Rescuing Realism from Trump

President-elect Donald Trump has already inflicted grave damage on American public life, and intensified the coarsening of the republic’s politics. Even if he tacks to the moderate centre, he has incited the populace and stirred a constituency of the alienated that could easily turn on him. He will have to ride this political force if his presidency is to survive. Hopes that he will ‘settle down’ into a conventional equilibrium are blind to this dynamic. Neither will America’s diplomacy be immune from this dark carnival.

One disappointing aspect of Trump’s campaign for office, and the reaction against it, is the hardening of a simplistic binary divide in the way Americans debate their grand strategy, or the logic that should guide how they align their power and commitments. With the help of some of his critics, Trump has levelled a wrecking ball at the chances of a decent debate about America’s foreign, defence and even trading posture. This has happened precisely at the time when such a conversation is most needed.

Major states need a ‘big story’ to guide how they define and rank problems, organise their power and respond to the unexpected. Facing record levels of debt, multiple adversaries, public fatigue with the burdens of global power and an economic environment upset by Brexit and its fallout, Americans and their allies and friends badly need to engage with the question.

Sadly, this very necessary discussion has degenerated to the point where advocates of American primacy all to readily imagine alternatives as being little more than retreat and capitulation. Trump and Trumpism has attracted the accusation of isolationism. International observers are nervous to say the least. Reeling from Trump’s victory, diplomat and former political advisor Jonathan Powell warned that ‘the advent of a nativist, protectionist and isolationist US president – has finally come to pass. It is only necessary to look at who has welcomed his victory – Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin – to realise this is a catastrophe in the making.’ Trump’s ascent brought about a political realignment of sorts, where many defenders of the status quo, believers in American activist leadership, liberal hawks and neoconservatives feared Trump would wreck the foundations of a grand strategy that Washington has pursued since the end of World War Two.

Trump has not helped matters. He branded his movement ‘America First’, peddled anti-Semitic images and suggestions, and spoke darkly of alien conspiratorial forces being arrayed against embattled Americans, through diabolical secret pacts and rigged elections. It is not fanciful on one level to recognise in his movement the spirit of Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin. The company he keeps internationally does little to assuage the suggestion that he would bully America’s allies and clients, while aligning himself with the states that are seeking to dominate their regions.

Yet Trump embodies contradictions. His associates, and rumoured appointees, include committed neoconservatives like Newt Gingrich, Rudi Giuliani, and John Bolton. These unapologetic believers in American dominance and muscular internationalism, who have shown a high appetite for military adventures and advocated the deepening and, at times, the extension of Washington’s security commitments. Trump himself has threatened to shred American alliances from Japan to NATO, and to tolerate nuclear proliferation to the Gulf and East Asia. Yet his philippics against Obama and Clinton imply an ambitious, active and violent conception of America’s role in the world. His denunciations of the Iran interim agreement seem to promise more escalation, more confrontation and a protracted presence in the Gulf. His shifting positions on Iraq – favouring and opposing invasion, favouring withdrawal yet denouncing Obama for withdrawing, advocating the seizure of oil – are an incoherent mess. According to President Obama, Trump has signalled in their discussions that he will maintain America’s alliances after all.

Where this is heading, who the hell knows? We don’t know the inside of Trump’s mind, but so far he marks the coming together of some conflicting traditions of the American Right. Trump’s openness to contradictory ideas, his volatility, is itself a problem: almost any idea could make its way in, and be promptly abandoned. Such uncertainty itself will probably accentuate the insecurity of other states.

Faced with a capricious ruler who defies traditional categories, the temptation is to categorise him in ways that assimilate to our pre-existing world view. Between Trump and Clinton there has settled an unhelpful reductio: where Clinton represents the status quo of continued American leadership and a commitment to remaining the world’s security provider and the guardian of a ‘liberal world order’, Trump represents a crude withdrawal inwards. Furthermore, at least as much discussion suggests, these are the only choices we have. This falsely collapses the many gradations and intermediate choices between primacy and isolation.

We do not have to settle for a reductionist choice between primacy and isolation. America is a major power with interests well beyond its water’s edge, with an interest in securing the commons, and need not run the experiment of outright withdrawal. It is also an overburdened power saddled with a $18 trillion debt and a population and infrastructure that is in need of ever greater investment. To survive as a great power, Washington needs to lower and redistribute those burdens, play harder to get, and watchfully accommodate other rising states. Trump’s destabilising offerings are no way to shape world order, but neither is a failing status quo, one that is putting America and its allies on collision course with Russia and China.

This is not the place for a detailed policy manifesto, but there should be room in the discussion for a realist alternative of managed multipolarity. The current dispensation, and the pursuit of unchallengeable American primacy, grows from two atypical moments that can’t easily now be replicated: the immediate post-war period of the late 1940’s, when America’s material strength was artificially high relative to the war-ravaged powers of Eurasia; and the mid to late 1990’s, the short-lived unipolar moment that could not survive the very American-driven global economic boom that fuelled the rise of rivals. From its share of world product, to the ability of other states to raise costs militarily on US intervention, this is now a different world, a more historically ‘normal’ one where other states are rivals and partners at the same time, where bargains and compromises are needed, and where resources are scarce.

How can the US coexist and share power, in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea? Can it not at least explore the possibilities of an informal set of modus vivendi agreements? This would be distinct from appeasement, where one actor makes unilateral and persistent concessions to satiate another. Rather, it would take two to tango, require reciprocation and mutual compromise, and could be withdrawn. For instance, a commitment not to enlarge NATO further, with greater Russian restraint in cyberspace and on NATO’s eastern periphery? In the South China Sea, greater limitations from Beijing on its territorial claims, in exchange for multilateral compromise and the formation of a maritime strategic reserve? Much of this renegotiation could be informal and incremental, avoiding loss of face.  Within NATO itself, you don’t have to be a Trumpist to recognise that an intensified discussion about burdens and commitments is needed, especially the need for a stepped-up Anglo-French role. For the alliance as a whole, the days of the ‘free ride’ are over.

To be sure, this might not work. It might merely encounter rejection, or lead others to detect weakness. This is entirely possible. The point is to give it a try, to reveal the preferences of America’s rivals, and hold out the opportunity for more stable co-existence. Should it lead to predatory expansion, the offer of accommodation can be withdrawn. Diplomatic bargaining has a long history of failure. But it also has a long history of success. In the tradition of classical realism, which places a strong emphasis on consequential diplomacy, accommodation is always difficult and usually impermanent. To prevent the unthinkable, though, we must think harder about how American power can adapt and help bring about a negotiated universe. Repeatedly invoking the ‘liberal world order’ and resisting any measures of limitation or restraint is not working, and will not work. We have just endured a campaign light on substantive detail, and heavy on slogans. Crude choices and false binaries are the stuff of demagogic politics. If they dominate the urgent questions of world order, God help us.

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