“Who do I call if I want to call America?”
Dr Henry Kissinger re-imagined.
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 November. What is wrong with Trump foreign policy? There was an audible hissing sound as President Trump gave his ill-judged America First speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam this past Thursday. It was the sound of hot air escaping from the balloon marked “American influence in Asia”. As he spoke another balloon, a big red one, was inflating. It read, “Chinese influence in Asia”. Something that President Xi rammed home in his speech the same day. The sight of an American president calling essentially for protectionism, and a Chinese president championing free trade (albeit pretend free trade) added yet another perceived twist to America’s topsy-turvy foreign policy.
It was not without a certain tragic historical irony that the Trump speech took place in Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city. Da Nang is in many ways the poster city for post-war American foreign policy failure. It was in Da Nang that US combat operations in the Vietnam War ended on 13 August, 1972. It was also Da Nang that was the last city that Communist forces ‘liberated’ on 30 March, 1975.
Now (to mix my metaphors), I am not a member of those seemingly countless ‘headless chicken’ Europeans who a year ago met the elevation of Donald J. Trump to the White House by running around doing passible impressions of Edvard Monck’s The Scream. Many of those same Europeans, by the way, expect Americans to pay for their defence whilst they feel free to insult America and its president. My respect for the United States, the Office of President and the American people is too great for me to join that coterie of clowns. There are also friends of mine in the Administration whom I both respect and like.
Still, what happened in Da Nang this past week revealed something that is now inescapable; by equating foreign policy with the art of the deal President Trump fundamentally fails to grasp the nature of foreign policy. The core assumption upon which he bases his interpretation of foreign policy is also wrong: that America is so powerful that it alone gets to choose the nature of geopolitics. Rather, President Trump’s take on foreign policy is the ‘shining megapolis on a mountain’ view of such policy, in which constraining institutions such as APEC, EU, even NATO, and most definitely the UN are for lesser states whilst mighty America stands above and beyond like some latter day Hobbesian Leviathan.
China begs to differ, and now has the power that differing no longer requires China to beg. Beijing skilfully used APEC to reinforce the mechanisms it is constructing to exert growing power and influence, which for all the warm words of President Xi, China sees coming at America’s zero sum expense. America? In making that America First speech in Da Nang President Trump walked into a carefully constructed Chinese trap.
And yet the problem with contemporary US foreign policy goes deeper than the wiles of a capricious president. There are simply not enough people making US foreign policy and doing ‘it’. One of the most revealing facts about nature of the Administration is the number of posts at Assistant Secretary of State (and equivalent) level in Washington that remain vacant. ‘ASSes’ are in the boiler-room of American foreign policy and where much of the grunt work is done to maintain existing relationships and build new ones in pursuit of the national interest – the essence of the conduct of foreign policy. The Administration undertook a wholesale clear-out when it came into office, but has yet to show any signs of a wholesale clear-in.
It is thus very hard to know to whom one must talk to in Washington these days. For the past year the Administration has been locked in an ideological struggle with itself for the soul of American foreign policy. With Steve Bannon now gone from the White House it appeared that the radical America First/America Isolated school of thought had been banished, and that the more establishment American internationalist/realist school had prevailed. Indeed, foreign and security policy professionals such as Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster seemed to have gained the upper hand.
Not last week! President Trump was in full America Alone mode. Yes, he is right that too many of America’s trade partners engage in dodgy trade practices. And yes, such rhetoric plays well to his dwindling political base back home. However, it is unlikely that such an approach will make the lives of his followers better, other than providing them with the short-term pleasure of pissing off pesky foreigners.
The implications for the wider West are dramatic, and all involve relative decline. With Europeans engaged in the seemingly never-ending Battle of Ant Hill over Brexit, also refusing to see that the EU is fast becoming a temporary alibi for a continent of decliners, and having abandoned any pretence to global role beyond endlessly aspiring to it, the Americans are left to ‘lead’ in isolation. Indeed, European critics of Trump should look closer to home. Euro-isolationism is a major cause of the West’s precipitous decline, which is often overlooked masked, as it is, in so many layers of Euro-bullxit.
Back to that hissing sound. Taken together President Trump’s decidedly lukewarm attitude towards NATO and its European allies (rightly or wrongly), the abandonment of the Paris Climate Change Accord, the weakening of NAFTA, and the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership all suggest to us pesky foreigners that far from America First, America is in retreat.
An America in retreat simply creates a power vacuum. That was the other hissing sound at APEC; China filling it! President Trump fails to understand that foreign policy is the art of engagement, not the art of the deal. He also fails to understand that America is not powerful enough, if it ever was, to lead without the support of allies and partners the world-over. However, it is hard for allies to support a divided Administration.
Henry Kissinger once complained that he did not know who to call if he wanted to call ‘Europe’. Today, it is hard to know who to call if one wants to call America. This is a disaster not just for America, but the West and the wider world. You see, for all the poise and confidence displayed by China’s President Xi, China is no America. Chinese internationalism is very different to American internationalism, for all its faults of commission and omission. Why? Chinese internationalism is about Chinese power red in tooth and claw, with not a value in sight. The world will be far more dangerous for it.
Give me a call sometime, America.