The Return of Geostrategy: Trump jettisons liberal internationalism
It was perhaps the nastiest Presidential debate in American history. The Republican candidates had gathered in Charleston, South Carolina for their first Presidential debate after Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary. Marco Rubio, who had seen his momentum in Iowa dashed by a poor debate performence in New Hampshire, hoped to consolidate the establishment wing of the party behind him. Ted Cruz, who had won Iowa and should have been well placed to win South Carolina, was on the verge of making another of his futile efforts to actually collect on the fruits of being in the right at that right team. Jeb Bush, whose campaign had been left for dead before a third place finish in New Hampshire ahead of Rubio, Cruz and Christie, tried to capitalize on momentum he perceived to be behind his campaign. And Donald Trump?
Well the front-runner's performence was panned by the usual Republican commentators . Constant booing lured him into a fight with the audience, overwhelmingly made up of Bush and Rubio backers. He seemed short-tempered. Most damaging of all, however, he had committed heresy. Asked a question about a statement he made implying support for impeaching George W. Bush in 2008, he declared the Iraq War "a big fat mistake", one that had handed Iraq over to Iran. He opposed support for the Syrian rebels, suggested that the US should only fight one war at a time even if that meant cooperation with Russia, and then most dramatically, accosted Jeb Bush for the fact that 9/11 happened on his brother's watch.
For many observers, accustomed to Republican primary debates that functioned much like Chinese Communist Party meetings, where candidates competed to demonstrate greater adherence to the party line while denouncing their opponents for having once committed the heresy of supporting a tax increase, or voting for a budget which included funding for Planned Parenthood, this ended Trump's campaign. Combined with the subsequent endorsement of Rubio by Niki Haley, the script set-out for the result night was a Marco Rubio comeback which would setup a two person race. So dedicated were cable stations to this narrative that they continued it even when it was unclear if Rubio would even come 2nd(he managed it by .2% over Ted Cruz), and clear he would lose by double digits to Trump. Like most things involving the Donald, things did not work out according to plan.
This did not end with the primary. The media remained convinced, even after it ended that Donald Trump did not have a clear vision of foreign policy, despite the fact that he had, if anything, the clearest of any candidate in either party during the primaries. This continued into the general election, where with brief digressions into hysteria over whether Trump might be a Russian agent aside, the assumption was that policy was Trump's greatest area of weakness, and hence would doom him at the debates. This did not exactly happen. Trump did not do well in instapolls, but even at the time, they indicated that on policy clashes - trade, the Middle East, and Russia, Trump prevailed. It was on substantive material, namely discussions about his own tax returns, or accusations of sexual harassment, where Trump struggled. Noticing this, Clinton Team focused almost all of their their attacks in the final weeks on Trump the individual.
With the benefit of hindsight the Clinton campaign should have been much slower to draw conclusions about strategy from that data, and more worried about the implications of voters siding with Trump on actual things a President might do, while having reservations about him as an individual. Hillary Clinton's own husband stands out as evidence that voters will support someone they think has engaged in unethical and immoral behavior if they think he is more likely to deliver policy-wise. This point was brought home when an electorate in which 60% had reservations of Trump's ability to be President nevertheless voted for him.
The closest the Clinton camp came was to push the line that Trump had lied about his opposition to the Iraq war. Unfortunately, this was also a line of attack that no one had a particular reason to care about. Regardless of what his view was in 2002, he was willing to call the war "A, fat, mistake," including onstage at a Republican primary debate. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, had voted for the war and never over the course of the 2016 campaign was willing to make it clear that she regretted that decision. On the contrary, by playing up interventions in Libya and Syria that increasingly looked like catastrophic repeats, she became the candidate of Iraq and the ideology behind the invasion regardless of what Trump may or may not have said in 2002.
Fast forward three weeks. While some aspects of the Trump transition effort have been slow, the area where things moved fastest was on foreign affairs, evidence that it was there where the candidate and his inner circle had the clearest idea of where they wanted to go. General Michael Flynn, the former Director of Defense Intelligence Agency, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration's policy in Syria was made National Security Adviser, while Mike Pompeo of Kansas, another Syria skeptic, was made Director of the CIA. While it is true that the position of Secretary of State has not, as of yet, been filled, who has not been selected is indicative on its own. John Bolton, and now Mitt Romney seem to have fallen out of the running, amidst leaks indicating they did not see eye to eye on Russia.
It is easy to see why resentful failed candidates would like to frame disagreements on geostrategy down to the level of being "disagreements" about Putin. It places them in a noble light, and implies that their opponents are either dupes or allies of Putin.The reality, however, is far more complex. There is little disagreement about whether Putin is a friend of the United States, though much scorn from former professional like Flynn at the constant assertions by political amateurs that Putin is somehow bent on territorial expansion as an end in and of itself. Rather, the real disagreement comes down to the relative importance assigned to Russian actions.
Heedless of Barack Obama's 2012 rejoinder to Mitt Romney in the third 2012 debate that the 1980s called and wanted their foreign policy back, the Obama Administration, and a large portion of the mandarin class of journalists, op-ed writers, and think tankers who make up much of the establishment have behaved as if the Russia we confront is in fact that of 1983. A superpower with an overwhelming conventional superiority along its borders, whose expansionist ambitions can only be contained by a broad-based Western alliance. As such, the jump between the Russian move into the Crimea following the overthrow of the Kiev government is directly linked to a threatened invasion of the Baltic states and Poland. In turn, Putin becomes a supervillain on a global scale, such that Russian actions in Syria are interpreted in a context in which it is Russian influence in Syria with Assad, rather than the refugee crisis produced by the civil war there or the rise of ISIS, which presents the greatest threat to America's interests.
To many of the "neo-realists" gathered around Trump, the above analysis is laughable, and the presence of figures who actually seem to believe it, such as Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes(who by the way will be attending Fidel Castro's funeral this week),in positions of authority a cause for outrage and fury at the Obama Administration. it is not merely that its policies are wrong, or that they are implemented by the ignorant, but that their practitioners are publicly proud of their ignorance.
The perspective expressed by Flynn, Pompeo, and others like them is that far from being a superpower, Russia is a decrepit state, dependent on Oil wealth, hobbled by corruption, and with a political system whose survival increasingly rests on one man. A decision to actually invest in a conventional military, in contrast to the delusional efforts of European states to chase a high-tech American-style military without a fifth of the budget required, gives Russia an overwhelming conventional superiority on its borders, but the ability to project that power is limited. Russia lacks the logistics to engage in extensive operations over long distances, much less operate outside of areas with a friendly population, which is why most Russian operations have been limited to areas with ethnic Russians or allied nationalities(Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Allawite areas of Syria). These limitations preclude Russia from being a global threat.
Nonetheless, Russia maintains the ability to project substantial regional influence, and given the incapacity of any European states other than France or Britain to do so, that provides it with a great potential for either trouble-making or support. The question, then, is whether or not it is possible to cooperate with Russia on a regional level. The Obama/Clinton/Neo-conservative grouping would say that the answer is no. The new Trump circle would not be so quick. They do not believe Russia will be helpful out of goodwill, but they also are unconvinced Russia and America's interests are mutually exclusive. Take Syria for instance. America has more or less been forced into the Syrian rebels by inertia, third party relations, and the stubbornness of Obama's team. Assad may be no bargain, but opposition to him was announced in the context of the wider Arab Spring, at a time when the US was determined to secure relations with the new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, its ally in Erdogan's Turkey, and when it appeared that Assad's fall was imminent. In such circumstances, the Ankara-Cairo Islamist axis ;looked like the future, and adding Syria to it appealed to desire of the young idealists on Obama's team to transform the region. Reservations from Israel, the Egyptian Army, and the Saudis were brushed aside. This continued even after the removal of the Brotherhood left the Syrian opposition puppets of Ankara and Qatar, both widely distrusted in the region. By 2014 it was clear that Assad would not fall rapidly, if he did the rebels would not be able to establish a stable government, that even if they did it would not be Pro-Western, and the major danger was not who ran Syria but the impact of the refugee flow on Europe. An Assad victory was the only way to maintain a stable, non ISIS state. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration, by this point seeing the issue as a contest with Putin, saw Russian support for Assad as the problem, because it prevented his fall which was the objective of US policy. Why this was the objective of US policy, and whether it had more to do with saving the political face of the Obama Administration than national interest, was never explained.
Trump and his team have made clear they intend to wind down this strategy. Within days of his victory, Trump indicated that far from seeing Assad's departure as an objective, the United States would henceforth consider an Assad victory the least bad option. What was missed from analysis, is that by doing so one of the major areas of global tension was removed, not because the US "backed down" to Russia, but because the US policy which brought it into conflict with Russia made no sense in the first place. As such, abandoning it was a net win for everyone.
Ukraine, admittedly will be harder, but less than some think. Ultimately, Russia's anger came from fears that the Ukraine was moving towards NATO and the EU, and the Western position is that Ukraine is fighting for its right to join both organizations. However idealistic this may sound in abstract, it makes no sense in reality. The fact is that neither NATO nor the EU has any interest in Ukraine. NATO membership would obligate the US to not only defend Ukraine as if it was its own territory, but would raise questions as to whether the US would need to take part in a campaign to retake the Crimea. As for the EU, with it already rocked by debates over migration, it is hard to see it granting freedom of movement to 50 million Ukrainians with a median income less than half of that of Romanians. Dutch voters have already made clear that even with a concerted campaign to admit the Ukraine, which is unlikely to be launched by anyone, it would be next to impossible to gain the unanimous approval necessary. As such, it is unclear what is being fought over in the Ukraine. The Ukrainians, egged on by the West are fighting a war in defense of their right to do two things which they will not be able to do no matter the outcome of the conflict. In turn, Russia has made military moves, at least in Eastern Ukraine which are not over territory, but over asserting their political right to block Ukrainian ascension to the EU or NATO.On a substantive level, there is no need for a conflict, an a settlement could be reached which merely concedes theoretical rights. An agreement which guarantees Ukrainian sovereignty and independence combined with a pledge not to seek membership in either the EU or NATO would satisfy most parties, and likely make the lives of most Ukrainians better off.
The major shift being witnessed then is one in which control of American foreign policy is passing from individuals committed to fighting to death on abstract principles to ones more concerned with concrete national interests, whether of the United States, or other powers. A major focus of that shift will be relations with Russia, not because of Putin's influence with these figures on a personal level, but because it has been within the sphere of Russo-American relations where US policy has diverged the most any sort of national interest.
There will be wider corollaries of this shift. One will be that Europe will be become comparatively less important. Not only does the EU have next to no ability to project military power outside of its region, but its political problems make efforts to bring soft power to bear equally difficult. The EU's international role has been artificially buttressed over the last eight years by the "charity" of the Obama administration, which has treated it like an equal partner in Libya, the Iran talks, Ukraine, and nominally at least in Syria. It is hard to see the Trump team bothering. Not only is Europe impotent to assist in most of these matters, but Europe's values and views on them are objectively wrong, and therefore EU participation harmful, at least in the view of many incoming officials. EU member states will be dealt with individually, but relations with the EU itself will tank, both for the above reasons, and because the motivations behind it will be transparent enough to make personal relations toxic across the Atlantic.
Elsewhere things may change less than observers expect. The Iran deal is likely to be saved by last minute concessions from a Russia which wants Trump to succeed politically, an EU desperate to save the deal, and an Iranian government which would be crippled by renewed sanctions. That will be spun as a major, victory, that Trump got a better deal, and by implication Obama could have as well. The Cuba process may go in a similar direction though it is possibly more endangered. However harmed by trade, relations with Asia will likely be enhanced by the lack of interest in internal politics compared with the meddling Obama team, something that will make an even larger difference in Africa.
But the main shift will be that American policy, for the first time since the first Bush Administration, will reject universalism. And that, by itself will reshape America's role in the world, not to mention the world itself.