It twists, it turns, it bounces in unexpected directions. How do we make sense of Trump’s foreign policy? Is there a logic behind it or just a series of improvised presidential whims? In the past two years, we’ve seen a confusing mix of policy initiatives: threats of nuclear genocide against North Korea followed by a 180-degree turn to a “great relationship” with Kim Jong-Il and claims of successful negotiations; bombing raids in Syria followed by a pledge that U.S. troops will withdraw within one month, and then a rollback of that pledge; dogged support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen in the face of their assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; announcement of a framework for a negotiated peace in Afghanistan; a ramping up of tensions with Iran and China, and hints of an outright invasion of Venezuela.
In a recent interview with Doug Henwood, foreign relations scholar Andrew Bacevich suggested that Trump wants to diminish U.S. entanglements in futile military conflicts and generally step away from the assertion of U.S. hegemony over traditional allies. Trump’s impulses, Bacevich says, have been stymied by advisors and officials committed to the bi-partisan goal of increasing the global projection of U.S. power. We think Bacevich is too optimistic about Trump’s individual agenda, and we have a somewhat different take.
Trump’s MAGA story about the U.S. and the world.
In a piece written before the 2016 election, Bill Fletcher, Jr. described Trump’s outlook on world affairs as “the politics of racial and imperial revenge.” Behind this outlook is a simple story. According to Trump, “America” (his dismiss-the-rest-of-the-hemisphere term for the U.S.A) has been pushed around. We are the righteous country in a lousy world, and we’ve let ourselves be taken advantage of by other countries that are a lot less righteous – and for countries inhabited by people who aren’t white, a good deal less human. We are too concerned with the welfare of our enemies. When we fight, we do it with one hand tied behind our back to avoid killing innocents or breaking the rules of warfare. Trump believes we should, instead, smash our foes with everything we’ve got: heavy weapons, the mother of all bombs, and – most dangerously – “small nukes.” We should bring back torture and give the finger to bleeding heart human rights groups, the U.N., the ICC and all international institutions where Washington doesn’t have 100% control. As for U.S. “allies,” we’ve allegedly been doing them favors for years. We fight their wars for them and bear most of the cost, so to hell with them. They should get out there on their own or pay their share.
In short, the U.S. has been losing – and Trump promises that his “America First” policies will make it win.
This is a powerful narrative that taps into the anxieties and prejudices of large swaths of a U.S. population who sense that the U.S. global power is slipping; who see peoples of different colors and religions from themselves growing in numbers and strength; and who are tired of losing loved ones in fruitless foreign wars. And this MAGA tale has the advantage of tactical flexibility in that it can be used to justify retrenchments and withdrawals as well as the massive use of military force, while fostering national/racial chauvinism and hostility towards other countries in either case. For Trump, it seems the only other countries deserving of some respect are those governed by right-wing racist and/or authoritarian regimes that, like him, despise international rules and get what they want by using force whenever they can get away with it. Hence his love affairs with Netanyahu (Israel), Duterte (the Philippines), Orban (Hungary), MBS (Saudi Arabia) and Bolsonaro (Brazil) and (though this one is complicated by Trump’s long history with Russian mafia-oligarchs and the bitter opposition of most of the U.S. ruling class) Putin.
Trump is wedded to this racist and non-reality-based story about this country’s relationship to the rest of the world. But we cannot understand the administration’s foreign policy simply as the result of racial animus writ large. We need to pay attention to the geopolitical calculations of the U.S. elite overall, the cabal of militaristic advisors that have been elevated in the last year, and to Trump’s own calculations about what battles he does and doesn’t want to fight. It is the complexity of how the strategies of these three different actors are and are not aligned that make for the wide variance and seeming inconsistency between administration initiatives in different parts of the world.
For instance, Trump has figured out – and it doesn’t take a genius, we should say – that long-term troop deployments in the Middle East don’t lead to victories he can crow about to his supporters. Bolton and the crew around him oppose the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria. But their main target has always been Iran, which they consider to be the main obstacle to the domination of the Middle East by the increasingly public alliance of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump is also a booster of that alliance, hence his blank check for Israeli settler colonialism and “I believe MBS” stance following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He also believes that military action against Iran can yield an easy win militarily and in domestic politics. So, Bolton, Pompeo, and their ilk can live with what they regard as a tactical difference with Trump over troops in Syria and Afghanistan. After all, to them these countries are merely pieces on a chessboard, and their bomb Iran campaign remains on-track whether U.S. troops stay or go. (See “War Against Iran Becoming Ever More Likely” here. It should be noted that the wing of the foreign policy establishment dominant under Obama has grave doubts about the war-against-Iran crusade. But even though US intelligence agencies’ latest official “Worldwide Threat Assessment” validates their insistence that Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapon, they are now out of the loop in formulating policy.)
Korea is a tougher case to figure out. Trump and the whole U.S. ruling class are stymied there because of China’s strength and, mainly, because the relationship between South and North Korea has changed. The South Koreans are now pushing for a durable settlement to the Korean War. It’s possible Trump’s impulsive and ego-driven personality has played an outsize role here. He wants a win, and his initial impulse was to tweet that he can get one by dropping bombs on the Koreans and levelling the country. When even the hawks told him that is a damn risky thing and his generals freaked out, he pivoted without missing a beat to thinking he could out-charm Kim and get a win by convincing the North Koreans to denuclearize.
The hawks in the administration (and Trump’s own intelligence agencies) think that is a fantasy. But again, they have their eyes on a bigger prize: the encirclement, containment and (for some) the eventual breaking up of China. And Trump is not only on board with that crusade, he is the national point person for fanning hostility to Beijing. Anti-China efforts permeate not just Trump’s military and diplomatic moves in Asia but his trade policies as well. Further, it is likely that preparations to escalate the U.S. military threat to China are the main factor in the administration’s just-announced decision to scrap the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Alleged Russian treaty violations are the official excuse for opening the door to an extremely dangerous new nuclear arms race. But it’s no accident that reading between the lines of mainstream coverage of the U.S. move, it is the drive to confront China that keeps popping up.
Publicly, Bolton and company stick to rolling their eyes and letting Trump be Trump rhetorically when he talks about Asia. Meanwhile they the work behind the scenes to ‘slow walk’ the moves he makes that they think most weaken U.S. clout. And they stand by the President for the “greater good” of their anti-China project.
To add to the danger here, this stop China crusade is the foreign policy goal on which virtually the entire U.S. ruling class has the most unity. There are certainly differences within the elite over specific policies regarding trade, immigration, nuclear weapons policy, how to navigate the Korean impasse, and other matters. But in contrast to policy toward Russia, climate change, or Iran, there is a ruling class consensus on strategic goals.
That is also the case regarding Latin America. Foreign policy outsider Bernie Sanders warns against U.S. interventions in the region. But there is no serious opposition to the choice of Death Squad Manager Eliot Abrams to supervise the next round of imperial revenge on those who happen to inhabit “America’s backyard,” not even from the wing of the elite who tend to prefer speaking a little more softly while wielding Washington’s big stick.
And even if it is not in the headlines as often, Africa is also in the crosshairs of U.S. economic and military policy. Trump may make others in the elite cringe when the first time he used the word Africa in a tweet since his inauguration (it took him a year and a half) was to express support for white farmers in South Africa who, according to a right-wing conspiracy theory, were being unfairly dispossessed and killed in South Africa. But there is virtually unanimous ruling class backing for AFRICOM and seeing Africa mainly as a key battleground where the U.S. must contend with China for influence.
Tasks facing the left
This is, obviously, not a comprehensive analysis of Trump’s foreign policy. We are merely suggesting a way to think about it that, we believe, clarifies the tasks for the left. Internationalist and anti-militarist politics are one of the weakest aspects of both the anti-Trump resistance and the larger milieu of progressive organizations in the U.S. How do we strengthen it?
The first step, which we have tried to take here, is distinguishing between Trump’s ideological narrative about America and the specific policies his administration is moving to implement. We need to be able to sort out and accurately identify the actual policy goals, be willing to call a retrenchment a retrenchment and not fall into the trap of opposing de-escalation to score points against Trump. This has been the modus operandi for too many in the Democratic Party establishment who recklessly damage the efforts of those working for peace in different regions of the world. Every retreat by the U.S. from a position of militarism it can no longer sustain saves lives and is an opening to push for more steps away from interventions, special ops, drone wars and the “empire of bases” whereby the U.S. projects power across the globe. It is fine to point out repeatedly that Trump’s retrenchments do not stem from desire for peace or concern for peoples abroad. But exposing the administration’s true motives must not translate into prettifying or justifying the damage done by U.S. foreign meddling in the first place.
The second step is to identify Trump’s worldview – the notion that the U.S. has been the victim of an unfair world full of s***hole countries – and hit at it every chance we get. This requires going beyond a case-by-case criticism of Trump’s policy to build a sense of internationalism. This is a task we must take up in whatever area of work we are rooted in. It will be an uphill fight: even at the height of opposition to the most recent invasion of Iraq, antiwar opinion was largely driven by the sense that it cost too much to the U.S. A durable progressive movement in the U.S. cannot be built on this kind of foundation. Fortunately, there are experiences we can learn from, including the thoughtful work that US Labor Against War has led among trade unionists. Through their work bringing Iraqi unionists to the United States and other initiatives, they have taken a consistent stand: U.S. wars, militarism and interventions are not only or even mainly a problem because they hurt “us” at home. The meaning of “us” for millions in the U.S. must be expanded to include the world’s majority, everyone across the globe who is victimized by wars, foreign domination, and oppressive regimes, an unjust and vastly unequal global economy and the ravages of climate change.
Max Elbaum has been active in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since the 1960s. He is an editor of Organizing Upgrade and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018).