hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 2 May 2016

America First: The Trump Doctrine

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow”.
Lord Palmerston.

Alphen, Netherlands. 2 May. If one wants to understand the Donald J (‘J’ for Julius?) Trump world-view one had better be armed with an MBA rather than the international relations degrees I hold. Trump’s 27 April “America First” speech was less foreign policy and more the kind of doctrine beloved of American presidents since Harry S. Truman in the late 1940s. As one would expect European policy wonks went into dismissive over-drive. The current mantra of much of the European policy herd is that anything Trump says must be by definition dumb. Rather, I have considered the provenance, the content, and the implications of Trump’s world view as seen possibly from the White House next January.

First, let me deal with the title; America First. Perhaps it was an unhappy accident. After all, it is a natural political leap for a populist, rabble-rousing, nationalist of the political Right to call for America first in the midst of a US presidential campaign. This is not least because it implies that President Obama has put everything but America first and that Hillary Clinton would do likewise. If no accident then the Trump Doctrine harks back to the America First Committee established on 4 September 1940, almost a year to the day after the outbreak of World War Two in Europe. The committee comprised hard-line isolationists desperate to keep the United States out of what the group saw as another European ‘civil’ war.

However, to my mind there is little evidence in the speech that Trump was aware of the historical irony of adopting America First.   There are many current accusations against Trump that stand up to evidential analysis, but isolationism is perhaps the least weighty. No, to understand how Trump sees the world it is vital to understand the man and the group from which he hails.

Donald J. Trump is a New York businessman, an entrepreneur, a risk-taker and deal-maker. He is most decidedly not a member of the Washington policy establishment, and certainly not a member of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Read the speech and it becomes rapidly apparent that Trump sees foreign policy as an extension of business; a series of transactions in which the powerful succeed because they are by definition smart and ruthless, and the weak must accept both their place and their fate.

Professor Mary Beard in her fascinating new history of Rome makes a comment about Caesar Augustus that could equally apply to Trump’s world-view today: “The emperor’s did not make the empire, the empire made the emperors”. Trump is a business emperor and his empire has made him. He has succeeded in business precisely because he understands the space between power and weakness and how best to exploit it and the billions of people who live in that space.

Therefore, President Trump would have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. And, whilst Trump uses the ‘love’ word a lot, he ‘loves’ only to the extent that an ally is an ally (i.e. a supplicant) and for how long. Consequently, there is absolutely no room for sentimentalism in Trump’s world-view, no shared values, no special relationships, and no historical worth. A President Trump would be willing to be friends with anyone who supports his power, and an implacable, ruthless foe of those who do not. Critically, he would be utterly dismissive of those who seek to sit on a fence between the two, which is where much of the European elite would seek to ‘hide’. Equally, if a foe sees the error of his or her ways and accepts Trump First then a Trump presidency bear no grudges.

That is why a Trump presidency would likely endeavour to re-kindle the ideas of Viscount Palmerston at the height of British imperial power the chimera of which still lingers in some parts of the British and American bodies politic. As such he would define the American interest in the same way any successful hard-bitten New York businessman would; as an extension of himself. That is why unlike Ronald Reagan there are no members of the Washington foreign policy elite on his team to soften the edges of the Trump Doctrine.

Trump’s hard-edged world-view is also why so many European commentators are bleating. Trump would bring to an end the comforting transatlantic relationship as Europeans have come to know it. That is what Trump clearly implied in his disparaging remarks about NATO. Indeed, to Trump Europe is evidence of all that is wrong in his mind about socialised, welfare junky European state. To Trump Europeans are an inefficient, free-riding, ‘socialist’ drag on American leadership and thus would not fit to be either a partner or an ally of his America. To Trump the EU is a failed ‘business’ led by yesterday’s ‘men’ unable or unwilling to cope in the twenty-first century world, constantly asking the American taxpayer to foot a security welfare bill so Europeans can continue to live a life they can no longer afford.  

Furthermore, by focussing on the Trump Doctrine many Europeans hope that a President Clinton would be ‘better’ precisely because she would allow them to continue in their free-riding ways. She would not. Even if she wanted the coming Congress would not let her. Yes, she would be softer in her rhetoric. However, she too has little time for a Europe that wallows in its copious self-delusions.

The ultimate irony of a Trump Doctrine would be the absence of one. A presidential doctrine is traditionally linked to American grand strategy; the organisation of America’s immense means in pursuit of global ends. Instead, the foreign policy of Donald J. Trump would be more akin to a form of super-mercantilism, a series of iterative trade-offs for marginal gain.

Therefore, to understand the Trump Doctrine all one need do is add the missing bit to last week’s speech. The title should have read; America First, China Second, Russia Third, Europe, maybe, Fourth.

Europeans had better start thinking about how to do ‘business’ with a Trump White House. If not, we’re fired!

Julian Lindley-French

   

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