It Can’t Happen Here. That was the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel in which the fascistic Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president and within months transforms the US into an American Reich. Well, maybe it just did happen here.
The litmus test will be how far Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist to the president-elect, Donald Trump, signals the triumph of the will of the so-called alt-right. Will he be Lee Sarason to Trump’s Windrip? Are we all doomed to the Third World War, only this time with America on the wrong side? A week and a half after Trump’s election, a more or less complete uncertainty reigns as to what direction his foreign policy will take. All we have to go on are the things — many of them reckless — that Trump has said in speeches and interviews. Yet few, if any, presidents base their foreign policy strictly on campaign rhetoric. Few, if any, break entirely with the policies of their predecessors. Experience also suggests that the foreign policy of the Trump administration will depend a good deal on who gets the key jobs and on who wins the interdepartmental struggle that will inevitably ensue.
Rather than speculate about such transitional questions, it may be more constructive for now to ask what Trump’s strategic options are.
Let us begin with the geopolitical landscape that Trump inherits from his predecessor. In his most recent book, World Order, Henry Kissinger argues that the world is in a condition verging on international anarchy. This is not only because of shifts in the material balance of power from West to East. Nor is it just because of nuclear proliferation and the new arms race in cyber-space.
It is because the legitimacy of the postwar American-led world order is being challenged, notably by Islamic and Chinese alternatives. The emergent properties of this new world disorder are the formation of regional blocs and the danger that friction between them might escalate.
Kissinger has outlined four scenarios that he regards as the most likely catalysts for a large-scale conflagration:
Deterioration in Sino-American relations whereby the two countries tumble into the so-called Thucydides trap that history sets for every incumbent power and the rising power that challenges it
Breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, based on mutual incomprehension and made possible by:
Collapse of European hard power due to the inability of modern European leaders to accept that diplomacy without the credible threat of force is just hot air; and/or
Escalation of conflict in the Middle East due to the Obama administration’s readiness in the eyes of the Arab states and Israel to hand hegemony in the region to a still-revolutionary Iran.
Trump has the advantage that Obama’s foreign policy has been such a failure
This is frightening stuff. Yet Trump enters the Oval Office with an underestimated advantage: the fact that Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been such a failure. This is most obvious in the Middle East, where the smouldering ruin that is Syria — not to mention Iraq and Libya — attests to the fundamental naivety of his approach. The president came to believe he had an ingenious strategy to establish geopolitical balance between Sunni and Shia. But by treating America’s Arab friends with open disdain while cutting a nuclear deal with Iran that has left Tehran free to wage proxy wars across the region, Obama has achieved not peace but a fractal geometry of conflict and a possibly nuclear arms race. At the same time, he has allowed Russia to become a main player in the Middle East for the first time since Kissinger squeezed the Soviets out in 1973.
The death toll in the Syrian war is now somewhere between 300,000 and 470,000. Meanwhile, global terrorism has surged under Obama, as a new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace makes clear. Of the past 16 years the worst one for terrorism was 2014, with 93 countries suffering an attack and 32,765 people killed; 2015 was the second-worst, with 29,376 deaths. Last year four radical Islamic groups were responsible for 74% of all deaths from terrorism: Isis, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In this context the president’s claims to be succeeding against what he euphemistically calls “violent extremism” are absurd.
The “Obama doctrine” has failed in Europe, too, where UK voters opted to leave the EU in defiance of the president’s threats and where the German leadership he recently praised has delivered, first, an unnecessarily protracted financial crisis in the European periphery and, second, a disastrous influx to the European core of migrants, some but not all of them refugees from a region that Europe had intervened in just enough to exacerbate its instability.
The president has also failed in eastern Europe, where not only has Ukraine been invaded and Crimea annexed, but Hungary and Poland have also opted to deviate from his liberal “arc of history”. Finally, his foreign policy has failed in Asia, where little remains of the much-vaunted American “pivot”.
All this means that merely by changing Obama’s foreign policy President Trump will be quite likely to achieve success. The question is: how exactly should he go about this change? Kissinger’s recommendations to Trump may be summarised as follows:
■ Do not go all-out into a confrontation with China whether on trade or the South China Sea. Rather, seek “comprehensive discussion” and aim to pursue the policy of “co-evolution” recommended in World Order
■ Give a weakened, traumatised, post-imperial Russia the recognition Vladimir Putin craves, “as a great power, as an equal and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system”
■ Treat Brexit as an opportunity to steer the continental Europeans away from bureaucratic introspection and back to strategic responsibility
■ Make peace in Syria rather as we made it in the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago, by “cantonising” the country and giving Bashar al-Assad a one-year “off-ramp”, or exit route.
Henry Kissinger would advise Trump not to go into an all-out confrontation with ChinaHenry Kissinger would advise Trump not to go into an all-out confrontation with China
Might there be a role model for the new president, should he choose to heed Kissinger’s advice? There is an obvious answer, clearly articulated in the former secretary of state’s classic work of synthesis, Diplomacy: Theodore Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt,” wrote Kissinger, “started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries, America had the obligation to draw on its strength to prevail.”
Roosevelt did not build a wall along the US-Mexican border, but he did formulate the “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine”, which asserted the right of the US to exercise “however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of . . . wrongdoing or impotence . . . an international police power” in Latin America and the Caribbean. That principle became the basis for interventions in Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba — and for the acquisition of the territory on which the Panama Canal was constructed.
Roosevelt was dismissive of liberal designs such as multilateral disarmament and collective security. For him, the principle of Cardinal Richelieu held: “In matters of state, he who has the power often has the right, and he who is weak can only with difficulty keep from being wrong in the opinion of the majority of the world.”
The only real law of geopolitics was the balance of power, in Roosevelt’s view, and he relished the opportunity to play the power broker. When war broke out in Europe in 1914 he at first hesitated to take sides, but then concluded that a German victory would pose a more serious threat to the US than a British one.
For Roosevelt, too, the cultural affinity between the US and the United Kingdom was important. His only regret was that his fellow Americans — who opposed his call for increased armament to counter the German threat — could not be more wholeheartedly warlike, like their Old World cousins. In short, he favoured an American foreign policy that was firmly based on the national interest, the build-up of military force and the balance of power. “If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water,” he told a friend, “I am for the policy of blood and iron.”
A literal application of the Roosevelt analogy would imply a policy of orientation towards Japan against Russia in Asia, and towards the UK and France against Germany in Europe. However, that fails to take account of the great changes in the balance of power that have occurred in the intervening 100 years. To imagine a Rooseveltian strategy for 2017 we need to consider a different set of possible alignments.
What if Trump, against all expectations, decided to seek better relations with both Moscow and Beijing? This would combine his own Russophile leanings with Kissinger’s argument for a new policy of partnership with China. Such an arrangement would theoretically be achievable if Trump engaged only in kabuki theatre with China over trade (which is what many influential Chinese seem to expect him to do). It would also be consistent with the tough line on Islamic extremism that has been such a feature of Trump’s campaign, for on this issue the three great powers — each with their worrisome and growing Muslim minorities — have a common interest. And it might be consistent with a reordering of the Middle East that reimposes the ancien régime of kings and dictators in the Arab world and reinforces Israel, all at the expense of Iran, which has no historic reason to expect Russian fidelity, much less Chinese.
As a corollary, the three powers might agree on the demotion of Europe from great power status, taking advantage not only of Brexit but of the increasingly fragmented and self-referential character of EU politics. One possible way to do this would be for Trump to propose replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Nafta 2.0 — the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement — which would bring the UK directly into a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere while at the same time delivering on Trump’s anti-Mexican (though not anti-Canadian) election pledge. Simultaneously, Trump could credibly apply pressure on other Nato members to increase their risible defence budgets. Finally, he and Putin could work together to help continental populists such as Marine Le Pen to win the elections of 2017.
One striking feature of such a strategy is that the five permanent members of the UN security council would ultimately all be either populist or authoritarian- controlled, assuming Le Pen can somehow be helped across the line against the French pacte républicain. Thus might the institutions of collective security end up serving the interests of the great powers as never before: the ultimate revenge of realpolitik.
Self-evidently, the rest of the world would be the losers of such a great power condominium. Japan and Germany would be the biggest losers, just as they were the biggest beneficiaries of the postwar international architecture designed simultaneously to disarm, constrain and enrich them. The new tripartite arrangement would be looser than the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia but, like their predecessors 200 years ago, liberals would denounce it as an Unholy Alliance of populists and authoritarians, indifferent to the principles of human rights. Authoritarian rulers would rejoice; their opponents would find themselves undone not only by a lack of western support but more fatally by cyber-espionage.
In economic terms the new greater northern hemisphere co-prosperity zone would thrive at the expense of the other Brics — Brazil, India and South Africa — as well as many smaller countries that have been beneficiaries of globalisation. For the Baltic states, this would be a calamitous turn of events. The Republic of Ireland, too, would find its position — a European island in an Anglo-American ocean — suddenly forlorn. Bad luck, Mexico; worse luck, Ukraine. But for the world as a whole it would be an order of sorts. And no world war would be very likely to break out.
One objection might be that an alignment between America, Russia and China, as well as Britain and France, is without precedent, but that is nonsense: it was precisely the alliance that won the Second World War. Another might be that such an alliance is unsustainable in the absence of an aggressive Germany and Japan. Yet the Cold War did not begin until 1948 and the communists did not come to power in China until a year later: up until that point many reasonable people had hopes of sustaining the wartime coalition.
A third objection might be that Russia and China, with their 2,600-mile common border, are bound sooner or later to quarrel again, as they did in the late 1960s. Perhaps; but whatever frictions might have been expected from China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy of economic expansion into central Asia have yet to materialise.
Much that I have written here is necessarily speculative. I do believe, however, that a new American foreign policy — if not a new world order — is already taking shape. Not only is it foreshadowed in the writing of Kissinger. It is also implicit in the current constellation of geopolitics.
Trump need look no further than Roosevelt for a congenial role model. If it is Roosevelt’s spirit that animates the Trump administration — as opposed to Buzz Windrip’s — then its new order will not be so new, nor altogether bad.