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Trump, Clouds and Silver Linings

Written by Wyn Rees.

Watchers of transatlantic security relations are despondent. President Trump appears to want to undo 70 years of US-European cooperation that has kept the two sides of the Atlantic working together. It is as if the new incumbent in the Oval Office is taking a wrecking ball to the foundations of the trans-Atlantic relationship, instead of just plumping the cushions in the penthouse. Yet this assessment exaggerates the significance of ‘Trumpism’ as manifested during his first month in office. It is timely to note that the ideas of Trump are far from new and that his policies are likely to suffer considerable constraints. This article looks at three salient issues.

First, much has been made of the new unique world-view that President Trump brings as President: fashioned by reality television and riding a wave of isolationism and xenophobia. This is combined with a businessman’s view of politics, one in which agreements are transactional in nature and the priority is ‘America First’. Yet the truth is that Trumps represents a long-held tradition in US politics that goes back to the era of the seventh US President, Andrew Jackson. This tradition champions individualism and entrepreneurialism, core elements of ‘the American dream’. At national and international level, they are manifested in suspicion of the power of the federal government and the pursuit of economic interests that serve America alone. President Ronald Reagan embodied many of these ideas, committed to rolling back the powers of Washington DC. Reagan was willing to pursue America’s foreign policy interests at the expense of its allies; in the 1986 Reykjavik meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev, Reagan proposed a nuclear arms agreement that would have undermined the extended nuclear guarantee over Europe. Similarly, another leader in the Jacksonian tradition, George W Bush, embarked upon the path of American nationalism at the start of his Presidency but was blown off course by the events of 9/11.

Second, Trump appears to be committed to tearing down the liberal Western political and economic order that the US created and sustained in the post-war era. That order was one in which the US acted as a benign hegemon, constraining the exercise of its own power in order to reassure its allies. The US provided such common goods as security through its web of international alliances as well as a liberal economic system through organisations such as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Trump seems determined to undermine that order. He has cast doubt on US alliances by implying that they no longer serve American interests. He has openly repudiated the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Yet American leadership of the Western order has always been subject to periods of questioning and uncertainty. The US has led the world based upon its own self-interest, rather than altruism, and the costs of leadership have resulted in periods of re-appraisal and self-doubt. President Nixon was the first to question the burdens that America had assumed: as a result of the pressures of the Vietnam War, he devalued the dollar and called on allies to shoulder more responsibilities. Trump is in this same vein, de-crying the costs that America has borne. What is different about Trump is that he is vocalising his concerns at a time when the US is in relative decline vis a vis an ascending China. With his rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again’, Trump is harking back to a time when the US faced no real competitor. Now the US is experiencing an increasingly multipolar world in which its own position of strength is under pressure.

Lastly, Trump has cast doubt on America’s leadership within NATO. Trump has talked of the Atlantic Alliance being ‘obsolete’ and has hinted that the Article V collective defence guarantee would only be adhered to if allies demonstrated that had paid their financial dues. Again, however, the originality of Trump’s approach has been exaggerated. The relevance of NATO has been a political football in the Washington beltway for decades: witness the ‘Out of Area or Out of Business’ discourse that plagued the Alliance in the 1990s as well as the recriminations that accompanied European contributions to the International Security Assistance Force Mission in Afghanistan after 2001. This reached its nadir in 2011 with the retirement of Defence Secretary Robert Gates who accused his NATO counterparts of pursuing a ruinous policy of de-militarisation. Trump is not new in berating his European allies for their lack of spending on defence and their reliance on the US to carry most of the costs.

In sum, Trump is not new nor his messages original. What is yet to be seen is how far he is prepared to go in pursuit of his policies. It is already apparent from his Cabinet appointments that he has placed in some of the key offices of his administration figures who do not subscribe to his world view. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary General James Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. General Herbert McMaster are likely to present a significant constraint on Trump’s direction of travel. This will be exacerbated by leading Republican figures in Congress, such as Senator John McCain and Speaker Paul Ryan, who also differ with Trump on foreign policy issues. President Trump may make a lot of noise but his policies may not differ substantially from what has gone before him.

Wyn Rees is a Professor of International Relations and the Head of School at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

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