling over trifles with Congress. Through his foreign policy, where he will make the United States’ power felt, Trump will attempt to win over the support of the American public that will allow him, eventually, to gag Congress (recent polls indicate a mostly favourable opinion among the US population about the air strikes in Syria.)
So, to sum up, the whole of Trump’s policy seems to be coordinated now around power relationships, against a backdrop of a narrow vision of the United States’ national interest. From what we can see at present, it’s likely that the ideological dimension will be wholly absent from the equation, inversely to what we saw with the neocons of George W. Bush, who from hereon are more spectators than players. It is possible then that a policy will be set out in line with the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (and Henry Kissinger), more than with Reagan or Dubya. Furthermore, we can forget about the circumstantial isolationism evoked by Trump during the campaign to satisfy the American public. Trump will be, in practice, anything but isolationist.
If this model is established, the main danger will come from the will of the president to intervene militarily, for example in Syria or Iraq, without really taking into account the finer details of this kind of action. Let us remember that these current irregular conflicts tend to leave traditional forms of military intervention and “regime change” in a paradoxical situation of powerlessness. There is nothing to suggest that Trump could have the political finesse of a Roosevelt or a Nixon and won’t be led astray by experts or generals, but will trust more in his own intuition, his knowledge of men and the advice of those close to him. Furthermore, his relations with Putin could rapidly degenerate, with terrible consequences. In this threesome between the USA, China and Russia, Europe will be no more than a second-rank partner obliged to follow the United States. While France and the UK, with one vote each as permanent members of the UN Security Council, will at least have a say in the matter, they will find it hard globally to get out of their role of second-class countries, and they will not be able to oppose Washington effectively.
As for Latin America, we are following the line of the Monroe Doctrine with a logic that combines soft power with offensive power capable of pressuring recalcitrant regimes. Although it may be an exaggeration to speak of imperialism in the classic sense of the world, there is no doubt that Washington intends to exert all its influence so that the geopolitics of the continent supports American interests and will attempt to dictate its own terms, just as in already happening with Mexico. In the Middle East, all signs point to a Trump policy leaning broadly in favour of Israel, with this attitude defining the other alliances in the region. Islamic State, which for now barely represents a threat to the United States, could become a pretext for an intervention in the Near East. In this sense, the next few attacks could be the sparks that start the fire.
It remains to be seen whether the United States still has the means to implement a policy of this nature. It’s true that the hyperpower of old now has to negotiate with China, but despite everything it has some advantages: an unequalled military power and budget, an effective and, ultimately, dynamic economy, and the will of the American public to recover their rank. On the other hand, Washington could see itself isolated in some choices, with all the risks implied by unilateral actions. Trump’s ultimate aim is to take the country back to the predominant position it occupied until a few years ago, and will have to dodge multiple obstacles that appear along the way as soon as he starts moving up the gears. In this sphere, the Middle East, Russia, North Korea and even China are potential pitfalls that would rapidly lead Washington down an extremely slippery slop, all the more so given the president’s penchant for chaos strategy. From a more general point of view, this recurrence to force will solve none of the major problems facing the world as a whole at the moment. Quite the contrary, in fact. And by “going it alone”, ultimately the whole world, the United States included, risks suffering far greater losses. One thing is sure: the “No Drama Obama” era is clearly over. From hereon the field opens up to orthodox Realpolitik, to power relations, and all kinds of arm wrestling.