20 September 2017

Trump is trying to rebuild a world order that has already crumbled


Donald Trump inherited an America in Seventies’-style doldrums: the economy slow, the military bogged down in losing wars, and the voters less willing than the political class to accept what Jimmy Carter called “malaise”. Domestically, Trump’s remedies seek to restore the industrial Fifties, when the phrase “American Dream” first became common.

Trump’s speech at the UN yesterday morning accords with this view. As in the Ford and Carter years, American influence has ebbed under weak leadership. The Iranian regime is still making trouble, and the US has been party to an “embarrassment” of a deal to placate it; this time on nuclear weapons, not hostages. The socialists in Cuba, and now Venezuela too, are still running out of other people’s money. And even Trump’s brief lunge towards wit—the denigration of the North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man”—was from the Seventies.

Trump’s answer to this Seventies’ replay is the global counterpart to his domestic remedies: to go back to the Fifties, when strong nation states and American-led international institutions — the IMF, the UN, the Marshall Plan — countered illiberal influences, and fostered capitalism and liberal democracy.

In his speech there were nods to Edmund Burke, the proto-conservative who attained improbable influence in Fifties’ America, in Trump’s invocation of family and the Westphalian System of nation states. Trump even paraphrased Burke when he warned about evil triumphing when good men do nothing.

We have been here before — and not just because George W. Bush’s first administration drew on these themes. Trump’s speech reflects the successive crises of American foreign policy since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was a blustering, belligerent admission of frustration—and failure.

George W. Bush entered office, in 2001, with aspirations to walk softly in the world – but events obliged him to take up the big stick. Its application in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to translate into stable political outcomes, and Bush retrenched in his second term.

Obama came to power, in 2009, with a promise to eschew the risks of idealism. He was, he insisted, a realist. But his hurried withdrawal from Iraq, the nuclear deal with Iran, his accommodation to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the policy of having no policy on Syria all failed to produce realist outcomes.

Instead of a balance of power, Obama ceded Iraq and Syria to Iran its proxies. This opened the path to a belt of Iranian influence, and the placement of Iranian forces, running from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean—just under Turkey’s southern border, and brushing against Israel’s northern border.

The nation state, the foundation on which Trump would like to base his global order, is crumbling in the Middle East. There is no way back to the pro-American monarchies and pro-Russian dictatorships of the Fifties and Sixties. Yet the United States cannot afford to withdraw from Eurasia, regardless of whether America’s cars are powered by Canadian shale oil or electric batteries.

It is not just that most Americans want their country to be a global power. The post-1945 global architecture was designed by and for America and its allies. That architecture, and the American economy, cannot stand without American security guarantees to those allies. As with all empires, foreign policy is a domestic issue. And so Trump must try to untangle the Gordian Knot, aware that when George W. Bush tried to cut it, things did not go to plan.

If Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is down from three to two members, it is because one of them, Iraq, has effectively been absorbed by another, Iran. The other two members, Iran and North Korea, rose to nuclear impertinence by being clients of great powers. Russia assisted Iran, and China assisted North Korea in order to reduce American influence at the eastern and western ends of Asia. For several years, however, Iran and North Korea have destabilised the great power system—and even raised the prospect of dragging their patrons into direct conflict.

When Trump warned that he could “totally destroy” North Korea, he was repeating Obama’s warning of 2016: “we could destroy you.” Such are the continuities of American foreign policy. Meanwhile, Trump’s action on North Korea resembled those of previous administrations, too: increased sanctions at the UN, in concert with Russia and China. The problem remains the same, and the response.

In truth, Trump does not have much room for manoeuvre on North Korea. The only alternatives to sanctions are intervention by China, the collapse of the North Korean regime, or a war on China’s doorstep. That would be one back-to-the-Fifties parallel too far for the American public.

Trump can, however, alter the regional paradigm in the Middle East. In his speech, Trump threatened to annul all of the Obama administration’s Iran policies. Where Obama had abandoned the Iranian opposition, Trump noted that “the good people of Iran want change”. Where Obama turned a blind eye to Iranian expansionism, Trump demanded that Iran “stop supporting terrorists”. And Trump warned that America “cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program”.

The next review of the Iranian deal is due on October 16. Trump has promised a “very evident” change of policy on Iran. Cancelling the deal, or even demanding its renegotiation, will radically alter the dynamic in the Middle East—for better or worse in the long term, and almost certainly for regional war in the near term.

Similarly, the referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, scheduled for September 25, contains the potential to alter the regional balance. Here too, the gain — the emergence of a stable pro-Western state — may be outweighed by the potential loss, Turkish and Iranian anger.

The United States is unable to shape or escape its quasi-imperial responsibilities to the global system. Trump’s UN speech was a defence of the post-1945 order—and a cry of pain at finding that in foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East, the United States is pinned to a Procrustean bed by its own weight.

Dominic Green is the author of 'The Double Life of Dr Lopez' and 'Three Empires on the Nile'