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Three separate questions compose the topic of US foreign policy under Donald Trump: what the policy has been since he took office, what parts of that are due to Trump’s decisions, and what may be those decisions’ root. I will examine these components with regard to each aspect of US policy, rather than in any chronological order of events.


Trump and Kim Jong-un at their historic summit in Singapore: Declaring victories is easier than achieving them (©Kevin Lim / The Straits Times / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


First, we must understand how they interact with one another generically. This requires grasping why the American people’s dissatisfaction with foreign policy had reached a critical point by the 2016 election, and how Trump incorporated that dissatisfaction in his campaign.

Prior to running for President, Trump viewed international affairs with the not-so attentive, ordinary patriotism of ordinary Americans. That view has been at odds with official US policy for most of the past 100 years. During the past quarter-century, all of the foreign policy establishment’s constituent parts have become increasingly unpopular — each for its own reasons — so that, by 2016, US foreign policy had no constituency outside the establishment.

Ordinary Americans’ approach to foreign affairs has remained remarkably steady since the country’s founding: America and its way of life are uniquely precious. The oceans to the east and west, as well as non-threatening neighbours north and south, offer Americans the chance to live peacefully and productively in what Benjamin Franklin called “the land of labour”. The Declaration of Independence aimed to secure neither more nor less than a “separate and equal station” among the powers of the earth. To that end, American diplomats are to give no offence and to suffer none, while the US armed forces — the Navy foremost — are to keep danger far away. America has interests all over the world, which coincide with those of others occasionally. But they are never identical. Hence, America is to mind its own business, aggressively, while steering clear of others’ business. As John Quincy Adams said, America “enters the lists in no cause but its own”. Bothering no one, Americans will make short, brutal work of whomever bothers them. As General Douglas MacArthur put it: “In war there is no substitute for victory.” But like him, the few major figures who have championed this point of view in the past hundred years — Henry Cabot Lodge, Robert Taft, Jr., and Barry Goldwater — have been damned at once as isolationists and warmongers.

The writings of America’s most prominent theorists and practitioners of foreign affairs (Ronald Reagan excepted — “We win, they lose”) are replete with scorn for the popular approach. Nor does this approach describe US foreign policy since 1917, guided as it has been by an unbroken, bipartisan line of great names that links the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement to our time. Elihu Root, who became Secretary of War in 1899 and of State in 1904, taught Charles Evans Hughes, the Secretary of State responsible for the Washington Treaties of 1921, and mentored Henry L. Stimson, who followed him and who ended his career as  Secretary of War in 1941-45. He in turn mentored McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy’s National Security Adviser, who mentored Anthony Lake, who did that for Bill Clinton after having served Henry Kissinger, and who advised Barack Obama. Another chain stretches from Woodrow Wilson to Cordell Hull, America’s longest-serving Secretary of State, to Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, and George Shultz.
The differences among these figures do not transcend their common assumption that all nations are basically the same in what each considers the most fundamental aspect. The bulk of them, Liberal Internationalists, believe that all peoples are alike in the predominant desire for secular material progress, and that they themselves are the masters thereof. Beginning in the 1950s a new generation, of which Henry Kissinger became the avatar, styled themselves “realists”, believing that all are alike in rationally (and hence moderately) pursuing maximum power as the balance of power permits — and that they themselves are the balance wheel. By the 1970s a new variant arose known as neoconservatism that, while largely sharing the others’ assumptions, holds that, above all, all are alike in their fundamental affection for democracy.

Interwoven with and increasingly influential among all these, a strand of thought has grown since the 1960s that accuses the American people of being the main obstacle to humanity’s progress. The prototype, William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of America Diplomacy (1959), argued that America was on the wrong side of the Cold War. The most publicised manifestations have been President Jimmy Carter’s speech celebrating the US defeat in Vietnam for having led Americans “back to our own principles and values”,  and President Barack Obama’s apologies to foreign audiences for America’s sins.

So interwoven are these currents of thought among the individuals and within the individuals who compose the US foreign policy establishment, that trying to attribute any given US action in the past hundred years to any one current makes no sense. Besides, the American people have paid less attention to the establishment’s words than to the results.

Since 1917, every war, every major undertaking, has drawn upon and  diminished the American people’s  reservoir of patriotism, because the words by which the establishment made claims on their blood and treasure turned out to have been false, the objectives chimerical, the execution incompetent, and the results disappointing.

In 1917 Woodrow Wilson told Americans that the enemy was something called “autocracy”, that it resided in Germany, and that the war to defeat it would ensure universal peace and democracy. But the way Wilson fought the Great War brought depression, communism and Nazism. In 1921 Charles Evans Hughes assured Americans that armaments cause war and that the Washington Treaties’ limits on navies would ensure peace in the Pacific. Instead, they secured Japan’s supremacy, Pearl Harbour, Corregidor, etc. Herbert Hoover guaranteed that the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact had outlawed war, and Franklin Roosevelt spent the first seven years of his presidency lecturing America and the world about the need to act as if it had. His lasting legacy was to fight World War II to eradicate “ancient evils, ancient ills”, while trying to persuade the American people that Stalin understood good and evil as Americans do. None of that being true, Americans got the Cold War and the nuclear sword of Damocles. Dean Acheson and Harry Truman told Americans that the United Nations had brought law and order to international affairs.

To preserve that order they sent some 50,000 Americans to die in Korea in what they called a “police action”. But there was never any such order. JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon rotated some 12 million Americans in and out of Vietnam in a foredoomed attempt to define the limits of that supposed order vis-à-vis the Soviet Union by “limited war”: 58,000 never came home. As the USSR was dying of disaffection, Bush I transfused US cash to that monster to try saving the order of which he thought it an indispensable part, and told Ukrainians to be good Soviet citizens. In the name of that “world order”, he also ordered a half million US troops to undo Saddam Hussein’s absorption of Kuwait. But by doing Saddam a little harm, he helped make him the Middle East’s paladin of anti-Americanism. The troops Bush then stationed on Saudi soil ended up energising Muslim jihad against America. Bush II told Americans that they could not be free unless the whole world was made free, and ordered the US armed forces to do in Iraq the same things they had done in Vietnam: hunt down groups and individuals while infusing the country with economic and social reform. Obama defined the threat as “violent extremism” but acted indistinguishably. That term moved further into abstraction.

In sum, by 2016 the American people looked upon the US foreign policy establishment as having brought insecurity, wars without end instead of peace, and national humiliations. People who live in the workaday world cannot imagine what it would take, who are the enemies who would have to be killed, in order to establish democracy, end war, to enforce any kind of world order, to abolish “ancient evils, ancient ills”, to temper dar al-Islam’s war on dar al-Harb, or war between any of the world’s historic enemies, to make all peoples free, much less to end any kind of “extremism”.

Under Obama, the establishment was prouder than ever of itself. According to his chief adviser on national security, Obama “was advocating an inclusive global view rooted in common humanity and international order”. For example, he had “normalised” relations with Cuba, removed sanctions on Iran, delivered some $150 billion to it, and was using executive authority to make unwilling Americans take part in a supposed worldwide campaign against “climate change”. And he was doing this despite a “roiling ocean of growing nationalism and authoritarianism” — i.e. an increasingly recalcitrant public. In fact, American people were looking for a ways of saying No to all that.

Enter Trump.

Throughout the campaign, during the transition, and his presidency’s earliest days, Trump took the American people’s side against latter-day US foreign policy.

Like ordinary Americans, Trump declared himself sick of wars and sick of losing them. He would bring peace to America through victories. There would be so many that  “you’ll get tired of winning”. America’s elites had let America be taken advantage of. Its enemies had got off easy. No more. Radical Islamists are responsible for terrorism. We will exclude them from our country. We will disentangle America from the Middle East. When we fight them abroad, we will do so not as part of any occupation or nation-building, but to kill them. No more permanent war. Hence, withdraw from Afghanistan. As for Syria, just destroy IS. When American troops go abroad, they will come home shortly thereafter. Israel is our main ally in the Middle East. Its enemies are our enemies. We will be true to it as no one else has been. Obama’s “Iran deal”, never submitted to the Senate, is not the law of the land, but an abomination. We will withdraw from it. That is the path to peace.
Nobody, not “the allies” much less any multilateral institution, will tell America what to do. We will take care of our interests first. America will come first. The Europeans count for less and less. Like others, they have been largely free riders on our military. Under a Trump administration, they will pay their way. The biggest threat we face is from China, commercially as much as militarily. The Chinese have stolen US intellectual property, dumped products, and excluded us from their markets. We will right the balance. And we will nullify their grab of vast swaths of the Pacific ocean.

America itself is being swamped by undesirables coming in under a broken immigration system and who live among us under laws and practices that tolerate the presence of millions of illegals. That will end. There will be massive deportations.

The US national security apparatus will have to be reformed, starting with the intelligence agencies.

Even during the transition, as the wheels hit the road, friction ensued. Two example suffice to show that Trump reacted to it with far more reticence than expected — a pattern that has held in his presidency.

On November 16, scarcely a week after the election and two months before the inauguration, Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) visited the Trump transition’s  headquarters in New York. The following day, Trump moved it to a golf club in New Jersey. We now know that Rogers — without anyone’s authorisation — told Trump that his headquarters was under the US government’s electronic surveillance. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s designee for National Security Adviser, had publicised plans for reforming US intelligence. The FBI accused him of lying to them regarding a perfectly proper conversation with the Russian ambassador. Just before the inauguration, the CIA informed Trump that it had withdrawn the security clearance of Michael Townley, a lower official Trump intended to appoint to the National Security council staff, because of his criticisms of the Agency. Instead of exercising his unquestionable authority over security matters and firing the CIA officer, Trump accepted the Agency’s decision. These events brought to the surfaced the intelligence agencies’ war on the Trump administration that continues to this day — and signalled the end of Trump’s plans for reforming any part of the national security bureaucracy, especially intelligence.

On December 3, 2016, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. Obviously, closer US relations with Taiwan are pregnant with the greatest of challenges to Beijing’s legitimacy and to its military control of the South China Sea. China protested formally with the Obama administration. The US media reacted as if Trump had declared war: “irresponsible” was the mildest of epithets. Trump, instead of explaining how Taiwan fitted into his campaign promises, simply backed off.

From the outset, Trump — like most people — underestimated the vehemence, comprehensiveness, and permanence of what the Democratic Party calls the “resistance” to his presidency. Trump had expected a more-or-less normal presidency. But the Democratic Party, the party of government, of the media, of the academy and of corporate boardrooms, made that impossible. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of this.
That is true especially in foreign policy. Less knowledge and fewer connections with specialists than he had in economic matters led to decreased self-confidence in choosing courses and subordinates. As the establishment fought him, it seemed to have convinced him that he had to submit to its representatives. During the first year Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and, less obviously, Secretary of Defense James Mattis hardly objected to characterisations of themselves as the adults who were minding an irresponsible teenager. What has ensued is the geometric resultant of disparately directed forces.

By inauguration day, about a thousand US troops, supporting Sunni Arab groups also backed by Turkey as well as Syrian Kurds, were poised for an assault on IS’s stronghold near Raqqa. Which of these should do the conquering? The establishment wanted to continue identifying with the Turkey-backed Arabs: “Turkey our Nato ally.” The military preferred the Kurds; they fought much better. Trump agreed with the military, and despised Turkey’s Erdogan.  By April, he had split the difference: the Kurds would get to kill IS, which they proceeded largely to accomplish by summer. But thereafter, he would defer to Turkey’s priorities. In August, he posed no barrier to Turkish tanks entering Manbij, which the Kurds had died to liberate, and in June 2018 agreed to have the Kurds removed east of the Euphrates. Other than Israel, the Kurds had been America’s only real ally in the Middle East. But Trump also posed no objection to the Iraqi government’s ouster of Kurdish forces from Kirkuk and to its seizure of control over Kurdistan’s borders.

With the Kurds disempowered and IS near death, who or what would stop Iran from linking up with Hezbollah in Lebanon and making war on Israel? The State Department seems to believe that Turkey might help. Trump seems to disagree. Conceivably, Russia might be amenable to some deal by which it would restrain Iran. But “the resistance” had disempowered Trump from any sort of serious relations with Russia.

Will America withdraw from the Middle East? The short answer is that some US troops are to stay in Syria indefinitely — able, perhaps, to protect themselves. The Senate’s new Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) authorises war against several Sunni groups, but  makes no mention of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, or any other Shia outfit. Hence it is an open-ended ratification of the past seventeen years’ war.

In May, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain), meeting in Saudi Arabia, set about isolating Qatar, demanding that it cut ties with Iran, stop funding IS as well as various groups at war with the Council’s members, and shut down Al Jazeera, whose Arabic service has been accused of inciting terrorism. President Trump, visiting Saudi Arabia, cheered this. And why not? Previously tepid allies were warming to the common fight. But immediately, the US State Department stepped into the quarrel, ostensibly to mediate it. Soon it became obvious that, the president notwithstanding, the US government was taking Qatar’s side. Simply, the balance of interests within the US establishment was overwhelmingly there. The armed forces, keen not to upset operations at Doha’s Al Udeid air base, cared little for anything else.

The diverse lobby that had backed, was backing “the Iran deal” wanted to preserve the Iran-Qatar alliance. Qatar’s national foundation had invested billions of dollars in professorships and institutes in US universities, in strategic states — e.g. Arizona, home of John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain himself has lucrative business connections in Qatar. Then, the ruling al Thani family deployed $1.5 billion to lobby the US government on its quarrel with the Saudis et al. By May 2018, Trump had received al Thani at the White House, and was urging the Saudis to back down. They have not. Nor has Qatar diminished its noxious activities. Indeed, it has firmed up a kind of axis not just with Iran but with Turkey as well. Nevertheless, the US government still refers to “Turkey, our Nato ally.” 

Would America withdraw from Afghanistan? On August 21, Trump delivered a nationally televised speech explaining that, having been schooled by people who know better, he concluded that he (and those who voted for him) had been wrong. US troops would stay in Afghanistan, and more would go. But he was fulfilling his campaign promise: now they would “fight to win”. Win what? How? No attempt to answer. US officials “backgrounded “ the press with the explanation: the objective is to prevent the Taliban from overrunning Kabul on Trump’s watch — more precisely, on their watch.

Candidate Trump had vowed to “tear up” Obama’s “deal” with Iran. He could have accomplished that just by submitting it to the Senate for ratification, where it would have failed by a large margin. Instead, he certified Iran’s adherence to it, and observed it until May 2018. He accompanied withdrawal from the deal with economic sanctions that essentially challenge European governments and companies to choose one side or the other. Since they choose both, unanimously, it remains to be seen what Trump will do against the Europeans, and their American lobbies.

One indication of this came in late May and early June, when Trump read the riot act to aides involved in trade negotiations with China, Europe and Canada for not having responded fast enough with recommendations for sanctions against these countries, which had refused further opening their economies to American products. Quickly, aides came up with $50 billion in sanctions against China. Trump brought to the June G7 summit proposals for large but yet unspecified retaliation for Canada’s tariffs on US dairy and bread-flour. There, he also threatened Europeans — Germans in particular — with tariffs on automobiles. Regardless of economic effects these moves, especially with regard to the Europeans, were sure to increase his popularity since the US Left has invoked the need to please “our European allies” ad nauseam.

With regard to Russia and China the Trump administration, rhetoric aside, has moved within the narrow range between the policies of its two predecessors — clearly because the officials who are its authors don’t know, nor care to imagine doing, anything else.
Both Bush administrations, Clinton’s and Obama’s were solicitous of Russia’s primary claim on US policy — namely that the US continue doing nothing that would impede any Russian missile from striking America. Obama had gone so far as to privately (albeit on a “hot mike”) promise Putin to reduce US missile programmes further than officially planned. Trump, rhetoric and additional billions for missile defence notwithstanding, has refused to change this policy. Bush II objected only verbally to Russia’s effective annexation of parts of Georgia, and Obama imposed token sanctions for its absorption of parts of Ukraine. Neither halted Putin nor advanced American interests, because neither improved the ratio of US/Russia military power. Because of the Democratic Party’s allegations that Russia engineered his election, if only for domestic political self-defence, the Trump team doubled down on the Bush/Obama’s sterile approach to Russia: demanding that Russia restore its conquests, ramping up sanctions, and deploying token forces in Eastern Europe, but without changing the US/Russia ratio of military power. The discrepancy between ends and means is palpable.

Consistency with Bush and Obama also characterised Trump’s approach to China, Japan, and Korea: try to keep Japan and South Korea in America’s security orbit and essentially unarmed by offering them protection against China and North Korea; wring hands as China increases its capacity to control the ocean from the land; worry loudly as North Korea advertises its nuclear and missile programmes; ask China to rein in North Korea, and smile as it promises to do so; frown as China breaks its promises and worry as it offers its protection to South Korea and Japan; build defences against a token number of North Korean missiles, designed to reassure China that none of that can defend against its missiles; and really worry as semi-starved North Korea, led by cartoon character Kim Jong-un, acquires nuclear-tipped ICBMs that, unlike American ones, are invulnerable and that, merely quantitatively, can overwhelm the defences that highly credentialled Americans had devised.

During 2017, Trump reacted to North Korea’s missiles and nukes with strong words. This was intolerable. Would not stand. But would America attack to try destroying them? Officially, “everything” was “on the table”. Unofficially, of course not. The US could also negate North Korea’s missiles by scrapping its “theatre-limited” approach to missile defence and building the sort of defence that would protect against massive attacks from anywhere. But that would require impeaching the judgment of two generations of American military-political planners, as well as understanding what such defences would take. There is no evidence that Trump considered that.

Meanwhile South Korea, reacting to its conservative government’s corruption, had elected Moon Jae-in, for whose party rapprochement with North Korea is the core of identity and agenda. Hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics put Moon in a position to advance that agenda. It seems also that Kim Jong-un had long planned to use the Olympics’ pageantry and decorum to manoeuvre the world’s press and politicians into treating his regime as normal. Moon cooperated. First, he put US representatives next to Kim’s sister. Then, he relayed and strongly supported Kim’s offer of direct “negotiations” with the Americans.
Negotiation with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes is a hoary story, illustrative of a classic diplomatic trap. Governments subject to public opinion that bring any degree of optimism to negotiation with an authoritarian one thereby certify the authoritarian’s legitimacy and intentions, acquiring an interest in protecting their own judgment about them. Hence, they become vulnerable to the other’s pressure to make concessions to keep the negotiations going, lest the negotiations’ failure impeach that judgment and those who made it. Thus do democratic governments become complicit in deluding their publics.

In 1985 North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, started the process by offering to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — but then declaring that he would submit to its obligations only in proportion to America’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea. This has been the template that his son and grandson have followed for more than 30 years: make abstract promises, and translate them into concrete demands. Thereby, again and again, they have played American statesmen into relieving pressures on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and into delivering fungible aid.

The list of this process’s iterations is too long and well-known to be recounted here. Suffice it to note that no US nuclear weapons have been in South Korea since 1991; that two years later North Korea had amassed enough plutonium for two bombs, that in 1994 it extracted aid in exchange for a promise to stop; that by 2000, having amassed even more and acquired some ballistic missile capabilities, it extracted even more aid in exchange for another promise to de-nuclearise: that in 2003 it announced (falsely) that it already had nuclear weapons in order to start a new round of negotiations for international aid; that in 2006 North Korea, upon becoming a nuclear power in its own right, declared its intention to “denuclearise the peninsula through dialogue and negotiations”, and entered into negotiations as a result of which the Bush I administration delivered a million tons of fuel oil. By 2009, however, it suspended the negotiations and tested the prototype of the Hwasong-5 ICBM; and that in 2012 the Obama administration fell for the same ploy and delivered 240,000 tons of food.

There is no objective reason to believe that, in 2018, having achieved the military means of commanding respect, North Korea would give them up. In exchange for what? Relief from economic pressure? In 2017 Trump had threatened “maximum pressure on North Korea, and had expressed the conviction that China would join it. But it did not take long to realise the enduring reality: Pyongyang is prosperous because China continues as North Korea’s lifeline. Indeed, Kim Jong-un flew to his June 12 summit with Trump in a China Airlines plane.

 North Korea is what it is and does what it does because China makes it possible. China has gained, is gaining, and expects to gain more from what North Korea has done and is doing. North Korea’s missiles and nukes make it possible for China to present itself to South Korea and Japan as the only party capable of protecting them and to present itself to South Koreans as the only force capable of realising their fondest hopes for “sunshine”, peace, and reunification, and that all this is essential to China’s prime geopolitical objective — pushing America out of the Western Pacific. Why should China switch sides?
Hence Trump had even more incentive than his predecessors to remove North Korea’s military threat and even less leverage. To him as to them, “negotiations” offer the opportunity to defer rethinking basic policy, and permit pretending that the ends of vintage policy can still be achieved without burdensome new means.

America’s internal dynamics well-nigh ensure a continuation of the previous pattern. By May 2018 North Korea had signalled that its commitment to de-nuclearisation did not mean that it would give up everything. The negotiations would have to be long, and involve compensation. Trump cancelled the summit.

Domestic reaction was unfavourable. North Korea renewed the offer, while not withdrawing its proviso. Negotiations about negotiations ensued. Trump announced success, unspecified. The summit was back on, and the US would pay for Kim Jong-il’s hotel arrangements. Trump basked in his domestic supporters’ declarations of victory. Declaring victories is easier than achieving them.

Trump’s strength in these negotiations lies in the American public’s wide and deep scepticism of Kim Jong-un’s motives, in its disdain for previous US negotiators’ fecklessness, and in the fact that Trump went out of his way to open sunny vistas for Kim. Trump prepared the public for the negotiations’ failure by stating that he would walk out rather than take part in another farce. Hence, the public might well cheer such a walkout. Trump could gain double advantage, however, by delaying it until after the US congressional elections in November.

North Korea, however, is a subsidiary part of the larger question: how, if at all, will the US resist China’s efforts to push it militarily and politically out of the Western Pacific — effectively erasing the results of World War II?  The foreign policy establishment’s sentiment against China is hardening, slowly but surely. The latest Defence Authorisation bill projects a modest $1.5 billion over five years to improve US defences in the region. And while it affirms the existing alliance system with Japan, South Korea and Australia, it underwrites the change of the Pacific Command to  the Indo-Pacific Command, and also encourages more weapons sales to Taiwan. Trump, on his own authority, has increased the number of “freedom of navigation” patrols within what China claims as territorial waters around the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. None of this, of course is a match either for China’s claims or for its capacity to enforce those claims. Trump’s original opening to Taiwan would have been the beginning of a serious assertion of US commitment to preserving the results of World War II in the Pacific. Perhaps events will force seriousness.

Trump’s election injected a bit of the American people’s fundamental attitudes into the conduct of US foreign policy. But Trump is too foreign to the policy establishment, too reticent towards it, and too lacking in specific ideas to have grasped the levers of policy. Those attitudes, however, are not going away. Events are likely to compel Trump, and any president who follows him, to take them increasingly into account.
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Lawrence James
July 2nd, 2018
9:07 AM
Americans have always desired 'to live peacefully' with their neighbours. If this urge ever existed, why did it express itself in the invasion of Mexico and the subsequent annexations. Was the war against Spain in 1898 another manifestation of this same wish for harmony with its neighbours ? And there were the wars against the native Americans and, more pertinently, the little wars waged by General Smedley Butler in various parts of the Caribbean between the wars. Aggression which he rightly denounced as undertaken in the interests of the big corporations.The Cold War and its aftermath have seen a cluster of similar coercive wars. Such selective omissions suggest that this just another Trump propaganda excercise. Fair enough but next time find someone with some knowledge of history.

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