Americans are continually perplexed by what our foreign policy actually is. The liberals shake their head in confusion, nostalgic for the Cold War clarity of who the enemy was; the conservatives avert their eyes not wishing to contradict the regime that has cut their taxes and tamed the resentful working class.
Six months ago, just before any of us were concerned about a virus from China or mass protests across the world against police brutality, on January 3rd, the United States – that is, Donald J. Trump – sent missiles into Iraq to “execute” Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. By this reckless action, the president and his advisors made it clear that they had a vision for the Middle East. Israel would dominate in the western parts of the region, permitted to illegally annex much of what was left of Arab Palestine; Iran would be driven to its knees through harsh economic sanctions; Syria and Libya would be left to the Russians and Turks and the Americans’ former allies, the Kurds, would have to fend for themselves; American troops would remain in Iraq, which would continue to flounder and bleed, even though its parliament had requested that US forces leave the country; and the Americans would continue to arm Saudi Arabia while it devastated Yemen. All remnants of concern for human rights and democratic transformation were for a time eliminated as the United States decisively entered into a particularly vicious and cold-blooded program of Realpolitik. But as many international relations theorists have recognized, realism is not simply a method without an aim but a means to some end. In the era of Trump it is the end of American foreign policy that remains elusive.
Americans are continually perplexed by what our foreign policy actually is. The liberals shake their head in confusion, nostalgic for the Cold War clarity of who the enemy was; the conservatives avert their eyes not wishing to contradict the regime that has cut their taxes and tamed the resentful working class. The internationalist interventionist democratizing program of the post-Cold War years (Bush, Clinton, Bush II) died in the deserts of Iraq and the hills of Afghanistan and gave way to the confused and cautious Barak Obama, who could not decide whether to send troops or withdraw them, to draw red lines or to erase them. Ultimately that most personally humane, liberal, and intelligent of leaders, Obama, gave in to sanctioning the bombing of Libya, dithering on Syria, agreeing to send arms to the Saudis, and escalating the deployment of drones in order to save American lives and kill others. He pivoted to Asia to hold back the Chinese, who in the view of the foreign policy establishment are a far greater danger to American global hegemony than that pitiful giant with clay feet,
The common thread that ties together the previous three US administrations is the larger conflict between an ambitious global hegemon, the United States, facing the limits of its imperial reach, and aspiring regional hegemons – China, Russia, and Iran – each of which hopes to dominate the region adjacent to its territories. That has not changed even though there is now a reality TV star in the White House who fantasizes that his country is omnipotent, and he the stable genius who should dictate to the world what is best for them. What is actually best for America first, both liberals and conservatives think, is magically good for everyone else as well. Most Americans respond to the almost daily Trumptrocities that he commits with the refrain, “this is not who we are.” But what Trump has been doing is precisely what America is becoming. He is both the symptom of a deep pathology in American politics and culture and the vector of that disease.
There is almost no public space within the United States between the discredited liberal interventionism and Trump’s chaos for an effective critique of American foreign policy. The havoc engendered by the Trumpists consumes the media; the liberal opposition demonizes Russia, which is said to be ruled by a soulless KGB spy; and conservatives caricaturize China as a dishonest and devious pretender to Great Power status. As arms limitations treaties are abrogated, and Trump’s America self-isolates from the rest of the world, the liberal alternative seems marginally more appealing – but only if one has amnesia about the damage liberals did in Vietnam and elsewhere, and the opportunities lost after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Trump personally admires Putin and other “strong men,” as he calls them, but his “policies” toward Russia, China, Turkey, and others have been inconsistent and harmful to potential partners. There is no advantage for Moscow in the United States denouncing the Open Skies Treaty. And Beijing suffers from the on-again off-again tariff wars. The hopes of Europe and others for workable relations with Washington have not been realized. As Professor Zhen Yongnian of the National University of Singapore recently said about Sino-American relations, they reflect “only politics but no policy, or we should say politics has replaced policy in the Sino-U.S. relationship.” The same may be said of US foreign policy toward almost every other country and of Trump’s programs at home as well – politics trumps policy.
Looking out at the global tensions between powerful states it is clear that no country has a monopoly on being a bad actor. Each state operates in their own interest to maximize its own power and influence, and all major powers have engaged in rogue activities. What differs is how they understand that interest: as isolating oneself from the intricate interrelations of the interstate system and taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of others; or as understanding that we all do better through cooperation rather than conflict. This should be particularly relevant in this pandemic.